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Is there a crueler
modifier in our striving, supersizing, self-actualizing world than average? Who
wants to be middle-of-the pack, ordinary, the norm? Who wants to rub shoulders
with the masses, huddled under the hump of the bell curve? Average!
For once, though, let's ignore the superstars. For once let's home in on that bulging horde, the players who form the baseline for superstars to exceed. It should be easy to identify these Average Joes and Janes, sports being a bastion of statistical analysis, but numbers can be a desert of shifting sands. Is a .250 hitter average? That's probably par for a shortstop but subpar for a rightfielder. No, the best way to determine an average athlete is to use the primary criterion of every-day life: money. We said this was cruel.
But not too cruel. Thanks to a few decades of skyrocketing salaries (see charts), athletes enjoy financial rewards that take the sting out of normalcy. When a run-of-the-mill NBA player cries himself to sleep--they're calling me average!--it is probably on an oversized pillowcase with a really high thread count. He makes $5 million a year. By season's end the mean salary in major league baseball will be near $3 million. The NFL uses so many replaceable parts that the average player earns (with bonuses and incentives) just under $2 million for each of the three to four years he's in the league. Hockey players have it a bit worse: The average salary in the NHL last season was approximately $1.5 million.
Other pros are not nearly as well compensated. Take men's golfers and tennis players who have spent most of their careers maneuvering (in a feast-or-famine way) amid the top 100 or 150 in their respective sports. The No. 50 player on the ATP money list has to make do with less than half a million bucks, while the 75th-highest-paid PGA Tour member earns about twice that. You can tell them by their lunch pails.
The varying popularity of these sports--to say nothing of the differences in TV money and the emergence of stars whose drawing power lifts everyone else--accounts for the varying standards of average, at least earningswise. But within each subset there are constants. The average players, no matter what their sport, worry about how close they are to unemployment. And while they may have learned long ago that they're not going to be Kobe, Tiger or Peyton or Michelle, accepting that is not much fun all the same.
What they realize, too, is how much of a job these supposedly high-profile activities can become. Just like yours! In women's golf, where the average annual income hovers in the low six figures before expenses, it can be a grind-it-out, minimum-wage existence. As golfer Tina Barrett says, "It's a hard way to make an easy living."
for golfers and tennis players, individual contractors basically, life can be scary. Barrett, who ranked 48th on the LPGA money list last year with $253,484, won a tournament as a rookie in 1989 (prize: $22,500!), giving her a five-year exemption on the tour. Without that bit of breathing room, she might not have $3 million in career earnings--or really any career at all. She probably wouldn't have survived until 1999, when she won a career-high $410,973 and began to carve out a place in the LPGA's middle class. (Now, she admits, her guiltiest pleasure is "not looking at the price tag on things.")
Men's golf might be better-paying, but even there the glamorous aspects sometimes take a backseat to working-class considerations. When a friend saw Dudley Hart at a Marriott in Dallas during a tournament, he asked why the golfer wasn't staying at the Four Seasons with many of his fellow pros. "Five hundred dollars a night there, one hundred dollars a night here," Hart answered. "No problem for me deciding where to stay."
Hart has made more than $1 million in five of his 15 full seasons on the Tour, and while he has stayed under the radar, winning just twice, he's been consistent enough (48 top 10 finishes) to rake in nearly $10 million. Injuries have made for a couple of lean seasons, but he's mindful of the bonanza that today's PGA has become.
"You used to have to finish in the top 15 in a given week to make a five-figure check," says Hart. "Now, make the cut, and you make 10 grand." Hart doesn't credit inflation so much as he credits Tiger Woods. "When you got into the sport, you didn't expect to make all that much money," he says. "Then all of a sudden Tiger happens and purses went through the roof." In 1993 Hart cashed a $52,800 check for finishing in a tie for third at Tucson; this year he made $198,000 for coming in sixth at the Honda Classic. Yeah, for a sixth-place PGA finish, that's about average.