Everyone knows that amateur athletes play strictly for the love of the game, while the professionals are corrupted by the dastardly influence of money, right? Well, that notion may be partially correct. While the players who comprise the last-place teams in all four major sports each make an excellent living, those players' counterparts get rewarded for winning. The longer they continue to win, the greater the rewards. (For more, read How to invest in sports teams and groups.)
The National Football League's single-elimination tournament is the most dramatic playoff system in any of the four major sports: win and you advance, lose and you go home and nurse your injuries, with no second chances if you have a bad game. While pride and glory will motivate any NFL player, there's also the matter of finances. Every playoff game means a personal income bump, plus the chance to earn more in the subsequent round.
According to Comcast Sportsnet Baltimore, when a player suits up for a game on the NFL's wild card weekend in 2012, he guarantees himself between $19,000 to $21,000. Advance to the following weekend's games, and he'll receive another $22,000. During the conference finals player bonuses increases to $38,000 per player.
Finally, the Super Bowl champions take home $83,000 per capita while the losers will each receive $42,000. It might not be a winner-take-all scenario, but it's winner-take-two-thirds. Considering that the average NFL player pockets $1.9 million a year for a 16-game season, post-season incentives are actually something of a pay cut. Of course, playoff participants do receive more than the $0 they'd have collected had they never made the playoffs at all. (For related reading, see How much are NFL teams really worth?)
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Major League Baseball still has the most exclusive playoff format of the four majors. Only eight of 30 teams advance to the post-season. Unlike the NFL, MLB doesn't pay each player a fixed amount. Rather, teams collect bonuses contingent on gate receipts, receiving 60 percent of the handle.
In a stunning display of foresight, the commissioner's office counts only the receipts from the first four games of each best-of-seven series (and the first three games of the best-of-five Division Series.) The rationale is that under such a scheme, teams would have no incentive to artificially stretch a playoff series out.
Still, it's hard to imagine that a team would prefer risking losing a series that goes the distance to sweeping an opponent. Then again, this is the sport whose championship once played host to the most infamous gambling scandal of all-time.
The world champions receive 35 percent of gate receipts, the World Series runners-up get 24 percent, the championship series losers split 25 percent and the division series losers receive 3 percent per team. Even the second-place teams who don't qualify for the playoffs each receive 1 percent, for some reason. On a per capita basis, that means that each St. Louis Cardinal received $323,169.98 for his trouble this past fall. Not bad for seven games' work, and on a prorated basis it's more than the average MLB salary.
Each Cardinal's share was also $71,654.22 more than each Texas Ranger received for losing the World Series. Now you have an idea of what financial incentive the teams had in Game 7, and how much Allen Craig's go-ahead home run in the third inning of that game meant.
However, the biggest individual winner of the 2011 baseball postseason wasn't Craig, nor was it World Series (and League Championship Series) Most Valuable Player David Freese. Instead that honor goes to 42-year-old Arthur Rhodes, who pitched a grand total of one postseason inning. The Rangers had released Rhodes during the summer, and the Cardinals signed him three days later. Regardless of which team won the World Series, Rhodes was guaranteed a winner's share and a loser's share. (For more on MLB, check out Baseball books: The Major League's financial secrets.)
Where amazing paychecks happen
The National Basketball Association handles playoff bonuses differently than the other sports do. The NBA pays bonuses to teams, rather than players, meaning that it's up to each team to decide which player receives how much. Because when a team has enough internal harmony to unite and vanquish its opponents, nothing keeps that team in tune quite like the potential for envy.
The teams don't publicly disclose who gets what, with good reason. Brian Cardinal's contribution to the Dallas Mavericks' recent championship run was less substantial than Dirk Nowitzki's, but fortunately it's someone else's job to determine the appropriate proportions. The NBA earmarks $12 million for its playoff pool each year in 2011, distributed among the qualifying teams as follows:
- Position: Champion — Team bonus: $2,125,137
- Finals runner-up — $1,408,168
- Conference finals losers — $352,137
- Conference semifinals losers — $213,095
- First-round losers — $179,092
- Best regular season record — $346,105
- Best regular season record in conference — $302,841
- Second-best regular season record in conference — $243,411
- Third-best regular season record — $181,706
- Fourth-best regular season record — $142,800
- Fifth-best regular season record — $118,990
- Sixth-best regular season record — $81,157
For the accomplishment of barely avoiding the draft lottery, the sixth-place teams in each conference take home an average of $6,763 per person. (For more, check out NBA Finals: By the numbers.)
History will be made
Finally, there's the sport with the longest and most involved playoff format of the four. On any random date on the calendar, it seems that the National Hockey League playoffs are either in progress or about to be.
The NHL's distribution of largesse is similar to the other sports, if reflective of hockey's reduced revenues relative to the other sports. Here's what each player receives, per person in 2009:
- Champion — $75,000
- Finals runner-up — $45,000
- Conference finals losers — $25,000
- Conference semifinals losers — $10,000
- First-round losers — $5,000
- Best regular season record — $10,000
Unlike the NBA, the NHL doesn't give out participation citations for teams that manage to avoid finishing in the bottom nine in the conference.
The bottom line
Champagne showers, trips to Disney World and visits to the White House might be nice, but never forget what motivates pro athletes the most. After all, they're professionals. (For more on pro sports, read Which pro athletes work the hardest?)
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