You’re the best athlete in America, and you can play any sport at a high level.
You’re a five-tool, Mike Trout-esque baseball player and a do-it-all, transcendent hooper like LeBron. You can score and distribute like Alex Ovechkin and throw the ball over those mountains like Uncle Rico or Aaron Rodgers.
You have no inherent preference for one sport over the next. All that matters to you is money, fame, security, and overall quality of life. The shape of the ball that gets you there is irrelevant.
You’ve always been a team player, so that eliminates golf, tennis, and boxing, despite their clear individual earning power as seen on the Forbes’ World’s Highest Paid Athletes list. You also want to stay stateside, so we’re eliminating soccer. Major League Soccer pales in comparison to the Premier League and it can’t compete with the Big Four.
So here you are, top of the world. You want money, you want fame, you want security and quality of life. So which sport will give you the life you desire?
COMPENSATION: It’s time to get paid
First things first: show me the money. You want to get paid as much as you can as soon as possible.
The NHL is out. The league’s highest-paid players are Chicago Blackhawks teammates Jonathan Toews and Patrick Kane at $13.8 million apiece, and only 11 players make $10 million or more per season.
What about the NFL, where an awful lot of money has been thrown around of late? The salary cap is rising rapidly at around $10 million per year. Just look at the recent contracts for Aaron Rodgers and Khalil Mack, the largest given to offensive and defensive players in NFL history.
Forbes reports that Rodgers be the highest-paid athlete come December. At $33.5 million per year, Rodgers will be set for a long, long time.
It is important to note that the guaranteed money in most NFL contracts is significantly lower than the total reported number, although many of the top-shelf quarterback deals carry a disproportionate amount of guaranteed salary compared to the non-superstar contracts.
If you go the NFL route, your mug will be on TV constantly, leading to countless endorsements. Even if an athlete in another sport trumps your salary, your endorsements could be in the $9 million (Rodgers) to $13 million (Drew Brees) range.
What about baseball, where there’s no salary cap to speak of? The sky’s the limit. However, keep in mind that the average professional baseball player will spend a few years making something like five figures before hitting the majors, so outside of a potential signing bonus, you might not be paid like a professional athlete until your mid-20s. Yikes.
Even the best prospects bounce between the majors and Triple-A early in their career and can be compensated at the major league minimum until using up all three minor league options. After three years on the rookie contract scale, a player is eligible for arbitration, where an arbitrator gives you a forced raise. It’s kind of wild when you stop and think about it, a system that essentially amounts to six or seven years of indentured servitude. That fully-guaranteed no-cap contract is a heck of a carrot, but are you willing to wait until your 20s to get it? There’s also the problem of endorsements. How many MLB stars would you even recognize? Baseball stars struggle to land legitimate endorsements, so that caps earning potential, too.
And then there’s the NBA. LeBron James is the highest-paid player in North American team sports. He’ll make more than $35 million this season in salary alone. Multi-year NBA deals are typically guaranteed too, so that’s good security. But the biggest boon for NBA superstars are the endorsement opportunities. Five of the 25 most highly-compensated athletes of all-time are current or former NBA players, including Michael Jordan at №1. While the salary cap places a ceiling on a max deal, that cap continues to grow. The NBA’s best are paid more per year than virtually all other superstars across North American team sports.
It looks like the NBA is the best way to get paid, and Forbes agrees. Forty of the 100 highest-paid athletes in 2017 were NBA players, more than twice the number in the NFL (18) or MLB (15). The NHL had exactly zero players on the list.
SECURITY: What happens if…
Of course, you’re at the top of your game now, but how long will this last? Length of career matters. Injuries, roster size, and roster churn all factor into career length, and they must be baked into your decision. There are myriad variables to consider that could knock your career down from Bo Jackson to Joe Athlete.
Unfortunately, your staying power as a highly-compensated NFL player might be nonexistent. The only football player among the 25 richest athletes all-time is Peyton Manning, who landed softly into retirement via a parachute emblazoned with the logos of Nationwide, Papa John’s and DirecTV.
Though some star quarterbacks like Tom Brady are now playing into their 40s, the average NFL career is the shortest of all four sports. And because NFL contracts are largely unguaranteed, if things go south in a hurry than your bank account will follow in short order. The NFL is also last of the Big Four in average player salary at just $2.1 million.
