I want to call foul on the mainstream media. As I mentioned, a majority of the players in the league make less than $2 million, and yet people like Stephen A. Smith throw around that $5 million figure as gospel. We keep hearing the NBA lockout being described as “millionaires versus billionaires”. But most NBA players won’t become big earners like Kobe and LeBron. Here’s a fun breakdown:
Since the 1990-1991 season 1461 players have entered the NBA and of those:
- 490 — or 33% — never earned $1 million in career earnings*
- and that means… 971 have earned at least $1 million in career earnings*
- 752 have averaged a salary of at least $1 million per year*
- 643 have earned at least $5 million in career earnings*
- 165 averaged a salary of at least $5 million per year*
As we can see, less than half of all NBA players in the last 20 years — the period of time where NBA salaries have been at their highest — have hit that $5 million mark over their entire careers. Just over one third — 33% — of all NBA players in the last 20 years have not even hit the $1 million mark in career earnings. And these numbers have been adjusted for inflation!
Here’s a fun comparison: on average, 1600 people win a lottery of at least $1 million every year! That’s right; the lottery has produced almost twice as many millionaires in the last year as the NBA has in the last twenty years! The popular perception is that once a player enters the NBA they will earn millions and millions of dollars. The truth is that many players don’t hit that high mark.
More importantly, for many of these players, this is their primary source of income and it has cost them many years of hard work. Not only that, but once a player’s playing career is over, that income stops. The number of open announcing and coaching jobs is far fewer than the number of retired players capable of filling them. It’s not as if a 35 year old ex-NBA player can just go back to school and get a new degree that will allow them to re-enter the NBA. No, when an NBA player retires, they either have to find a new source of income, or start taking from their savings.
When people say NBA players are lucky to be paid to play a game, they’re right. You have a much greater chance of becoming a millionaire through the lottery than you do of playing in the NBA. Even so, the payout for getting into the NBA is simply not as high as people think, and there are many obstacles – rookie contracts, injuries, and NBA owners – that may prevent an NBA player from getting paid. So yes, NBA players are lucky, but the truth is they haven’t really hit the jackpot — at least not as big of a jackpot as people think.
-Devin and Dre
*Numbers adjusted for inflation and from Basketball-Reference