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!
And yet that pretty much describes a great many of us, doesn't it? We muddle
along without distinction, frustrated that our lives haven't measured up to our
dreams but ultimately comforted by the extensive company we keep. That same
sort of lumping and leveling off happens in professional sports. Sure, some
pros continue to excel, outdistancing the bulging horde to get the headlines,
the endorsement deals, the SI covers. But that's because they're above
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
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
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.