People often talk about the maximum salaries in sports leagues because it is often what makes the headlines; people want to know how much the Lakers paid for Lebron James or other living legends in their sport. However, what can also be interesting is seeing the minimum salaries for players in various leagues. Not only does it display the contrast in the income of the absolute top of the sport compared to the bottom but also it helps paint a better picture of the overall ecosystem of the highest level of a sport. Minimum player salaries help fans see the often unseen struggles of the average professional player in any sport. A minimum salary protects players, establishing a firm floor of what they can earn per year.
The National Basketball Association (NBA)'s Collective Bargaining Agreement (CBA) states that the minimum salary is dependent on certain factors, namely the amount of time a player has spent playing for the league. This is meant to reward veterans for their years of service dedicated to the league. In addition, the NBA reimburses teams who sign veterans with 3+ years of experience to a 1 year, minimum salary contract so that teams don't automatically sign younger, cheaper players. However, unlike the maximum salaries, the CBA sets the minimum salaries independent of the salary cap. Minimum salaries also have some specific rules, such as a minimum-salary contract being unable to earn any bonuses. At the same time, players still on a minimum-salary contract signed in a previous season have higher minimum salaries than players who sign new contracts in the offseason, the amount of which is determined by the year the player started at a team and how long he has stayed with the team since. Even players that sign 10-Day Contracts or Rest-of-Season Contracts must be paid at least a minimum salary based on the number of games played. Undrafted free agents, late second-round picks, and veterans are usually the ones who get minimum-salary contracts. Of those three, the veterans will get the most money due to their experience in the league. Tables for minimum salary value can be found in the NBA CBA.
In stark contrast, the Major League Baseball (MLB)’s minimum player salary is very straightforward and simple. Based on their latest 2017-21 CBA, the minimum salary will increase steadily over the years: $507,500 in 2016, $535,000 in 2017, $545,000 in 2018, and $555,000 in 2019. After that, the minimum salary will be subject to a cost-of-living adjustment, rounded to the nearest $500, in 2020 and 2021. However, the minimum salary may not go below $555,000 during these years.
On the other hand, the National Football League (NFL)’s minimum salaries look a bit different, sharing similarities with that of the NBA. Like the NBA, they reward veterans for their years of service in the league by offering higher minimum salaries for veteran players. All base salaries at every level of experience increase by $15,000 year over year, with the bonuses provided for years in the league coming in years 1, 2, 3, 4, 7, and 10. For comparison, the minimum salary for an NFL rookie in 2018 is $480,000 compared to the $1,015,000 minimum salary for 10+ year veteran players. That said, there is a Minimum Salary Benefit Rule that allows a qualified player with 4+ years of experience in the NFL to earn his total minimum salary but have a cap figure that reflects 2 years of experience ($630,000 in 2017). This means a player with 8 years of experience in 2018 has a base salary of $915,000+$90,000 (Max) in benefits for a total of $1.005 contract and a cap figure of $720,000 ($630,000 2018 2-year base salary and $90,000 in bonuses). For this rule to be used, the contract must be for only 1 year and cannot have any combined bonuses (signing, roster, workout, etc.) that are more than $90,000. The Minimum Salary Benefit Rule is valuable to not only veteran players looking for jobs but also teams looking to minimize their cap dollars.