On Oct. 6, 1993, Michael Jordan sent shock waves through the sports world by announcing his retirement from the Chicago Bulls and the NBA. After pulling off the league's first three-peat since the 1960s, and stricken by grief in the wake of his father's murder, Jordan decided to try his hand at baseball.
While Jordan left the game that made him a worldwide icon, his sojourn with the Birmingham Barons didn't cost him a penny. According to Roland Lazenby, the author of Michael Jordan: The Life, the Bulls paid him his $4 million salary during the 1993-94 season. The following year, Jordan drew $3.85 million, despite returning in mid-March.
Compared to what NBA players make today, that salary, once one of the highest in the league, would hardly befit a superstar of Jordan's stature. According to Basketball-Reference.com, the average salary for the upcoming 2015-16 season will be north of $4.3 million.
That number is set to skyrocket in the years to come. Besides its expanding revenue from gate receipts and merchandise sales, the NBA is anticipating a deluge of dollars from its new nine-year, $24 billion national TV contract with Disney and Turner (Bleacher Report's parent company). As reported by Jeff Zillgitt of USA Today, the money will begin to flow into the league's coffers in time for the 2016-17 campaign, with an expected spike in the salary cap to around $90 million, followed by another into the $108 million range in 2017-18.
Those numbers are all far cries from what they were when Jordan first arrived in the fledgling NBA. When he turned pro in 1984, the Association touted a salary cap of just $3.6 million. League-wide revenues totaled $165 million, with an average player salary of $290,000.
At 52, Jordan is well past the point of attempting another comeback. But with the money players of all shapes, sizes, skill sets and star powers are pulling in these days, the G.O.A.T. might not mind being reincarnated as a rookie right about now, with a decade and a half of top-flight NBA earnings ahead of him.
To be sure, Jordan wasn't crying poor when he called it quits for good in 2003. All told, he took home nearly $94 million in on-court earnings, per Spotrac.
But compared to the kind of cash that's being thrown around the league these days, Jordan's all-time take looks like chump change. This summer alone, six players (Anthony Davis, Damian Lillard, Kawhi Leonard, Kevin Love, Marc Gasol and Jimmy Butler) signed new deals that will pay them more over a five-year span than Jordan earned in 16 years. Those ranks should only swell in the years to come, as the cap rises above the tide of new national television money and players (and team owners) line their pockets with it.
How much money, then, could Jordan have earned if he were just debuting in the NBA today, more than three decades after his actual rookie season?
In short, a ton of it. Maybe even enough to fill the Chicago-area estate that His Airness has been trying to get off his hands for years now.
For starters, Jordan's first contract today, as the No. 3 pick in the draft, would've far outpaced the one he signed with the Chicago Bulls some 31 years ago. Jahlil Okafor, the Philadelphia 76ers' pick at No. 3 in this year's draft, will earn nearly $4.6 million in Year 1. That's almost as much as Jordan collected over the five years of his rookie deal.
Were Jordan to arrive today as the instant All-Star he was in the mid-1980s, he wouldn't likely have any trouble convincing his team to pick up the third- and fourth-year options that are part and parcel of contracts for first-round picks these days. Prior to his second contract, Future Jordan would already have taken home about $20.68 million, or about $800,000 less than Actual Jordan was paid through his first decade in the NBA.
As has long been the case in the business of basketball, it's not the first contract that truly sets up a player for life, but rather the ones that follow.
The same would certainly be true for Future Jordan. He would be eligible for a rookie-scale extension in 2018—and not just any extension, either. He'd be in line to be his team's "Designated Player," assuming Future Jordan were to rack up two All-NBA nods and be voted twice into the All-Star Game as a starter through three seasons like Actual Jordan was.
That would allow Jordan's team to pay him 30 percent of the salary cap in Year 1 of the deal, with 7.5 percent annual raises thereafter.
Anthony Davis signed just such an extension with the New Orleans Pelicans in July. His deal—five years, $145 million—stands as the richest in NBA history...for now.
The Brow figures to lose his claim to that throne as soon as Kevin Durant and LeBron James ink their next long-term contracts. Davis' deal is based on the $70 million salary cap set for 2015-16. Come next July, Durant, James and their representatives will be tabulating their takes based on a cap that could hit (if not exceed) $90 million for 2016-17.
Future Jordan would be looking at a baseline above that. He and his agent would likely negotiate an extension in the summer of 2018, when the cap is projected to settle in around $100 million. As a result, Jordan would be in line to earn $30 million in the first year of a five-year deal worth a whopping $174.25 million.
Under these projections, Future Jordan will have earned more in his first seven years in the NBA than Actual Jordan did by the time he retired for good.
Keep in mind that the parameters of this hypothetical deal could change considerably in the years to come. The league and the players union can both opt out of the current collective bargaining agreement in 2017, before Future Jordan can plan for his first eye-popping payday. At this point, there's no telling how talks between commissioner Adam Silver and Michele Roberts, the executive director of the NBPA, might impact max contracts, including those for young stars coming off their rookie deals.
Assuming the status quo, though, Jordan would still be on pace to pillage his team's coffers in 2024, when he'd be due for unrestricted free agency. According to the current CBA, his maximum salary in Year 1 of that deal would be worth either 30 percent of the cap or 105 percent of his take in 2023-24, whichever is greater.
