Commentary: The <i>Real</i> Reason Pro Athletes Draw Huge Salaries

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Tom Brady has a net worth of $120 million or so. Russel Wilson is set to make tens of millions this offseason. How do athletes make so much money? (Christian Petersen/Getty Images)
Bill Littlefield no longer needs to study economics to understand why pro athletes like Russell Wilson (left) and Tom Brady (right) earn millions of dollars. (Christian Petersen/Getty Images)

I am sometimes asked why professional athletes get paid millions and millions of dollars to play a game.

I generally answer by citing the tiny bit of economics I learned from a graduate student/instructor in the fall of 1966, when I still believed I should take some courses outside the English department.

Mr. Goodrow told a reporter he’d had Tom Brady’s image tattooed on his body. There is almost no chance that Brady has reciprocated with Paul Goodrow tattoos.

“The athletes generate income for the team owners,” I say. “The owners make money by investing in the best players they can sign. Sometimes the owners goof and overpay particular players, but this doesn’t dissuade them, and in the end they make out very well, because they sell their teams for a lot more than they paid for them, in part because the supply of Major League teams is limited, and the demand is considerable among very wealthy people.”

But that’s not what I’m going to say the next time somebody asks me why pro athletes get paid so much. Instead, I’m going to tell them about Paul Goodrow and his wife Kellie, who have put off their honeymoon trip to Bermuda because of Tom Brady’s four-game suspension.

Don’t tell me that makes no sense. I know that. Another thing that makes no sense, at least to me, is that Mr. Goodrow told a reporter he’d had Tom Brady’s image tattooed on his body. There is almost no chance that Brady has reciprocated with Paul Goodrow tattoos. Also there’s no reason to believe Tom Brady himself has put off anything, for example acquiring a dog. I know this because in Tuesday’s paper there’s a photo of Tom Brady and the dog, and the picture, in which Tom Brady is smiling, was posted by his wife, who was no doubt also smiling, obviously less concerned about the suspension than about the dog and the smiling.

Also pro athletes are paid millions and millions of dollars because of Tim Pennoyer, who is worried that the Seattle Seahawks won’t be willing to pay their quarterback, Russell Wilson, as much as another team might pay him. Therefore Tim Pennoyer is encouraging Seattle fans to send their money to augment whatever the Seahawks offer. One name for this is crowdsourcing, and Mr. Pennoyer has said that if it turns out the money isn’t necessary, it will go to charity. That is a fine thing, except for the part about Russell Wilson.

In the photograph accompanying the newspaper story about this goofy strategy, Russell Wilson is smiling even more broadly than Tom Brady is in the photo with his new puppy.

Which is why when I’m next asked why pro athletes are paid millions and millions of dollars, I won’t have to rely on the economics I must have learned in 1966, because I passed the final, although, come to think of it, I suppose it is still a matter of supplying people with the razz and also the matazz they demand.

This segment aired on May 30, 2015.


Headshot of Bill Littlefield

Bill Littlefield Host, Only A Game
Bill Littlefield was the host of Only A Game from 1993 until 2018.



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