Billion Dollar Pro Athlete: Might Not Be as Distant as You Think

Posted by Dave Burdick

It's too bad I'm not as much of a baseball fan now as I was in elementary school, because the sport offers a lot of fascinating stories revolving around money and its worth. Heck, I could do a series on the Miami Marlins.

This week, a man credited with helping baseball players win the right to free agency—economist and former baseball union leader Marvin Miller—died at the age of 95

That invention, free agency in baseball, resulted in a lot of things, including headlines like I'm reading right now: 

Compare that information to this excerpt from the Times obituary for Miller:

When Mr. Miller was named the executive director of the association in 1966, club owners ruled much as they had since the 19th century. The reserve clause bound players to their teams for as long as the owners wanted them, leaving them with little bargaining power. Come contract time, a player could expect an ultimatum but not much more. The minimum salary was $6,000 and had barely budged for two decades. The average salary was $19,000. The pension plan was feeble, and player grievances could be heard only by the commissioner, who worked for the owners.

Fitting, then, that I would later read a piece on The Atlantic asserting that the world's first billion-dollar athlete can't be far away. The logic isn't hard to follow: Teams are making more money from television and players are making more money from teams. What Conor Sen thinks accelerates the process is the potential of two young players in particular—Mike Trout and Bryce Harper—as well as the country's emergence from a slow economic period. 

It's almost guaranteed that should Harper and Trout hit free agency, they will seek max contracts. The longest contract ever is 11 years, for Todd Helton. Let's say these wunderkinds try to tie the record. If Rodriguez could eat 19% of the Rangers' total revenue in 2000, Harper and Trout would have grounds to ask for 16% of the Dodgers' or Yankees' much larger pie in 2018. That's $96 million a year.

And $96 million per year, for 11 years, surpasses $1 billion.

A billion-dollar athlete. Seems like we've got a long way to go to get there, but I don't doubt it's coming. 

Photo via Flickr (cc) user L. Richard Martin, Jr.