Barring another expansion of the salary cap north of $120 million or so, Jordan would start out with the latter, which amounts to a shade over $42 million. Extend that out for five years with 7.5 percent raises, and Jordan's got himself another $244.34 million in his vault.
In keeping with Actual Jordan's timeline, Future Jordan would only have two years left in the NBA once his first free-agent contract comes due. If not for Actual Jordan's three-year hiatus between the end of his time with the Bulls and his two-year stint with the Washington Wizards, Future Jordan could've nailed down another five-year pact.
How much that final deal could be worth is nigh on impossible to predict. The NBA's upcoming nine-year, $24 billion national TV pact with Disney and Turner (Bleacher Report's parent company) is set to expire after the 2024-25 season. By that time, Future Jordan will be just one year removed from unrestricted free agency, with four more years left on his deal.
There's no telling how much the league's media rights will be worth a decade from now. Maybe the value of live sports programming will continue to grow exponentially. Maybe that bubble will burst.
Based on the current climate, Future Jordan could still end his on-court career with a bang in his pocket book. With 14 years of experience under his belt, he'd be entitled to either 35 percent of the cap or 105 percent of the previous year's salary at the outset of his final pact.
Come 2029, it's entirely possible that the NBA's salary cap will land somewhere between $150 million and $200 million per team. For now, though, let's assume that 105 percent of Jordan's hypothetical 2028-29 earnings (just under $56.2 million) is more than 35 percent of whatever that year's cap is.
In this case, Future Jordan can anticipate taking in almost $59 million in basketball income alone in 2029-30.
The cost of his swan song would depend on with whom he signs his final contract. If Future Jordan were to spend his entire career with the same squad, he'd once again be in line for a 7.5 percent raise. But if he suits up in different colors, as Actual Jordan did when he came out of retirement a second time in D.C., his raise would be knocked down to 4.5 percent.
In the spirit of following Actual Jordan's exploits to some degree, Future Jordan would be looking at riding off into the sunset on a salary of more than $61.6 million.
Add it all up, and Jordan would be looking at career earnings of nearly $560 million, well beyond what Kevin Garnett and Kobe Bryant—the two highest earners in NBA history so far—have accumulated to date.
And that's before factoring in how much more MJ might've made from endorsements today. According to ESPN's Darren Rovell, Jordan's first deal with Nike paid him about $7 million over five years—an unheard-of sum at the time.
That's a pittance compared to the more than $90 million over seven years that the Swoosh paid LeBron James straight out of high school. As with Jordan, Nike paid a premium to pry James away from Adidas. Last year, Adidas inked Andrew Wiggins, the No. 1 pick in the 2014 NBA draft, to a deal that, per Pro Basketball Talk's Kurt Helin, will pay him $10-12 million total over five years.
Future Jordan could've looked forward to an even gaudier shoe payday later on, as most of the game's greatest players do.
Last year, Nike kept Kevin Durant on its roster with a 10-year pact that could net him upwards of $300 million before it expires. This summer, James Harden left Nike for a $200 million deal with Adidas, and Stephen Curry extended his deal with Under Armour through 2024, though exact dollar figures haven't yet been leaked.
Had Jordan played today, he probably could've commanded a contract similar to Harden's and Durant's, in terms of sheer dollars, once his initial five-year deal came due. By that point in his career, MJ was already a five-time All-Star, with honors as Rookie of the Year, Defensive Player of the Year, All-Star MVP and regular-season MVP on his resume.
Throw in the rest of his endorsements—from McDonald's and Gatorade to Hanes and Upper Deck—and Future Jordan's total annual income might eventually approach what Actual Jordan makes today. According to Forbes' Kurt Badenhausen, Jordan took in $100 million in 2014. A sizable share of that came from Nike's Jordan Brand, which Forbes aptly described as a "financial juggernaut":
Jordan U.S. shoe sales rose 17% last year to $2.6 billion, according to data compiled by SportScanInfo. Jordan has eight times the sales of the signature shoes for the top active NBA star, LeBron James. Jordan apparel and the international business add more than $1 billion as well. The Jordan Brand commanded 58% market share of the $4.2 billion U.S. basketball shoe market last year, up from 54% in 2013.
Better yet, Jordan didn't have to subject himself to the rigors of NBA life—the injuries, the routine aches and pains, the taxing travel, the cold tubs (oh, the cold tubs)—to make that sort of scratch.
This year has already been more eventful for His Airness. In 2015, Jordan became the first athlete to join the Three Comma Club, per Forbes' estimates.
Contrary to what Mars Blackmon would say, it wasn't the shoes that did the trick. Rather, it was Jordan's ownership of the Charlotte Hornets, whose valuation soared after Steve Ballmer bought the Los Angeles Clippers for $2 billion, that put the Jumpman over the hump.
Still, $560 million is a ton of money for 16 years of basketball. Even that might turn out to be a conservative estimate, especially when factoring in the enhanced value of today's endorsement contracts and the potential changes coming to the NBA's business model in the years to come.
The players could win some concessions (i.e. a bigger share of the NBA's basketball-related income, an end to caps on max salaries) from the owners in the next round of collective bargaining. Both parties could see another deluge of dollars thereafter, as new local TV deals come into play and the upcoming national TV contract expires.
Either one of those developments would put more money in the pockets of the next Jordan, wherever he may be and whenever it is that he sets foot in the NBA.
Josh Martin covers the NBA for Bleacher Report. Follow him on Twitter.