I was prompted to start thinking about this topic and decide to look up a few numbers during my Christmas trip to the USA for my girlfriend’s family Christmas. I was at a Boxing day BBQ (I’m in Florida so it’s a warm Christmas for me) watching some Boxing Day American Football friendly matches and I got into a conversation about the salaries of the players of the top-3 American sports – Football, Basketball and Baseball. I was basically trying to get my head around how these sports afforded to pay each player so much. My flight to Florida pretty much broke the bank!
Professional sport salaries are well-discussed and readily available here in the US. Just a quick internet search reveals the average pay for each of the big-3 - $1.9million NFL, $3.2million MLB and $5.15million NBA in 2013. This seems so normal over here and people even talk about the ‘low’ salaries of some of the lower paid players – the lowest in NBA in 2013 was $373,041, not bad!
So then I decided to have a look at a next-level paid sport, which still has decent pay in the grand scheme of life and especially compared to triathlon. I came across an article on Forbes.com named “how the 92nd Ranked Tennis player in the world earns a comfortable living.” It introduces a player called Michael Russell and his ATP ranking and pay compared to that of the top few players such as Federer, Nadal and Sharapova.
As a summary the article paints a very similar picture to that of a top-100 ranked ITU Triathlon pro, with very high expenses and low income. And how breaking even and scraping by becomes normal at lower-levels of the pro ranks. The story he tells of making it in tennis sounds very close to some of my own, only with larger sums of money involved! He talks about the importance of competing in the smaller competitions to be able to get into the higher echelons of the sport, but how this often requires you to operate at a loss for most of these lower paying events – even when you win. This then allows you to compete at the top events (WTS in triathlon and Grand Slams in tennis) giving you a chance to really further your career.
Russell also describes some of the ways that tennis professionals have to make smart financial decisions to keep going in the face of such high costs of competition. These include locating his home base in an economically-friendly town or city (Loughborough for me – very good for rent), finding the best hotel deals even if they are 10km or so away from the race venue (often having to share with other competitors for me), working with frequent flyer miles to get the best deals and sharing on-site masseuse with other players. His examples still seem like nice problems to have for triathletes as most triathlons do not provide free massage and a lot of pros can’t afford the flights in the first place, never mind collect enough frequent flyer miles to actually use them.
The ATP have also developed a kind of pension scheme for the top-125 players so that their pros can go on to earn after they retire from the sport so that they are no just left by the wayside without any future prospects. Triathlon is a couple of tiers below tennis but I think with the ever-present tag it has of “one of the fastest growing sport in the world” and how it attracts a high percentage of high earners, I think the ITU and WTC can start to look to tennis and beyond as examples of how their pro athletes should be paid.
We are still a long way behind even the tennis players (Russell can clear $200,000 pa) but I think triathlon has the potential to be paying its pros as much tennis players in the future. It will take a change of mentality within the sport, however. The problem at the moment is that triathlon is not seen as a well-paid sport but I think with the ever-growing number of big corporations and high-earning participants I think that it won’t be long before triathlon starts to catch up sports like tennis in terms of pay for its pro athletes – both in sponsorship and prize money. Catching Football, American Football, Basketball and Baseball pay, however… I’m not sure it will ever happen. I might have to change sports!
Read the article here for a good insight into being a pro sportsman. Reduce the £/$/€ accordingly for triathlon!