For many people, sports careers are the stuff of dreams. Countless kids and adults alike aspire to a career as a professional athlete. Though the physical demands of professional athleticism are intense, so too are the rewards, with players in many disciplines averaging extremely high salaries.
Which sports leagues get paid the most? While the term “professional athlete” often evokes ideas of basketball, football, hockey, and soccer players, leading athletes in individual sports such as golf, horse racing, tennis, track and field, gymnastics, and auto racing can also generate large incomes and lucrative endorsement deals.
There are many high-earning careers off the field, court, or rink too.
Depending on your interests and areas of expertise, you might consider a career in sports management, marketing, medicine, broadcasting, and more. Here is a list of some of the best paying jobs in the sports industry.
Professional Basketball Player
Competing as a professional basketball player involves much more than playing in scheduled games. Successful players maintain rigorous exercise and weight training regimens to achieve the top conditioning necessary for competitive performance in fast-paced games.
Players practice regularly with their team and work on individual shooting and ball handling skills on their own. The National Basketball Association (NBA) season includes 82 regular season games as well as several rounds of playoffs for winning teams, so players are subjected to a challenging travel routine in addition to the physical demands of the sport.
According to Basketball Reference, NBA players will earn an average salary of $7,916,644 in 2020-21, making them the highest paid athletes. NBA rosters include fewer players than baseball and football teams, allowing franchises to devote more resources to recruiting players. Players typically sign guaranteed contracts so that even if they become injured or are cut from a team, they still receive their compensation.
Top players in the most prominent international basketball leagues in places like Spain, Greece, Italy, and Russia also earn high salaries exceeding $1 million, though the average player receives much lower compensation.
Professional Baseball Player
Successful Major League Baseball (MLB) players have implemented rigorous off-season training programs to improve strength and flexibility. The MLB season contains 162 games, as well as several rounds of playoffs, so players must cope with a taxing travel schedule. Many experts believe that hitting a baseball is one of the most difficult tasks in sports, requiring players to practice their batting skills to maintain an edge continually.
MLB players averaged an annual salary of $4.4 million in 2020. Backed by a strong union, players are afforded the security of guaranteed contracts and a generous pension program. However, minor league players receive much lower compensation, between $400 and $700 per week, with no guarantee that they will ever make the major league team.
Professional Hockey Player
Pro hockey players must maintain high levels of conditioning to compete in games that are often very physically taxing, even combative. In recent years, off-season condition requirements have increased for players to withstand a grueling 82 game schedule and several rounds of playoffs. Skating, puck handling, and shooting skills are refined in practice drills.
Average salaries for hockey players on NHL teams ranged from $1.54 to $3.32 million, in part due to the relatively small roster size of 23 players and a 50-50 split in revenue between owners and players.
Most pro hockey players in the United States and Canada play for minor league teams. Compensation depends on the league, and ranges from a few hundred dollars a week for rookies in the EHCL to several hundred thousand dollars per year for more experienced players in the AHL.
Professional Football Player
National Football League (NFL) players engage in one of the most physical sports, in which athletes collide at high speed. Strategy in football exceeds most other sports in its complexity. Players must study and master extensive playbooks to prepare for a myriad of potential game situations. Injuries are common, and players spend considerable time in physical therapy and other treatment settings to repair the damage.
Recent attention has centered on traumatic brain injuries, and the NFL has instituted limits on player contact during practice sessions. The average length of a player's career in the NFL is by far the shortest of all major sports, only about 3.3 years.
Although the NFL is America's most popular and lucrative sport, NFL players are compensated at a much lower level than other major sports. Average salaries for NFL players on various teams ranged from $2.05 million to $4.71 million in 2019/20.
Football rosters are much larger than other sports, totaling 53 players, so salary money must be divided among multiple team members. NFL contracts are not necessarily guaranteed beyond the current season, so often teams can cut a player whose skills have diminished without awarding compensation.
Players do typically receive guaranteed signing bonuses, which are non-refundable. Colleges serve as the minor leagues for football, so most of the paid jobs are in the NFL or Canadian Football League.
Sports broadcasters announce live sporting events and provide commentary and analysis of teams and athletes. They prepare for broadcasts by researching and studying the performance of athletes, as well as stories of personal interest.
