It’s no secret that player contracts in today’s world of sports are an enormous point of contention for both athletes and fans alike.
It almost seems as if no major sport can get it right: the NFL doesn’t guarantee contracts and pays rookies way too much, the NBA has overzealous owners that give max contracts to anything-but-max players, and the MLB has no salary cap creating huge discrepancies in the spending power of teams based on the size of their market and corresponding revenue.
We’ve heard it all a million times over.
From a fan’s perspective it’s beyond frustrating. It seems as if everyday a new story comes out about a player holding out for more money because he’s outplayed his current contract (yes, I’m talking to you Darrelle Revis, Chris Johnson), or a team hamstrung because a player was awarded an undeserving contract (you heard me Albert Haynseworth, Sam Bradford, Joe Johnson, Rudy Gay, Amir Johnson, Darko Milicic, etc…), or the impending lockouts looming over both the NFL and NBA following this upcoming season.
When we just want our favorite players to shut it and happily play a game for a living—for a more than generous price—somehow the bottom line always seems to get in the way.
Of course for the players and owners all these issues have due cause. Players know their careers are relatively short and want to cash in while they can. They know that in the world of sports nothing is guaranteed.
One bad twist, turn, or break can end a career. Every professional athlete recognizes that the window of opportunity is small and worth fighting for.
The owners on the other hand have to consider what is in the best interest of the franchise. All it takes is a couple of bad contracts to cripple a team for years. Thus being cautious and constantly considering the countless tales of failed contracts and unfulfilled expectations leaves most owners hesitant to dish out the big dollars. And even if they do happen to, the risk hardly ever matches the reward.
Both sides' arguments, to some degree, are understandable. With neither party clearly at fault, it’s easy to blame the system that creates this incessant tug-of-war. The contracts themselves, which are awarded based on “expected” performance, will never get it right.
There are too many variables involved to successfully predict how an athlete will perform years down the road. And that can be said for an athlete in the same location under the same system. Those same variables multiply when changes in scenery, expectations, and coaches come into the fold, as is usually the case in free agency.
But what if there were some sort of evaluation system that could reward players for their performance by weighing statistics, the team’s dependency on the player, and even coach’s evaluations following the season.
Such a system would use contracts as a set of guidelines, not obligations. At the end of the day the player would literally earn every dollar that came his way, and the owners would have a clear receipt for what they paid for.
For example, say John Smith is an NFL wide receiver who catches 50 balls, for 900 yards, and seven touchdowns in one season. He may not be the No. 1 wide receiver on his respective team, but he is a crucial third-down contributor, plays almost every snap on offense, and is a class-act in the locker room and as hard a worker as they come.
Smith signed a contract last year that would pay him $850,000 for his performance—well below the market value for a consistent offensive contributor.
Well, using a formula that weighs all these variables, including not only his catches and receiving yards, but the number of drops he had, the number of third down conversions he completed, the playing time he received, the big time special teams plays he made, etc. one can quantitatively rank John Smith’s performance in comparison with other receivers and pay him according to a fair market value based on historical precedent for his position.
If he is on the cusp of earning a certain amount, that’s when a coach’s evaluation might come in to play to either help or hurt his case.
Of course there are some logistical issues that must be addressed.
While initially such a system may eliminate the need for player contracts whatsoever, this may not have to be the case. Say John Smith signed a three-year contract that would have paid him $850,000 the first year, $2.1 million the second year, and $4.2 million the third year.
After evaluating his first season, the league ranks Smith amongst the top-tier second string wide receivers of which the market value is about $4 million. Had Smith been in the third year of his contract, the value of his pre-arranged base salary may have been close enough to market value that no action would be necessary.
Thus the contract can be used as a set of parameters; if within a certain range the contract is abided by, then outside that range either compensation or a pay cut is arranged.
Without a doubt this creates a very interesting dynamic when it comes to free agency. Suddenly, it’s not about which team offers the most money but rather where the player actually wants to play.
Any team can offer any amount, but at the end of the day the player’s performance will dictate how much he earns.
And if a hard salary cap were used with this system it would prevent popular teams from stockpiling on talent with no financial repercussions.
