News flash: Lacrosse is different from other pro sports. Why? Lots of reasons. It’s the handshakes after every game, not just after a playoff series. It’s the post-game parties, where players hang out with fans. It’s the goalie sitting in the penalty box after a major penalty. But one of the most-often mentioned differences is that lacrosse players aren’t paid nearly as much as NHL, NBA, NFL, or MLB players. One quick example: if longtime Bandit John Tavares had made the current league maximum salary for a franchise player (about $34,000) for each of his 22 seasons, that would come to a little less than $750,000 over his entire career. Since the max salary hasn’t been that high the entire time, and Tavares hasn’t made the maximum every year, his actual career total would be much less. His nephew John Tavares, the captain of the New York Islanders, made $900,000 last year alone. And a number of hockey players make ten times that. Alex Rodriguez makes almost thirty times that.
The salary thing is brought up a lot, as proof that lacrosse players play for the love of the game and not for the money. I’m not going to argue with that statement (at least not right now, though I have before), but there is an important corollary that often goes unnoticed. With all the talk in Toronto this past week about Phil Kessel signing an eight-year $64-million extension with the Maple Leafs, it hit me.
Lacrosse fans don’t care about player’s salaries.
Lacrosse fans compare players like fans of every other sport. This guy has more goals / loose balls / saves than that guy. This guy has more Championships than that guy. This guy gets more playing time than that guy. There are lots of metrics that people use for comparing players, some more useful than others. But salary is never one of them.
When Kessel signed his deal, there were a lot of people talking about whether he was worth it. Who else in the league is making an average of $8 million a year, and how does Kessel compare with them? Did the Leafs overpay? These are questions never asked about lacrosse players. Obviously, it’s because the salaries are so low. But because the salaries are so low, the range of salaries is also low.
The league minimum salary for rookies is a little over $9,000, while the highest-paid player in the league makes less than 4 times that (the aforementioned $34,000). By contrast, the minimum NHL salary in 2013 is $525,000 while the highest-paid player, Shea Weber, makes $14 million, or over 26 times the minimum. Weber could use one year of his salary and cover the entire NLL player payroll several times.
It’s not that salary is never an issue. Just ask the Minnesota Swarm, who traded away Ryan Benesch this past summer and Aaron Wilson and Ryan Cousins a couple of years ago, in deals that very likely reduced their payroll significantly. Were these salary dumps? Maybe, but since we don’t have any details on what players make, we don’t really know. Fans generally know that NLL owners don’t make bucketloads of money from their NLL investment, and so if they have to trim back payroll, that’s just how it is.
The NLL doesn’t generally release salary information, but I’m sure that’s partially because fans aren’t asking for it. It’s interesting to talk about a player’s salary when he makes more in one year than you would in a century. It’s interesting when you figure out that Alex Rodriguez makes $40,000 per at-bat, and that’s if he’s healthy and plays a full season; if he only has 300 at-bats instead of 600, he makes $80,000 per. But if a player makes less than you do, it’s not quite as interesting a conversation. Who’s going to do the math and figure out how much Shawn Evans makes for every minute he’s on the floor? (Answer: No idea, since I don’t know Evans’ salary.) If you hear that one player makes $18,000 while another player who isn’t as good makes $21,000, who’s going to be outraged over the perceived injustice? It’s just not enough of a difference to get anyone angry, except perhaps the player himself.
But of course the player wouldn’t get angry, since he’s playing for the love of the game and not the money. Right?