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The average sports fan bases their perception of the American “team” athlete on the all but average superstar: their exceptional skills, their lavish lifestyle, and, most enviously, their exorbitant salaries. While the behemoths of American sport (i.e. the NFL, NBA, and MLB) undoubtingly provide great wealth for the Aaron Rodgers and LeBron James of the world, there remains little curiosity for how the “last man” on the roster is compensated.

The NFL, mindful of its violent nature and “not for long” reputation, scales the minimum player salary according to a player’s accredited seasons. In the 2018 NFL season, a rookie who made the 53-man roster earned a minimum of $495k, approximately 1.5% of the NFL’s top salary, while a 10 year NFL veteran (“vet”) made at least $1.045 million dollars or 3.1% of the highest salary. See NFL CPA Article 26.

Furthermore, the NFL incentivizes clubs to sign veterans (“vets”) over rookies by only imposing cap figure of a 2-season vet ($630k in 2018) rather than their actual take-home pay (up to $1.045m in 2018). NFL CBA Article 27 Section 5.  While this provision universally helps more experienced players vying for final roster spots, it particularly protects those in positions with the shortest “NFL life expectancy.” With the cap hit the same, older and capable running backs, receivers, and corners (with average “NFL life expectancies” of 2.5, 2.8, and 3 years, respectively) have a fair shot under the CBA to measure their advantage of experience and scheme-fits against a rookie player’s advantages of fresh legs and durability.

No such “veteran-protection” applies in the MLB, as a rookie and lifelong players are subjected to the same minimum salary figure of 555k for the 2019 season. See MLB CPA Article VI section A. This 555k salary is 1.45% of the highest paid player’s salary, making the MLB’s minimum salary relative pay about half that of an NFL Vet (3.1%). This lower ratio is perhaps in recognition that, despite playing more games, MLB players have far greater average career lifespans (5.6 years MLB versus 3.3 years NFL), while the need players with experience on a major league diamond far outweighs the need for fresh-legged rookies.  

The most controversial aspect of MLB’s minimum salary lies in its provisions for minor league players. While the NBA and NFL Collective Bargaining Agreement does not have jurisdiction over a farm league, the MLB provides a minimum salary of those minor leaguers signing major league contracts ($88,900 for 40-man roster players in the minors signing at least their second big league contract and $44,500 for 40-man roster players in the minors signing their first big league contract. ) By distinguishing between the “major” and “minor” league contracts of minor league players, the CBA rids its jurisdiction of minor league contracts, allowing for salaries often times below minimum wage.

Meanwhile, the NBA’s collective bargaining agreement closely resembles the NFL, providing for scaling based on experience and flat salary cap impositions to incentivize signing older players. NBA CBA Article II Sec 6. For the 2018-2019 season, a rookie will make a minimum of $840k, while a vet of 10 years will make $2.4 million. If an NBA club signs a veteran to a minimum deal, the NBA only imposes a salary cap of a vet with two accredited seasons, and even pays the difference between the two figures.

While the NBA’s minimum salary is the most generous of the three leagues (6.7% of the highest paid player’s salary), there are provisions in the minimum salary that are distinctly anti-player. For example, all minimum salary contracts come with a disclaimer stating “This Contract is intended to provide for a Base Compensation for the ____________ Season(s) equal to the Minimum Player Salary for such Season(s) (with no bonuses of any kind)and shall be deemed amended to the extent necessary to so provide.”

The NBA further limits the effects of minimum contracts by allowing “two-way” contracts, where a player splits his time between the NBA team and their G-league affiliate. These contracts provide for a minimum of a $77k salary with a player’s salary who sees NBA action increasing to $500k, nearly $400k less than the rookie minimum.

Further, an NBA may delay its’ commitment to a minimum contract through “10-day contracts,” where a player is paid at the minimum salary rate per game for those 10 days. An NBA team may sign a player to two 10 day contracts before having to commit to a year’s minimum salary, providing a grace period not present in other leagues.

These salary provisions closely reflect the nature of the respective league’s sport and the career-spans of their players. The “not for long” NFL provides the most protection to veterans through salary cap offsets and a robust ratio of minimum salary to highest paid player salary.  The MLB, whose players’ careers are longer and healthier, provides the lowest relative minimum salary regardless of experience while leaving its’ minor league players with no safety net. The NBA, where players have a career lifespan between the NFL and MLB, provides for veteran protection and significant salaries while giving teams the ability to avoid additional costs through the disclaimer of bonuses, along with 10 day and two-way contracts.  This strong correlation between the nature of the sport and career length with the strength of minimum salary provisions leaves few surprises in how these provisions of the collective bargaining agreement were negotiated.

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