In such a scenario, a team must manage and predict how players will perform and how their end of the year salary will fit under a hard salary cap. If a team is overzealous and decides to sign numerous top-flight players that end up performing very highly, the team may exceed the salary cap and would thus be forced to pay a heavy fine, or maybe even lose draft picks.
This would prevent certain popular large market teams from potentially risking the future of their franchise, or financial flexibility, for the sake of a one-year "super team" experiment.
Also the prospect of “super teams” forming could be avoided by the simple fact that players still want to get paid just as much as they want to win.
If a player’s performance dips because of the talent he happens to be playing with, it directly hurts his pocketbook. Thus, inadvertently such a system would still promote parity by allowing small market, less popular teams to showcase the few stars that they may attract, allowing those players to thrive (and thus get paid) in a way that may not be possible in another location.
Of course every method has its pros and cons and such a player-evaluation system would be no different.
For starters, to fairly quantify the performance of players is easier said than done, and more often than not very tedious. It wouldn’t be fair to just pay players based on standard positional statistics because some player’s greatest contributions aren’t always easily quantifiable.
Which is why if such a system were to become a reality the metrics chosen for such an evaluation would have to be very carefully selected to accurately reward those who contribute, in any number of ways, to their respective teams.
In an NBA scenario, shooting efficiency would have to be just as important as points-per-game. The goal must be to reward players who contribute the most to their teams, not just those who put up the most popular stats.
That’s not to say that a 10 PPG, 50% from the floor player will be paid as handsomely as a 30 ppg, 42% from the floor superstar. But if that 10 PPG player also doesn’t turn the ball over, rebounds well for his position, plays big minutes, and shoots high percentages in the fourth quarter (think of a James Posey-type from the 2008 Celtics) the gap won’t be as large as the points-per-game discrepancy might suggest.
A bonus for a player’s role as a veteran role model might also be something to consider and could be managed through some form of a coach’s evaluation.
Taking the time to decide on what variable should count the most for each position, and then subsequently applying them to every player, every season would no doubt be time consuming.
But when one thinks about just how much time goes into contract negotiations, hold-outs, and other financial discrepancies isn’t an inordinate amount of time already wasted when it comes to paying players?
We should at least get it right.
The other issue is deciding what exactly is “fair market value.”
A couple years ago $30 million in guarantees for a top rookie quarterback was astronomical. Well, just a couple days ago Sam Bradford pulled in more than $50 million guaranteed.
This could be a serious issue of contention. But ultimately an agreement would have to be made between the leagues and the player unions on every position based on historically fair contracts.
Peyton Manning has earned every dollar of his monster contract as the top flight Hall of Fame-caliber quarterback. Larry Fitzgerald is performing up to his No. 1 receiver contract. And Patrick Willis is keeping up his end of the bargain as a top-level middle linebacker.
Players like these are benchmarks for their positions. Not only in terms of ideal performance and ability, but in terms of how the best should be paid.
The same prime examples can be found for not only every positional player, but every slot on the depth chart in any sport.
Using history as a guide, the precedent of fair contracts for deserving players can act as a framework for this system, regardless of where they stand on the roster. All that’s left is to fill in the blanks by ranking the players that may not fall in line with past examples, but rather fall somewhere in between.
When everything is considered the positives that can come from this player evaluation system simply outweigh the negatives and the potential hurdles.
Such a system would motivate players not simply to play for stats, but to play well and efficiently. And above everything, at the very least there would be a level of fairness when it came to the financial side of sports.
No more projections, no more albatross contracts, and no more hold-outs—players would get exactly what they deserved.
From a fan's perspective, the prospect of such a system almost seems too good to be true, and maybe it is.
Maybe the owners and players like being able to trick their counterparts into earning more and giving less than they are worth.
After all, as a player today all it takes is a couple of good seasons to earn a pay day that might last you a life time. And for the owners, it’s easy to cash in on mediocrity and get by riding on the coat tails of basement-bargain athletes.
Who knows, maybe Pandora’s box has already been opened and there is no way to stifle the greed that is ingrained in today’s modern world of sports.
That could be the case, but there’s no reason why we should accept this to be fact and not act on, or at the very least contemplate, an alternative.