Basketball players make the most money—unless you’re Lionel Messi or play cricket

It pays to play.
It pays to play.
Image: AP Photo/Ben Margot
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A new report has calculated the annual wages of the world’s major professional sports teams—and basketball dominates.

Six of the top 10 highest-paid teams in the world—as measured by their average individual salary—are from the NBA, according to the latest annual report by Sporting Intelligence, a consultancy of researchers, academics, and sports professionals. The NBA teams are led by Oklahoma City Thunder, which was number one overall in the 2017 report, followed by the current NBA champions, the Golden State Warriors. Along with the Wizards in the US capital, those three become the first American teams—from any sport—where the average basic pay is more than $10 million per player per year. That does not include bonuses nor expensive gaudy rings.

While basketball salaries are generally the highest in terms of a single sport in the top 10, an NBA team doesn’t actually have the most expensive payroll in the world this year. That dubious honor falls to the world’s favorite sport, soccer, and the Spanish royalty that sits atop.

Barcelona has the most expensive collection of players in the world, with the average player getting paid almost $14 million a year. And their rivals in El Clasico, Real Madrid, are second.

Barcelona’s average wages are up about a third from last year and that is mostly down to awarding Lionel Messi the most lucrative contract in the club’s history. Sporting Intelligence puts Messi’s basic pay alone at more than $60 million a year. His old rival, Cristiano Ronaldo, was also mainly responsible for moving Juventus from 32nd last year to ninth with his surprise move to Italy.

Of the top 20 teams in this year’s list, 12 are from the NBA and eight from European soccer. While basketball players make the most money collectively and some soccer players make huge amounts individually, neither athlete actually makes the most money per game. For that, you have to turn to elite cricket.

The Indian Premier League, only 10 years old, is already one of the most lucrative and best-attended sports leagues in the world. The IPL only plays for seven weeks. When those contracts are extrapolated for a whole year, IPL players earn $361,350 for each of the 14 games of the regular season, according to Sporting Intelligence (p.45). That is much more than the $182,047 per the 16 games in the NFL or $103,558 per each of the 38 games of the English Premier League soccer season, the IPL’s closest rivals.