University of Oklahoma quarterback and outfielder Kyler Murray faces a decision to which few of us can relate. Sure, all of us have grown accustomed to the choices that we as humans face on a day-to-day basis: pizza or salad? Paper or plastic? Should I quit this soul-crushing work and follow my passion by knitting sweaters for cats as a full-time job? We’ve all been there. But Murray, the most recent Heisman Trophy winner and a first-round draft pick of the Oakland A’s, must decide in the coming months whether he will pursue a career playing Major League Baseball or professional football.
This got me thinking: Which sport would be the best to go pro in? Defining “best” can be a little tricky with so many varying factors, but the general idea I’ll strive for is finding the sport that brings about the best quality of life. Contributing factors include financial stability, physical well-being, and marketability, among others. For brevity’s sake, we’ll keep the choices between the North American big four sports: baseball, hockey, basketball, and football. I’d love to be an Olympic curler as much as the next guy, but we can’t all be American hero Matt Hamilton.
So I’m a free agent. I’m ready for the big show. Let’s see what’s out there.
First up, the NHL.
Ice in the Veins
Season length: 82 games
Average Salary: $2.4 million
Minimum Salary: $650K
I’ll be the first to admit that I don’t know much about hockey. From a young age, I was only able to shove three sports’ worth of useless knowledge and statistics in my noggin, so most of the hockey players I know are members of The Mighty Ducks. Heck, I can barely skate. But the sport has a major following in much of the northern U.S. and Canada, and many think the games provide the best fan experience.
The sport is extremely fast-paced but is therefore physically demanding. Not only does it require great stamina, but it also takes precision and strength. This is the main draw for many fans: the fights, the big hits, the toothless ogres brawling. But from a player standpoint, the physical toll must be punishing. Sidney Crosby, one of the few hockey players I can name, has missed over 160 games due to injury throughout his career. That’s significant and not uncommon because of the nature of the game.
The danger of injuries might be palatable if the salary is high enough, but NHL players aren’t paid near the level of the other big-four athletes. While I certainly wouldn’t struggle to live on the league minimum $650,000 salary, top-tier talent is paid significantly less than in other sports. According to Forbes, the highest-paid hockey player in annual salary alone is Toronto Maple Leafs center John Tavares, who pulls in $15.9 million. That’s nothing to sneeze at, but Tavares’ salary would place 67th in the NBA, 63rd in MLB, and 29th in the NFL. As the kids say, fade me on that, bro.
The Gridiron Gang
Season Length: 16 games
Average Salary: $2.1 million
Minimum Salary: $480-705K
Ah, football. The sport where players take their very lives into their hands on every snap of the ball. Football is violent. And popular. Baseball is called the great American pastime because of its rich, lengthy history, but football has become America’s game. Sundays in autumn and winter are like sacred days to many households, and the sport has produced some of the most recognizable stars. Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers are not only hugely successful athletes, but they’ve become part of our culture. Peyton Manning is as famous for his commercials as he was for throwing touchdowns. The point here is that football stars are marketable, especially quarterbacks.
They also get paaaid. The 14 highest-paid players in the NFL are quarterbacks. There is no other sport that values one position in the same way, so if you’re a skilled signal-caller (like Murray), there’s a huge draw to the game. The average salary, however, is the lowest of the four sports, so if you’re not a big, bad quarterback, there’s less money to be made at a greater risk of bodily harm.
That may be an understatement. The violence of football has come under great scrutiny in the last decade with the discovery of CTE and the many other health defects that arise from years of playing. There are conflicting studies on whether playing professional football shortens your life, but many past players have reported chronic headaches, depression, and other lifelong ailments. For me, it’s not worth it. I get pretty annoyed when I kinda have a headache. I’ll pass on the brain trauma.
Field of Dreams
Season Length: 162 games
Average Salary: $4.5 million
Minimum Salary: approx. $565K
Next up: the great American pastime. I think most of our readers, if answering with their hearts, would choose baseball as their pro sport of choice. You are, after all, reading an article on the premier fantasy baseball site in all of the world.
I’ve got some background in baseball (my T-ball numbers speak for themselves), and the sport certainly offers its share of perks. According to Spotrac, MLB is home to the highest-paid athlete of the big four for 2019 salaries (Stephen Strasburg, of all people). And aside from this relatively slow offseason, contracts have been skyrocketing for free agents in the last 10 years.
Though that’s not guaranteed to continue, in recent history, team owners seem willing to shell out for some of the more bloated contracts in all of sports. Orioles first baseman Chris Davis, who completed one of the worst offensive seasons in MLB history last year, will pull in over $21 million next season largely based on his performances in the 2013 and 2015 seasons.
That kind of money is appealing for young talent, and is one of the options on the table for our muse, Mr. Murray, but the path to the big paycheck is not easy. First, every baseball prospect starts in the minor leagues, and oftentimes, because of organizational concern over player control, the stints are not short. Even top prospects can spend multiple seasons in development at the lower levels where travel and playing conditions are much-maligned.
Second, it’s rare for even elite players to be paid at the top levels right away. Rookie limits and a complex arbitration process make it difficult for young players to max out. Mike Trout, inarguably the best baseball player of the last half-decade, didn’t receive an eight-figure paycheck until his age-25 season, and after finishing top-two in MVP voting four times.
The other mitigating factor for choosing baseball is the grind of the 162-game schedule. That’s a loooong haul, and although the game lacks the physicality of other sports, the grind itself causes plenty of injuries. Guys break down over the course of the year and their careers. While the fan in me hopes Murray chooses baseball, I couldn’t blame him for passing, and as much as I love the game, it wouldn’t be my choice either.
Hoop, There It Is
Season Length: 82 games
Average Salary: $6.2 million
Minimum Salary: $580K
I tried not to let personal biases get the best of me here. I’ve played basketball since I was just a wee lad, and it’s been a huge part of my life. A decent player for an average-sized white guy with limited athleticism, I spent many hours in my driveway pretending to hit the game-winning three to win the NBA Finals.
However, despite it being “my” sport, I think it represents the best opportunity for the most quality career for young athletes. First off, rising salary caps and revenue sharing have made the sport a gold mine. About one-fourth of the entire league (127 players) makes more than $10 million a year. Those are the kinds of numbers I can get behind. The max-contract system also allows top stars to haul in astronomical figures for shorter deals, which allows for more paydays. Pair that with the fact that the average salary is easily the highest of the four major sports, and you don’t have to be an All-Star to get the big bucks.
The 82-game season matches the NHL, and basketball teams usually play three or four games a week. Even with the occasional back-to-backs, that’s a fairly manageable playing schedule. Plus, many coaches go to great lengths to limit players’ exposure to injury over the course of a season. Rest days are often given during the grind of the year to ensure players are at their best come playoff time.
The league is also growing locally and globally. Hockey has some international draw, baseball has pockets of popularity, and football has tried expanding overseas, but basketball is truly a global sport, and aging athletes have found success and notoriety heading overseas to play. The marketing opportunities and endorsement deals from not only domestic but also foreign companies offer another steady form of income to the modern player.
Basketball is physical but not barbaric. While few players manage to make it through a season without bumps and bruises, career-ending injuries are rare. Sprained ankles, bone bruises, and the occasional concussions do occur, but the lasting effects are usually minimal.
So that’s it. I’ve decided. I’ll be taking my talents to whichever NBA team is willing to shell out the dough. I may be undersized, slow, asthmatic, and shamefully out of shape, but darn it, I’m scrappy. Watch and learn, Kyler.
(Photo by Roy K. Miller/Icon Sportswire)