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Sunday, June 3, 2007

Sports Illustrated's "The Fortunate 50" and "International 20" Salary Lists

Sports Illustrated, the gold standard of sport journalism in North America, issued its fourth annual ranking of the highest paid athletes in the domestic American leagues. Jonah Freedman was the author of this interesting and intriguing survey of salaries that reach the outer limits of common sense. I know that we often hear the supply and demand for the athlete's talents, but as you will see, most of their compensation comes from endorsements and sponsorship deals. How much would Joe DiMaggio or Ted Williams be worth in today's market?

"Half the list is made up of NBA players, while only 12 baseball players and five football players made the cut. There were three NASCAR drivers and just one woman (welcome, Michelle Wie!). Meanwhile, our International 20 list of the top-earning non-American athletes is dominated by soccer players, of whom there are nine, including Major League Soccer-bound David Beckham."

"Is there any question what sport is the most popular on earth? Our International 20 of the top-earning non-American athletes is dominated by nine soccer players, all of whom benefit here from one of the worst exchange rates on the dollar in years. Many have also been helped by the deep pockets of Chelsea billionaire owner Roman Abramovich, who is a George Steinbrenner on a global scale."

Tiger Woods was ranked first with most of his annual earnings derived from sponsorship deals. His incredible figure, over $110 million, was earned to play a mostly individualistic sport such as golf. Which takes nothing away from the sport or his immense talents, charisma, and philanthropic works. The International 20 was topped by Formula 1 race car driver, Fernando Alonso, of Spain, at $35 million. David Beckham was ranked fifth at almost $30 million dollars per year. But please take a look at the other soccer players such as Ronaldinho, Thierry Henry, Ronaldo, Andriy Shevchenko, Alex Del Piero, John Terry, and Steven Gerrard.

We can argue, as fans, that we help to pay these ridiculous salaries by paying inflated ticket prices, pay per view/TV/cable fees, and now with the Internet, streaming video subscriptions. Which only separate and segregate us from these athletes. But one can look at the MLS to see that the average player "only earns" about $100,000 per year. The same league that will pay Beckham a base salary of $6.5 million. But no doubt, his presence will raise the salary bar for the entire league.

One also hears the argument that these athletes have a limited time to compete at the highest levels. But don't all of us have a limited or undetermined career span? Tragedy, illness, layoffs, and corporate restructuring could strike any of us tomorrow. Few of us have guaranteed contracts, golden parachutes, or earn in one year what dozens don't in their entire lifetimes. The stellar athletes have to maximize their earning potential. But are these salaries realistic in terms of what the athlete actually produces for club, country, and in terms of "branding?" Please tell me your thoughts.

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