Why Bryce Harper, Manny Machado are likely to become highest-paid athletes
21st December 2018

As Manny Machado and Bryce Harper offer their wares on baseball’s open market, both are a decent bet to exceed the existing plateau for largest contract among North America’s major sports leagues. 

With multiple teams ultimately expected to bid on the 26-year-old superstars, they should surpass Alex Rodriguez’s $275 million deal signed a decade ago with the New York Yankees, the biggest among free agents. And at least one of them should exceed the overall contract standard currently held by Giancarlo Stanton, the Yankee outfielder who signed a 13-year, $325 million extension as a member of the Miami Marlins in 2014.

Yet even though Major League Baseball does not have a salary cap, unlike its counterparts in the NFL and NBA, its chokehold on salary dominance among the three leagues is wobbling, as revenues boom in the NBA and a relative sense of austerity ripples through baseball.

The state of play could conceivably impact the future of Kyler Murray, who for now is on track to join Bo Jackson as one of just three men to win a Heisman Trophy and play in the major leagues.

In all three leagues, the system has tipped in favor of superstars, perhaps too far. And perhaps not surprisingly, the NFL and MLB are gearing up for potential labor strife when their respective collective bargaining agreements expire in 2020 and 2021.

In baseball, that means taking a hard look at a luxury tax that used to be a barrier in name only, but in recent years has served as a de facto cap even for revenue monsters like the Yankees and Los Angeles Dodgers.

“If it was merely a profit-taking dynamic, I think you’ll see dramatic changes in the (free agent) system, you’ll see dramatic changes in the CBA,” agent Scott Boras said at baseball’s winter meetings, an event largely devoid of action as many teams remain in re-tooling, rather than competitive mode. “We have to get a system that rewards teams for doing things better than most.”

NFL, NBA closing in on bigger numbers

Weep not for baseball: With annual revenues in excess of $11 billion and an average salary of $4.52 million, no one’s going broke. Yet the advantage afforded its players by the sport’s cap-less landscape appears to be narrowing.

The NFL’s CBA stipulates that players receive between 47% and 48.5% of total revenue – which last year was estimated at $14 billion.

In the NBA, players receive 50% of revenues, which in 2017 totaled an estimated $7.4 billion – a staggering 25% year-over-year leap as cash from massive TV deals flows into the coffers.

Minus a salary cap, percentage of revenue in baseball is not a collectively bargained item, though it is a number watched closely by both sides. Data released from MLB earlier this year to The Ringer indicates player revenue share has hovered between 48.5% and 51.2% the past eight seasons, echoing previous analyses.

It’s a significant drop from virtually unchecked salary growth that, according to multiple analyses, peaked in 2003, when players were estimated to receive about 60% of revenues.

In 2002, a work stoppage was narrowly averted when players and owners hammered out a CBA that for the first time included the luxury tax and revenue sharing. That served to cut into player revenue share over the next decade, and it’s largely settled in near the 50-50 mark since.

The upshot in recent years? Virtually no growth in the average salary.

MLB players on opening-day rosters received just a 1% bump in 2018, according to salary data obtained by USA TODAY Sports. Salaries jumped 14% from 2015 to 2016, but just 3% overall since then, even as revenue from massive local and national TV contracts and a one-time $50 million payout per team from MLB Advanced Media kicked in.

A record 130 players earned at least $10 million in 2018, up from 107 in 2016, an indication that the squeeze has come at the end of rosters, where teams are favoring minimum-wage rookies over veterans. As the current off-season unfolds, the MLB Players Association, which questioned teams' lack of spending during the 2017 free agent market, declined to comment for this story.

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