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Steve Aschburner

NBA's 'average' salary -- $5.15M -- a trendy, touchy subject

Posted Aug 19 2011 11:03AM

Average is blah. Average is middling. Average is neither good nor bad. It is distinctive only for being undistinguished.

Except in the world of professional sports, that is, where the average player's compensation is decidedly above-average.

The whole topic of average salaries was put in play again after recent NBA negotiating sessions for a new collective bargaining agreement. It was left to commissioner David Stern on at least two occasions to offer perspective on this squabble between multi-millionaire players and multi-millionaire owners.

Asked after an unproductive Aug. 1 session in New York about the NFL's new labor settlement, Stern said: "From where we sit, we are looking at a league [the NFL] that was the most profitable in sports, that became more profitable by virtue of concessions from their players, with an average salary of $2 million. Our average salary is $5 million, we're not profitable and we just can't seem to get over the gap that separates us."

Back in June, in reacting to a National Basketball Players Association offer built on the NBA's anticipated revenue growth in coming seasons, Stern said: "The proposal that we're confronted with is one that seeks to take the average compensation from the ... $5 million per player that we currently have to $7 million by Year 6."

The NBA has used the "average player salary" figure more often than that. Its mid-level salary-cap exception -- a staple of free agency since 1999 -- has been built off that figure. Each summer, an audit of the just-completed season's Basketball Related Income (BRI) announces it as well. For instance, the average player salary for the 2010-11 season was $5.15 million, based on overall player compensation of $2.176 billion and approximately 425 players active last season.

"Average" prices and costs get used all the time: the average price of a gallon of gas, the average cost of tuition. But using the average player salary at a time of CBA negotiations can also enflame a situation, because "average" tends to be so far from, well, average.

"It's a completely nonsensical comparison," said player agent Mark Bartelstein, who represents both NBA and NFL clients, when asked about comparisons of football and basketball salaries. "To talk about that is really comparing apples to oranges."

First, let's get the numbers on the table. Here is the "average player salary" for each of the major U.S. professional team sports, based on a variety of sources using the most recent data available:

NBA: $5.15 million (2010-11)

MLB: $3.34 million (2010)

NHL: $2.4 million (2010-11)

NFL: $1.9 million (2010)

As far as what an "average" athlete might earn in the various sports, those salaries are, in fact, apples-to-apples. They simply are the figures arrived at by dividing the total player compensation for each league by the number of participants in a given season.

But there are three common objections to those numbers -- quantitative, qualitative and statistical -- often heard from NBA players and their agents.

The first objection is obvious: There are far more players divvying up the NFL pie, with 53 players per team compared to a maximum of 15 in the NBA, 23 in the NHL and 25 in baseball. NBA players are more "elite" simply because there are fewer of them.

Next, because of those smaller rosters, the impact of any one player on an NBA team in theory is greater than any one player in the other sports. A starter in the NBA is 20 percent of his team's primary lineup, compared to 16.7 percent in hockey, 11.1 percent in baseball or 4.5 percent in football (22 starters, offense and defense combined).

There probably is no more important position in those four sports than NFL quarterback, but the fact is, he's on the field half the time (or less, allowing for special teams). A starting pitcher can dominate a ball game by himself -- but he sits out four of every five games. A hot goaltender can alter the course of a Stanley Cup series but he's a specialist, too, who won't be scoring many goals for his club.

An NBA superstar, meanwhile, can contribute for 40 minutes or more out of each game's 48. Between points scored, rebounds grabbed and assists dished, he can account for much of his team's scoring or second chances. And the best of them play just as hard, and nearly as effectively, at the defensive end. Even bench players, if they're in their teams' rotation, have defined and significant roles.

Maybe most importantly, though, is the statistical objection to using an "average" player salary when a "median" figure would be more reflective of a typical athlete's earning power.

Average, or mean, is the number calculated by dividing the total compensation by the number of players. Median is the salary point where half of the players in a league are paid more and half are paid less. A few maximum-salary contracts can skew the average by pulling it up, while the median would be unaffected.

Think of it this way: If you own a $200,000 house on a block with five identical homes and someone builds a $1 million McMansion on the vacant corner lot, the average value of homes on that block suddenly would be $333,333. The median value would remain $200,000. Which figure is closer to reality?

"It's the median salary that's more important," NBA agent Bill Duffy said. "Look at the Miami Heat as an analogy here: You've got three guys making $17 million and probably six guys making $1.2 [million]. So that's a little misguided, that average salary."

The top three players on the Heat actually are under contract to make about $16 million (for two of them) and $15.5 million (for the other) in 2011-12, according to The rest are scheduled to make anywhere from around $5.4 million to $300,000.

It is not unlike, Duffy said, news stories that cite the "average" U.S. household income as opposed to the median. The latter figure, according to the most recent U.S. census, was $50,233. If you were to average in the dollar amounts pulled down by Wall Street bankers, Ivy League lawyers, certain public-union employees and yes, professional athletes, that number would jump considerably.

Curiously, neither the NBA nor the NBPA seems to make much use of a median player salary.

"We use [average] because it's the most commonly used measure and best reflects the amount of compensation that the NBA provides to players across the league," an NBA spokesman said this week. "In addition, it's the measure that both we and the union agreed upon in the CBA."

In the NFL, the median salary is approximately $770,000 -- about 40 percent of the average.

In the NBA, using USA Today salary figures for the 2009-10 season, the estimated median salary was about $2.33 million. That's still about 46 times what the median U.S. household earns, but it is less than half what the max-salary-bloated "average" is.

(While we're at it, the league's minimum salaries ranged in 2010-11 from $473,604 for a rookie to $1,352,181 for a 10-year veteran.)

Why is this important? From the NBA owners' standpoint, the total player compensation figures matter most. At 57 percent of BRI, the players received $2.176 billion, leaving about $1.64 billion for the teams. After all expenses, the league says it lost approximately $300 million.

In its most recent proposal, as described by Stern, the players were asked to take an 8 percent pay cut to $2 billion overall, with a pay freeze -- or limited participation in league growth -- for as long as 10 years. So it's worth knowing what that 8 percent cut means to a typical player: Is it $412,000 off an "average" salary of $5.15 million or $186,400 given back from $2.33 million, the median salary?

"No one is going to feel sorry for NBA players and no one should," Bartelstein said. But he says that the NBA's use of "average player salary" is a public-relations tool to sway people in their opinions of the lockout.

The league wouldn't agree. But, in this summer of labor discord, disagreement is pretty common. You might even call it average.

Steve Aschburner has written about the NBA for 25 years. You can e-mail him here and follow him on twitter.

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