Think Athletes Are Overpaid? These Numbers Might Change Your Mind

Sports star Marshawn Lynch, one of many professional athletes who has made millions during his career

Sports star Marshawn Lynch, one of many professional athletes who has made millions during his career | Gabe Ginsberg/Getty Images for Monster Products

We’ve all heard people hurl insults at TVs in sports bars and living rooms: “He’s overpaid!” “You have one job!” They’re referring to professional athletes and sports stars who failed to make a big play. And when you look at how much money some pro athletes are making, it’s easy to sympathize.

Chances are you’re working a job at which you feel underpaid or underappreciated. And watching Tom Brady make hundreds of millions for simply lobbing a ball in the air? It can be hard to justify — at least in your mind.

But are professional sports stars actually overpaid? There are tons of examples you could point to that would scream yes: guys who were draft busts or hurt early in their careers before any meaningful production came to fruition. Names like Ryan Leaf and Greg Oden come to mind. But the truth is most pro athletes don’t have long careers. And they don’t typically make a lot of money.

Well, they might make a lot of money, but it’s for a very short period of time. Most go on to have other careers, as their playing days ended in their 20s or early 30s. They typically don’t earn enough over that time to retire, or if they do, they’ve already spent it on mansions and cars.

We worked with Paysa, a career-advice site, to dig into the numbers. Paysa put together a report detailing the earnings and careers of professional athletes and compared the numbers to those from the tech sector. If you think pro athletes are overpaid, these numbers might change your mind.

Professional athletes: What are the odds?

American Football on the Field

A football on a field | iStock.com/33ft

A lot of people want to play sports professionally. Because of that, it’s insanely competitive — meaning your odds of making it to the big leagues are essentially nil. But depending on which sport you choose, your odds can increase dramatically. Here are the raw numbers from the Paysa report:

  • 1 out of 659 players makes it from their high school baseball team to the majors
  • 1 out of 4,233 high school football players will make it to the NFL
  • 1 out of 11,771 high school basketball players go on to shoot hoops for the NBA

From pro to hero: Becoming America’s sports stars

Ben Zobrist of the Chicago Cubs celebrates with the 2016 World Series Most Valuable Player Award

Ben Zobrist of the Chicago Cubs celebrates with the 2016 World Series Most Valuable Player Award | David J. Phillip-Pool/Getty Images

Even if you do manage to get into the big leagues, you’re not likely to have a long career. So, you might end up making six or seven figures for a short amount of time. But that’s not really sustainable for the long haul. If your career is over by the time you’re in your mid-20s, you’re probably going to need to find a secondary career. Again, your career span can vary depending on your particular sport.

An NBA player’s average career

Russell Westbrook dunks the ball

Russell Westbrook dunks the ball | Elsa/Getty Images

A traditional career — that is, one that doesn’t involve a stint as a professional athlete — can last decades. For sports stars, it’s a different story. The average NBA player, for example, is in and out of the league in a flash. According to Paysa, in the NBA the “average career length is 4.8 years with the lifetime earning potential of $12,027,456.”

An NFL player’s average career

Quarterback Vince Young, the Tennessee Titans' first-round NFL draft pick, plays catch during a break in the action

Quarterback Vince Young, the Tennessee Titans’ first-round NFL draft pick, plays catch during a break in the action | Paul Spinelli/Getty Images

Football players, though there are more of them, have a much shorter shelf life compared to basketball players. Paysa says for NFL players the “average career length is 3.5 years with the lifetime earning potential of $3,010,000.”

An MLB player’s average career

Carlos Gonzalez of the Colorado Rockies greets National League teammates

Carlos Gonzalez of the Colorado Rockies greets National League teammates | Harry How/Getty Images

Baseball players last the longest but earn the least amount, according to Paysa. For an MLB player, the “average career length is 5.6 years with the lifetime earning potential of $2,912,000.”

Injured on the job

Greg Oden, whose career was cut short by injuries

Greg Oden, whose career was cut short by injuries | Mike Ehrmann/Getty Images

The preceding figures are averages. Injuries can cut down your career and thus your earnings as a pro athlete. Say you’re a football player, for example, and your job is to run full speed into other people. The odds of getting hurt are pretty good.

“Those who do make it face the reality that their time and earning potential is limited and could even be at risk due to injury,” Paysa CEO Chris Bolte said in the report.

As a result, a more traditional career path would allow for your health to hold up over time and your earnings potential to increase.

Success stories

Tom Brady, a rare success story

Tom Brady was amazing in Super Bowl LI | Ronald Martinez/Getty Images

So far, we’ve relayed the idea that becoming a sports star is not only difficult, but it might not actually pay off in the long run. Despite that, there are obvious examples of people who flout the norms. Tom Brady, for example, has earned hundreds of millions of dollars over his long career. There are examples from all other sports, as well.

Take hockey player Jaromir Jagr as another example. Jagr has been a pro hockey player for more than a quarter century. His first pro season was in 1990, and he earns more than $82,000 per game.

Compare it to a career in tech

A sign points to the Berlin Facebook offices

A sign points to the Berlin Facebook offices | Sean Gallup/Getty Images

Paysa’s report compares the careers of professional athletes to those in the tech industry. If you want to become a tech engineer, for example, Paysa says you have a 63% chance of getting accepted into an engineering school, a 60% chance of graduating, and if you make it past those goal posts, a 97% chance of landing a job. So, there’s a chance of failing, but your odds are much better than making it as a sports star.

If you end up with a career at a company, such as Google or Facebook, your lifetime earnings can top $10.5 million. That’s more than the average professional athlete by a long shot.

The bottom line

United States currency shown on a fishing hook

On the hook for money | iStock.com/-BW-

Chasing big-dollar contracts often catches up sports stars and professional athletes. But most don’t have long careers, and their lifetime earnings are lower than other traditional career paths. They might make six or seven figures for a couple of years, and appear to be overpaid, but their careers are more of a flash in the pan, rather than a slow burn.

Perhaps there are athletes who make more money than some fans are comfortable with. But we have to remember this is over a short period of time. If you work in tech, you’re probably going to make more money over the long term than a professional athlete.

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