Did the NFL Players Get a Raw Deal?

Comparing revenue deals across the major sports leagues.

Adam Goldberg of the St. Louis Rams during negotiations

National Football League players and owners neared an agreement to end a four-month lockout Thursday. The new contract would include a provision that gives players between 46 percent and 48 percent of league revenues. That’s down from the previous agreement’s 50-50 split. Are NFL players getting screwed on their share of league revenues, compared to other sports?

No. The numbers look pretty consistent across the country’s four major sports leagues. The NFL, like every other league, has its own idiosyncratic methods of calculating payrolls and revenues—methods that have changed from one union contract to the next. Development-league salaries, stadium construction costs, multiyear contracts, bonuses, and nonsports related revenues are just some of the variables at play. But according to a 2010 paper in the Journal of Sports Economics, if you adjust for these vagaries, the NFL, Major League Baseball, the National Basketball Association, and National Hockey League each gave players somewhere between 54 percent and 59 percent of total revenue during the early 2000s. The NFL and NBA gave their players the sweetest deals, though it’s hard to make fine distinctions among the leagues. While the full details of the NFL’s new agreement are still under wraps, its 46-to-48-percent figure, after adjustment, shouldn’t drop out of the standard range.

If the new agreement goes through, NFL players will see a reduction in their revenue share since the last contract. The change represents roughly $270 million in losses for the players, at least at face value. But league owners will pay about $100 million of that back as enhanced benefits for retirees. Rookies will bear much of the remaining $170 million burden, in the form of stricter salary caps. In the end, players who are in the league already should be about as well off financially as they were under the old agreement.

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Explainer thanks Andrew Zimbalist of Smith College.