Michele Roberts: NBA superstars are most underpaid professional athletes

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One NBA player – Kobe Bryant – makes at least $25 million. Five Major League Baseball players do.

Nine NBA players make at least $20 million. Twenty-five MLB players do.

Thirty-three NBA players make at least $15 million. Fifty-six MLB players do.

Are NBA stars the most underpaid athletes in professional sports?

National Basketball Players Association executive director Michele Roberts, via The Vertical Podcast with Woj:

As long we understand I’m not negotiating, the answer is yes. And I don’t think that’s even debatable. These guys are enormously undervalued, and I hope that that’s not a secret, because it’s certainly the truth.

Basketball players are the most recognizable athletes, I think, on the planet. I’ve travelled now to a couple of games outside of the country, and I almost wish that people could see how these guys are rock stars – not just here, but they are rock stars all over the world. Now, television helps. But it is just astounding to me how much love and regard people have for them, both because of their athletic prowess, but because, some of our players, because they’re just great men.

And so, someone asked me how much I thought LeBron was worth, and I said he was worth his weight in gold. And then someone pointed out how much gold and said far more than that. And I said, “OK, you’re right. Going to get me fired.”

But, yeah, they are.

Roberts’ opening refers to an apparent pledge between the union and NBA not to negotiate the Collective Bargaining Agreement through the media. I’m more interested in whether she’s right.

NBA stars are extremely recognizable relative to their counterparts in other sports, because they don’t wear helmets or hats. Seeing someone’s face matters a great deal in their marketability. NFL quarterbacks are the only group to regularly overcome that equipment disparity, and their pay reflects it.

But MLB teams play 162 games per season to 82 for NBA teams. That’s nearly twice as many opportunities to sell tickets and merchandise, and that’s why there’s so much money in baseball.

Baseball also benefits from a strong union, which has fought off a salary cap. Perhaps, Roberts will strengthen NBA players’ position, though I’d be completely shocked if the league dropped its salary cap.

However, the NBA salary cap means only so much for stars. The bigger issue is max contracts, of which Roberts has said, “the premise offends me.”

A basketball star is more valuable to his team than a baseball, football or hockey star simply because of the sports’ setups. Being one of 10 players on the court/field – fewer than football (22), baseball (10-13) and hockey (12 minus penalties) – allows for a greater impact. Basketball stars can dominate the ball and guard the opponent’s best player. Baseball players must take turns through the batting order. Football players play just half the time, offense or defense. Hockey is too taxing too allow as much time on the ice for any individual.

But the NBA’s max salary prevents stars from earning their just due, instead funneling money to mid-level veterans. If their were no individual cap on salaries, the distribution of money would look much different (and better reflect true value). Stars would earn more and mid-level veterans less.

So, in many ways, NBA stars are underpaid.

One potential rival: Productive and popular non-quarterbacks in the NFL. Again, helmets limit the marketability of football players, but a few non-quarterbacks have cracked that barrier. Yet, those players don’t even have guaranteed contracts, and they play the most dangerous sport of the four majors – a productive of their weak union.

There’s another flaw in Roberts’ argument, too.

NBA players – including stars – are overpaid because NBA owners so often receive handouts from local governments for stadium costs. If public money weren’t given to multimillion-dollar – sometimes, multibillion-dollar – sports teams, owners would have to trim costs or raise revenue elsewhere to fund stadiums that they profit from. A logical starting point: reducing player salaries.

I’m all for someone earning what the market will bear. But when the pool of money is enhanced by backroom deals with politicians, that’s not the market at work.

Of course, all major professional sports leagues benefit from this redistribution of money from taxpayers to billionaire owners (with few proven benefits to the public). The NBA has done well for itself in this domain, but the league is not alone.

NBA player salaries will rise next season thanks to the new national TV contracts, and that will bring NBA stars closer to their MLB counterparts. But the a higher salary cap without addressing the individual max will still leave NBA stars underpaid relative to other NBA players based on value.

Will the union push to eliminate or raise the individual max? We know where Roberts’ stands.

Will her constituents – more of whom are mid-level veterans than stars – support this push?