The NHL isn’t much better, with only 23-man rosters and an average annual salary of $2.9 million. The average career length of a hockey player is longer than the NFL, however, and the dangerous sport is still safer than the NFL.
Baseball’s built-in advantage is the lack of a salary cap, leading to massive, lengthy contracts for stars. Consider Buster Posey and Joe Mauer, both on the Forbes Top 100. Each suffered a career-altering injury but enjoyed the security of 8- and 10-year deals, respectively. Even a player that falls from stardom has hope. Players stick around longer due to large rosters, and an extensive minor league system buoyed by higher salaries based on MLB service time adds an additional layer of security.
The NBA has the highest average salary at a whopping $6.2 million, but it also has comparatively small roster sizes and a still-developing minor league system. If you want to make real money, you’ll need to earn that second contract. The minimum salary is north of $800,000 and plenty of middling players are paid handsomely on fully-guaranteed deals. Look at the $64 million the Los Angeles Lakers gave Timofey Mozgov for four years or the $72 million they gave Luol Deng that same summer. Both journeymen have already moved on, but they’ll still get their money.
If you’re good enough to get a second deal, then the NBA might just be the right spot for you. But there are only 450 NBA roster spots while there are 750 spots in the MLB, plus hundreds of more opportunities in the minor leagues.
Advantage: Tie between MLB and NBA
QUALITY OF LIFE: What comes next?
We’ve touched on average career length already, but here’s an easy summary: NFL and NBA careers are shortest, while the careers of NHL and MLB players each last over 5.5 years on average.
There’s still plenty of research being done on Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy (CTE) and the effect of concussions and repeated blows to the head on quality of life down the road. Still, it’s pretty clear football represents the highest risk of these injuries, followed closely by hockey. Research is ongoing. Both sports are doing what they can to make the game safer. But even if concussion frequency declines, the battering NFL players experience every play of every game takes a clear toll.
NBA players put a ton of mileage on their bodies. Just watch Kevin McHale walk 10 feet to understand how painful it must be to drag a seven-foot-tall body up and down the court thousands of minutes each year over a long career.
Baseball has the best of both worlds, with longer careers and less physical wear-and-tear. No one would deny that 162 games in 185 days is a slog, but it isn’t quite the same type of contact sport as the others.
FAME: Making a name and cashing in on fame
Everyone knows Aaron Rodgers, Tom Brady, and Odell Beckham, Jr. They’re everywhere, in commercials and clothing ads and billboards, and are eminently marketable despite only playing in 16 regular-season games per year and wearing helmets on the field.
Baseball players, on the other hand, are largely anonymous. Non-baseball fans and even casuals just don’t know the star players. Mike Trout? Maybe. David Price or Zack Greinke? No way your buddy who exclusively watches college football or NASCAR would know those guys’ faces. But they’d know Tom Brady.
Of the 15 baseball players that made Forbes’ Top 100, only six make at least $1 million per year in endorsements, and only Posey ($3.5 million) and Trout ($2.5 million) are north of that. In baseball, earning potential is more or less capped at your annual salary. Alex Rodriguez (№17) and Derek Jeter (№21) rank among the top-25 highest-paid athletes all-time, but they leveraged playing in New York into a mountain of endorsement money. Baseball may be the last sport in which playing in a large market truly impacts earning potential.
The NHL isn’t any better. If you’re Cam Atkinson or Jordan Staal, you aren’t cashing in like you would be if you played in any of the other leagues on this list.
Basketball is where it’s at. The rapid growth in popularity of the league both domestically and internationally has only ramped up endorsement dollars. From the iconic Michael Jordan ads of the 90s to deals for LeBron James and Steph Curry and others today, there are tens of millions to be made annually. NBA players are helped by their lack of a helmet, but they’re also buoyed by an extended season, notable social media activity, and involvement in social issues.
If we’re tallying categories, the decision is clear. Football and hockey are scoreless against 1.5 categories for baseball and 2.5 for hoops. The NBA is your sporting destination for money, fame, and security.
As the Bo Jackson of 2018, you want to get paid today. You want to be famous. And you want to know you’ll make a lot of money over a long period of time while still being able to enjoy that fortune.
You better lace up your Nikes and make sure you vault yourself into the max-contract stratosphere of the NBA. Opportunity awaits, both on and off the court. Now, go practice that jumper.