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Why are NFL players shocked by NBA contracts?

Roughly $3 billion was spent during NBA free agency. Spurring some NFL players to suggest they picked the wrong sport. But why?

NBA Free Agency drew a lot of attention, and not just for where Kevin Durant would end up signing. The amount of money that got thrown around was what caught the eye of so many people.

Small forward Kent Bazemore got $17.5 million a year from the Atlanta Hawks, a backup point guard Ramon Sessions got $6.15 million. Mike Conley was handed a $150 million contract by the Memphis Grizzlies.

The fact that teams in the NBA have thrown around money during free agency isn’t surprising. The issue was from those in other sports, specifically football.





To understand some of the bitterness and annoyance coming from NFL players you have to start breaking down how the salary caps work across the four major sports, and how the contracts break down.

The NBA salary cap is not a hard cap like in NFL, but a luxury tax. You can go over it, but it will cost you money. Same goes for MLB.

The NBA luxury tax threshold sits at $113,287,000 for 2016. That’s 73% of the NFL cap, but NBA teams are typically paying just 14 players compared to the 53 on an NFL roster. It’s a similar story in baseball where the luxury tax threshold is an enormous $189,000,000 – 122% of the NFL – but they only have to pay 25 major league players (albeit they fund the minor leagues as well, but that is a small proportion of total expenditure).

The only sport that matches the NFL in cap space per rostered player is the NHL, where their $73,000,000 hard cap is spent on a 23 man roster.

Cap $ per roster space$2,929,623$8,091,929$7,560,000$3,173,913

That is a stark difference from league to league in cap space per player. When you then consider that stars will always get paid considerably more than the average position and it leaves a very small pool of money for most NFL players to draw from.

Now let’s look at the big free agent deals from the NFL & NBA’s latest spending spree.

The biggest contract handed out in the NFL’s free agency period was the 5 year, $85 million the New York Giants handed to defensive end Olivier Vernon. When you look at that contract it is remarkably similar to the 4 year, $70 million one Atlanta handed Kent Bazemore. Big money for a player who had a huge year before hitting free agency but had been largely average prior to that.

So why the issue? Well while Vernon’s dollar value was the highest in the market this year Bazemore’s was far from it. The top of the market, even beyond the $27 million a year Kevin Durant got, was the 5 year, $150 million Mike Conley received from the Memphis Grizzlies. That is $23 million more than the largest contract in the NFL, and Conley is far from an elite player in the NBA.

Now you start to see part of the reason NFL players are perhaps unhappy at their rate of pay compared to other sportsmen.

The NFL is far and away the most profitable, taking in $13 billion in revenue last season. The salary cap, ie all player wages, account for 38% of that cap, or just shy of $5 billion – some of which goes unspent as not all teams push against their cap limit each season.

When you compare that 38% share to the rest of the leagues you also see a huge imbalance. In the NBA the league-wide salary cap comes to 56.6%, in the NHL it is 59% and in MLB it’s 60%. So we can see that despite the enormous gap in revenue from the NFL compared to the other leagues the players get a far smaller piece of the pie.

Some of that gap is simply down to bargaining power. In the most recent Collective Bargaining Agreement negotiations Baseball, basketball and hockey players had the memory of recent lockouts which ate into regular season time to play off the owners. In football, while lockouts have been threatened the sheer number of players, most on relatively low money with little savings, means it is almost impossible to keep a lockout enforced.

The final nail in the NFL players coffin is the lack of fully guaranteed contracts. In every other sport the figure you see in the headline is what the player will get paid, regardless of if he gets hit by a bus the next day, he will get that amount. Remember that $85 million Olivier Vernon contract? He’s only guaranteed to get $52.5 million.

So more players, smaller share of the pie and non-guaranteed contracts. That’s how NFL players come to be so frustrated over other sportsmen’s pay. The roster size issue isn’t going to go away. Arguably it will worsen as teams seek to increase roster size to protect against injuries and increase player specialisation. However the percentage of revenue that goes into the salary cap and the guarantees players get in their contracts will be big negotiation points when the Collective Bargaining Agreement comes up for renewal in 2021.

Toby Durant

A passionate and opinionated writer, I am currently the NFL editor for RealSport. However, I also contribute to F1, WWE, Football, and other sections of the site, and I have covered the NFL International Series for RealSport and previously contributed to SB Nation.


I also have 10 years playing and coaching experience in American football, starting at the University of Nottingham and including a stint as defensive coordinator at Oxford Brookes University. I may be a Patriots fan but all aspects of the sport interest me, from guard play to special teams.

Why are NFL players shocked by NBA contracts?

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