The emergence of sports television and radio networks like ESPN and Fox Sports has created opportunities for hosts on sports talk shows as well as sports highlights and news broadcasts. Successful hosts develop interesting takes on current sporting trends and personalities and often introduce an element of humor into their broadcasts.
Leading sportscasters earn millions of dollars per year, but the vast majority receive more modest compensation while working in less prominent positions. The Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reports that radio and television announcers earn an average annual salary of $51,630.
Roles and compensation for coaches vary greatly by the level of competition (e.g., high school, college, minor league, professional) and the particular sport. Coaches organize practice sessions to develop or strengthen skills and strategies. They also analyze the strengths and weaknesses of opponents and how they match up with their team and devise game plans to optimize performance.
They motivate players and encourage sportsmanship and academic achievement. Head coaches select, train, and supervise assistant coaches. College coaches travel to recruit high school prospects to improve the talent on their team.
The top 25 college coaches earn millions of dollars per year and often have lucrative endorsement deals on the side. Even the 100th highest paid NCAA coach earns well over $500,000. The highest paid NFL coach earned $12 million in 2020.
Coaches in smaller colleges and high schools earn considerably less. According to the BLS, coaches and scouts earn a median annual salary of $34,840.
Sports Executive/General Manager
General managers and team presidents hire coaches and administrative staff for their organizations. They assess the strengths and weaknesses of their teams, oversee the drafting of players, and orchestrate trades with other teams.
General managers interpret salary caps and other budgetary considerations to optimize talent within constraints. They negotiate contracts with players and agents. Sports executives oversee the development of sponsorship and promotional arrangements.
According to the BLS, sports chief executives and general managers earn average annual salaries of $239,500 and $122,150, respectively.
Professional Soccer Player
Soccer has gained popularity in the United States with the emergence of the MLS. Soccer players must maintain high levels of aerobic conditioning to cope with the constant motion and fast pace of their sport. Regular practice is required to maintain and upgrade ball handling and passing skills and to execute game plans.
Average salaries for MLS players on various teams ranged from $290,000 to $758,000 in 2019, still a far cry from the average salary for players in European leagues like England's Premier League where players commonly earned more than $2 million per year.There is also a huge differential between what professional male and female soccer players earn in the U.S., with the women trailing the men by a significant amount.
Sports doctors specialize in the diagnosis and treatment of athletes. They may work directly for a team or maintain an individual or group practice that treats local athletes. Sports physicians prescribe and interpret tests to determine the nature and extent of injuries. They design rehabilitation programs to expedite the recovery of athletes from injury.
Sports physicians provide advice and training to coaches and athletes about medical implications for exercise and nutritional practices. Team physicians attend games and assess athletes to determine if it is advisable for them to continue competing with head and other injuries.
Sports physicians earn an average annual salary of $237,521, according to Salary.com.
Umpires and referees must study the rules of their sports and apply them instantly to game situations. Officials in basketball and hockey must maintain excellent physical fitness to run or skate up and down the court or rink.
Professional umpires and referees constantly travel during the season, moving from one city to another to cover games. Concentration, excellent vision, quick reactions, and sound judgment are vital to success. Emotional control to remain calm despite criticism from players, coaches, and fans are essential.
Major League Baseball umpires’ salaries range from $150,000 to $450,000 a year. NFL referees receive salaries of about $200,000.
Most referees and umpires work in lower-level leagues or on the college circuit where compensation is much lower, an average of $56,900, according to the BLS.
Sports marketers promote teams, leagues, players, stadiums, media outlets, and other products and services related to sports. They analyze markets and develop strategies to expand attendance, endorsements, consumer sales, readership, and viewership. Sports marketers negotiate agreements to set prices and terms for products, services, endorsements, and advertisements. They compose profiles and content for social and traditional media to spotlight players, teams, and other sports-related entities.
Marketing professionals within spectator sports earn between $54,880 and $123,950 based on their job title and duties, according to the BLS.
Sports agents represent the interests of athletes, coaches, managers, and other talent in the sports industry. They analyze data and statistics to prepare presentations about the value added by players to their teams.
Agents negotiate contracts and propose contract language. Sports agents advise clients about opportunities for endorsements and ways to enhance or repair their public image. They pitch the services of their clients to prospective employers. Many sports agents help clients to manage their finances.
Agents earn an average annual salary of $95,260, according to the BLS.