The Geography of Superstar Sports Millionaires

The world's elite athletes earn hundreds and sometimes thousands of times more than what an average citizen in their native countries brings home


Boxer Manny Pacquiao and baseball star Alex Rodriguez top the list of the world's highest paid athletes, according to new data compiled by ESPN.

ESPN tracked annual salaries--the base pay the players received for their most recent season or calendar year (endorsements and other sources of income were excluded) across 182 nations and 17 sports, from baseball and basketball to badminton and cricket. Salary data was collected from "multiple sources, including leagues, agents, consulates, embassies, sports federations, cultural centers, and the U.N."

According to the data, it's not football, baseball, basketball, or even NASCAR that accounts for the lion's share of sports superstars. Wake up, America: 114 of the 184 best-paid athletes in the world play soccer--almost seven times more than the next runner up (basketball, with 18 uber-rich players). For the rest, there are 12 baseball players, six auto-racers, five golfers, five football players, four cricketeers, three boxers, and three track and field contestants. Rugby and tennis each contribute two competitors, and there is one representative each from badminton, cycling, motorcycle racing, sumo wrestling, and yachting.

The first map, above, by Zara Matheson of the Martin Prosperity Institute shows which countries these athletes live in. The richest two players, Pacman the Destroyer and A-Rod (both earned $32,000,000), live in the Philippines and the U.S. respectively (A-Rod spent much of his childhood in the Dominican Republic, but was born in New York City). Finland's Kimi Raikonnen ($26.3 million) and Spain's Fernando Alonso ($22.7 million), both auto racers, are the third and fourth highest paid. Venezuela's Johan Santana clocks in at $21 million and some change; Italy's Valentino Rossi, a motorcycle racer, earns $20,800,000.
The second map shows the ratio of the highest paid athletes' salaries to a proxy measure for average pay--a country's Gross Domestic Product or GDP per person. A-Rod's $32 million salary, for example, is about 715 times the size of the per capita U.S. GDP of $44,872 per person. Jason Bay, who hails from Canada, makes $18.1 million playing for the New York Mets--455 times Canada's per capita GDP. That sounds like--and is--a big difference. But Manny Pacquiao makes 18,000 times the per capita GDP of the Philippines and two other athletes' salaries are even higher multiples. Samuel Dalembert of the Sacramento Kings hails from Haiti; he makes more than 19,000 times Haiti's per capita GDP. And the salary of Emmanuel Adebayor, who plays soccer for Real Madrid on loan from Manchester City, is a staggering 24,000-plus times more than the per capita GDP of his homeland of Togo.

The 25 athletes with the highest ratio of salary to GDP are overwhelmingly soccer players from African and Latin American countries. But the $17.5 million salary that China's Yao Ming earns is 4,600 times more than the per capita GDP of his home country; Peja Stojakovic, who plays for the Dallas Mavericks, earns 2,700 times what the average Serbian does. On the low end of the scale, there's the track star Michael Junior Jackson, whose $5,000 per season is enough to make him his country's highest-paid athlete, but is still $800 less than an average worker from the Pacific island nation of Niue makes.

The ratio of CEO pay to that of the average worker has become a common benchmark for massive rises in economic inequality. According the just-released 2011 edition of Executive Paywatch, the CEOs of S&P 500 companies took home an average of $11.4 million in 2010, up 23 percent from the previous year, and roughly 250 times America's per capita GDP. According to The New York Times Economix blog, this amounts to "28 times the pay of President Obama, 213 times the median pay of police officers, 225 times teacher pay, 252 times firefighter pay, and 753 times the pay of the minimum-wage worker." They are enormous gaps to be sure, but they're a far cry from the difference between A-Rod's and the average American's salary and not even in the same universe as the light year-sized differences between the salaries of superstar athletes and the average citizens of their developing nations.

These are terrific athletes for sure, but do their talents justify such incredible rewards? I love sports, but do they add anything substantial to economic prosperity? What kind of signal does such a highly skewed reward system send about the kinds of talents and skills that really matter for economic growth?

More than 15 years ago, the economist Robert H. Frank famously critiqued America's emerging Winner Take All Society, in which the super-successful take a bigger and bigger share of the riches, leaving the rest of us to fight over scraps. Things have only gotten worse in the intervening years; the economic crisis has done little, if anything, to abate this runaway trend.

Outlandish sports stars' salaries illuminate the grotesqueries of the current age of super-star capitalism, and of our increasingly inequitable, irrational, and unconscionably unequal global economy.

Image credit: Reuters/Mark Blinch; Serio Perez; Erik de Castro