Indeed, the average professional athlete in the United States earns near-record sums, so it’s hard for us to put ourselves in their shoes. But a look at the data reveals that their slice of the sports revenue pie is actually shrinking relative to owners, and their minor league counterparts continue to earn very little.

To be clear, major league salaries have skyrocketed over the past three decades. Take a look at MLB, NBA and NFL – consider all of these approximations because sometimes sports contracts are complex.

In 1990, the average MLB player earned about $1.4 million when adjusted for inflation. This year, the average player earns about $4.4 million, or about three times as much.
For the NBA, the increase was even greater: from $1.9 million in 1990 to $9.6 million today, or about five times more.

NFL players earn and earn the least: $790,000 in 1990 for about $3.3 million, or about four times higher — for the average annual value at the end of last season.

In total, the average player in these sports earns three to five times more than three decades ago, even taking inflation into account.

The average, however, masks to some extent the increase in top earners. No one in any of the three major sports earned more than $10 million a year in 1990.

The top salary in all three sports now sits between $43 million and $50 million a year. Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers earns top honor with $50 million. Compare that to 1990, when legendary San Francisco 49ers quarterback Joe Montana made just $7.4 million in 2022 dollars.

Many Americans work incredibly hard and can only dream of the salaries these players earn.

To quantify the gap between the average major league player and the average American, let’s look at personal disposable income per capita nationally over the same period; it has not increased by the same degree as average major league salaries. We’re talking about an increase from about $40,000 to just over $55,000 with inflation taken into account – about a 1.4 times increase.

It can be said that players are not getting their fair share. What do I mean by that?

Look at the ratings of major league teams. In 1995, the average team in each of these leagues was valued at around $200 and $300 million when factoring in inflation.
At the start of their last regular season, the average franchise was worth between just over $2 billion (MLB) and $3.5 billion (NFL). In other words, the value of the average MLB, NBA, and NFL team has increased about 10 times since 1995.

That’s at least twice the increase in salaries in these given sports since 1990. The players are getting richer because the owners are – but even so, they’re not getting richer at the same rate.

It’s also worth noting that while the owners have become increasingly wealthy, the same cannot be said for the players. There have been some clear bumps in the roads for the main attractions in these leagues.

The highest salary in the NBA in the past 30 years, perhaps unsurprisingly, was not earned this century. Michael Jordan was making around $60 million a year in 2022 dollars with the Chicago Bulls in the late 1990s.

Now you can argue that Jordan was the greatest player of all time, so it makes sense that he’s the highest paid player of all time.

Arguably the greatest basketball player of all time, Michael Jordan was earning a salary worthy of the title – around $60 million a year in 2022 dollars in the mid to late 1990s.
Consider, however, the average MLB salary. It has actually declined over the past few years. From just over $5 million with inflation taken into account in 2017 to just over $4 million now.
Valuations of MLB teams, however, have increased by about $210 million over the same period, according to Forbes.

Of course, all this talk of rich players versus even richer owners misses an important point: it takes a lot to make it to the big leagues. There are a ton of professional basketball, baseball, and soccer players who don’t play in the major leagues.

These minor league players can be paid very little. The minimum wage in minor league baseball is less than $5,000. The G-League (basketball) and USFL (soccer) minimums are higher — $37,000 and $45,000 respectively — though they’re a far cry from their major league counterparts. Major league minimum salaries are at least $700,000.

All of these minor league minimums are below the US average in a year. It can be difficult for these players to get by. Many minor league baseball players would live in poverty.

Advocates for Minor Leaguers, a nonprofit founded in 2020, aims to shine a light on what it calls the “exploitative working conditions” that many minor league baseball players are forced to endure.
Last year, for example, the organization reported that two MiLB players were sleeping in the team’s clubhouse because they couldn’t afford to pay for accommodation. Major league landlords, however, approved a minor league housing policy in November 2021 to provide 90% of affected minor leaguers with “furnished housing” at landlord’s expense beginning this 2022 season.

The truth is that we often focus on major league players because they are the most famous. But for all the wealthy major leaguers out there, there are plenty of minor leaguers living paycheck after paycheck.

And in this way, the story of professional athlete salaries is often the story of the entire American economic system. Yes, there are the rich, but there are a lot less fortunate.

Either way, landlords dominate them all, as they make more and more of them — and that’s something a lot of Americans can relate to.

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