Who Makes More Money: NBA or NFL?
It is more than 20 years since Tom Cruise hollered the immortal line: “Show me the money!”
Cruise played sports agent Jerry Maguire in the film of the same name in 1996. In the two decades since, sportsmen in the USA have certainly been shown the money, in ever more dizzying quantities.
But who earns more, footballers or basketball stars? And how much money do their leagues, the NFL and NBA, make?
Most intriguingly of all, which will be the bigger of the two sports in future?
Nothing But Net When It Comes To Higher Earning Players
Matt Ryan, of Atlanta Falcons, is the top earner in the NFL after signing a $150million five-year deal in 2018.
But latest figures show there are no fewer than 14 players in the NBA who are paid more than his annual salary of $30m.
This represents a major shift from five years ago, when only Kobe Bryant earned more than his footballing counterparts.
The major catalyst for this change was the NBA’s £24billion TV deal with ESPN and TNT that started in 2016.
Both sports operate a salary cap – $177.2m for each NFL franchise in 2018 against $101.9m for an NBA team. But don’t forget there are 53 players on an NFL side’s roster, while only 15 men get into an NBA squad.
So the average wage for a basketball player is, at $6.8m, twice as high as that of a footballer’s $3.3m.
It’s worth noting, too, that 24 NBA teams exceeded the cap in 2017 thanks to exceptions built into the collective bargaining agreement.
There are other reasons why, individually, NBA stars earn much more than footballers. For one thing, the player pool is much smaller; people of different sizes can make it to the top in football, whereas there’s a pretty distinctive body type that tends to shine in basketball.
In addition, the players’ union reckons the average NBA career is, at 4.8 years, 50% longer than that of an NFL player’s 3.2 years.
Football Franchises Are Richer Than Basketball Teams – For Now
NFL teams make more money, and are valued more highly, than their NBA equivalents. But the figures don’t quite tell the full story of the way the sporting landscape of the USA is changing.
The average value of an NFL franchise is £2.5bn, which is 52% higher than the worth of a typical NBA team. That difference, however, has been more than halved in the last five years.
Every team in the NBA is now worth at least $1bn, with New York Knicks the most valuable brand at an estimated $4bn.
Annual revenue for NFL teams is still higher. The most recent figures show that NFL teams earned $14bn, compared to £8bn for the NBA.
However, while that NFL figure represented a rise of 7% on the previous year, the NBA’s revenue at the same time went up 25%. The NBA, to put it simply, is growing three times faster.
Shrewd investors will tell you that trend will continue because basketball has far greater potential to grow overseas than football does.
Overseas revenue is climbing at nearly 20% a year, driven by huge international broadcast deals.
Interest is enormous in China, where about 300 million people play basketball and the NBA has 144 million social media followers.
Basketball is also the second-fastest-growing sport in India. Put the populations of India and China together and you have 36% of the people in the world. More than 30% of the NBA league pass subscriptions are in Asia.
As Sal Galatioto, president of a leading sports finance and advisory firm, put it: “The NBA is extremely well positioned for international growth. The product is excellent, and interest in basketball around the world continues to flourish.”
For a neat summary of the comparisons between the two leagues’ finances, check out this video:
Could Basketball Become America’s Game?
Ever since football overtook baseball in popularity in the 1970s, it has been America’s No.1 favorite sport.
Some 37% of Americans still rate it as their favorite, with only 11% saying basketball and 9% baseball.
But there is no denying the steady onward march of the NBA. Look again at the figures for revenues, where basketball’s went up 25% compared to football’s 7%.
If those trends were replicated in the coming years, by 2029 football’s revenue will be at $28bn and basketball’s a stunning $68bn.
It’s hard to imagine such a complete turnaround being reflected in American sports fans’ preferences.
Football will always have the Super Bowl, which alone generates £500m in revenue. And TV figures for regular season games show almost twice as many tune in for football as basketball.
But the NBA has charismatic megastars like LeBron James, Steph Curry and James Harden. While football’s main men – Tom Brady, Cam Newton and JJ Watt – are a little older and a little more low-key.
Football has also taken a hit, literally, from growing concerns about the number of concussions suffered by players. Some more traditional fans also walked away because of the “take a knee” controversy.
It’s probably more likely that basketball will overtake football as a global sport than on home soil. Those figures for Asian engagement are impressive.
You have to bear in mind too that it’s easier to have a game of basketball with a couple of buddies in a street in Mumbai, Melbourne or Miami than it is a game of football.
However, it’s hard to see the NBA ever surpassing the NFL as the favorite sport from coast to coast in the USA.
Nevertheless, given its steady expansion at home it would be unwise to rule out completely the idea that basketball could be No.1 in 10 years’ time.