Is there a cruelermodifier in our striving, supersizing, self-actualizing world than average? Whowants to be middle-of-the pack, ordinary, the norm? Who wants to rub shoulderswith 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 muddlealong without distinction, frustrated that our lives haven't measured up to ourdreams but ultimately comforted by the extensive company we keep. That samesort of lumping and leveling off happens in professional sports. Sure, somepros continue to excel, outdistancing the bulging horde to get the headlines,the endorsement deals, the SI covers. But that's because they're aboveaverage.
For once, though,let's ignore the superstars. For once let's home in on that bulging horde, theplayers who form the baseline for superstars to exceed. It should be easy toidentify these Average Joes and Janes, sports being a bastion of statisticalanalysis, but numbers can be a desert of shifting sands. Is a .250 hitteraverage? 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 ofevery-day life: money. We said this was cruel.
But not too cruel.Thanks to a few decades of skyrocketing salaries (see charts), athletes enjoyfinancial rewards that take the sting out of normalcy. When a run-of-the-millNBA player cries himself to sleep--they're calling me average!--it is probablyon an oversized pillowcase with a really high thread count. He makes $5 milliona 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 playerearns (with bonuses and incentives) just under $2 million for each of the threeto four years he's in the league. Hockey players have it a bit worse: Theaverage salary in the NHL last season was approximately $1.5 million.
Other pros are notnearly as well compensated. Take men's golfers and tennis players who havespent most of their careers maneuvering (in a feast-or-famine way) amid the top100 or 150 in their respective sports. The No. 50 player on the ATP money listhas to make do with less than half a million bucks, while the 75th-highest-paidPGA Tour member earns about twice that. You can tell them by their lunchpails.
The varyingpopularity of these sports--to say nothing of the differences in TV money andthe emergence of stars whose drawing power lifts everyone else--accounts forthe varying standards of average, at least earningswise. But within each subsetthere are constants. The average players, no matter what their sport, worryabout how close they are to unemployment. And while they may have learned longago that they're not going to be Kobe, Tiger or Peyton or Michelle, acceptingthat 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 thelow six figures before expenses, it can be a grind-it-out, minimum-wageexistence. As golfer Tina Barrett says, "It's a hard way to make an easyliving."
for golfers andtennis players, individual contractors basically, life can be scary. Barrett,who ranked 48th on the LPGA money list last year with $253,484, won atournament as a rookie in 1989 (prize: $22,500!), giving her a five-yearexemption 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 probablywouldn't have survived until 1999, when she won a career-high $410,973 andbegan to carve out a place in the LPGA's middle class. (Now, she admits, herguiltiest pleasure is "not looking at the price tag on things.")
Men's golf mightbe better-paying, but even there the glamorous aspects sometimes take abackseat to working-class considerations. When a friend saw Dudley Hart at aMarriott in Dallas during a tournament, he asked why the golfer wasn't stayingat the Four Seasons with many of his fellow pros. "Five hundred dollars anight there, one hundred dollars a night here," Hart answered. "Noproblem for me deciding where to stay."
Hart has made morethan $1 million in five of his 15 full seasons on the Tour, and while he hasstayed under the radar, winning just twice, he's been consistent enough (48 top10 finishes) to rake in nearly $10 million. Injuries have made for a couple oflean seasons, but he's mindful of the bonanza that today's PGA has become.
"You used tohave 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'tcredit inflation so much as he credits Tiger Woods. "When you got into thesport, you didn't expect to make all that much money," he says. "Thenall of a sudden Tiger happens and purses went through the roof." In 1993Hart cashed a $52,800 check for finishing in a tie for third at Tucson; thisyear he made $198,000 for coming in sixth at the Honda Classic. Yeah, for asixth-place PGA finish, that's about average.
Tennis has noTiger, and its middle class is hurting. Paul Goldstein vaulted back among theATP's top 100 earners last year for the first time since 2000, making him oncemore ... average. But while Hart may rake in six figures in endorsement moneyeach year, Goldstein, in a good year, might make $250,000 altogether."There have been times when it's been touch-and-go," says Goldstein, anactual Stanford graduate in human biology. "I've always been able tosupport myself. If my bio says I've earned $1.3 million in prize money, that'sO.K., but [that's since] '98, eight years ago. I've averaged a little bit morethan $100,000 a year. Nothing to sneeze at, but $30,000 to $40,000 of that goesto travel expenses."
Goldstein doesn'tneed a CPA to remind him of his place in the game. He does not (if he ever did)dream of hoisting the trophy at Wimbledon. There is a talent divide, for onething. "Marat Safin has the physical ability to roll over in bed and hit aserve 130 mph," Goldstein says. "For Safin 75 percent of his work isdone rolling over in bed." Goldstein doubts he gets more than 25% of hisgame by similar rolling over, saying that what has allowed him to stay on touris "70 percent emotional makeup."
Goldstein'saccomplishments are correspondingly modest. The day he felt he could make acareer in tennis? When he won a set off Pete Sampras in the 1998 U.S. Open. Hismost important victory? Beating No. 8 Greg Rusedski at the '99 Australian Open.His goals are realistic. He already has toyed with the idea of a day job--hefired off résumés to financial-services companies in 2004 when he dropped to190th in the ATP points rankings. He and his wife, Abbie, share a '97 Honda.But should he stay within the top 100, he is virtually guaranteed a spot in themain draw for the four Grand Slam events, which means he'll make $65,000overall even if he loses in the first round of each. "That's where it isfor me," Goldstein says.
jeff posey isbreaking ground on an 8,000-square-foot house in Hattiesburg, Miss. "Apretty nice house," he says of the home for himself, his wife, Latalia, andsons Tyler, 2, and Jeremy, 1. It's not really fair to call Posey an average NFLplayer because he is an eight-year veteran and a starting linebacker for theBuffalo Bills. But the four-year contract he signed in 2003 has him making nearthe league's mean, about $1.75 million.
If Posey's notaverage, though, he may at least be typical. He's the kind of player nobodyhotly pursues, who bounces from team to team (this is his fourth) until a slotopens that's unique to his abilities and unexpectedly guarantees him a prettygood living. Posey was undrafted out of Southern Mississippi, thought too smallto play defensive end at 6'4" and 220 pounds. He did get the chance to workout with the San Francisco 49ers, who, after releasing Posey, signed him to thepractice squad two days later, then used him on special teams.
It was like thatfor three years with the Niners, league minimum all the way, until going intohis fourth season he got switched to outside linebacker. It was a difficultadjustment, but he started nine games. Thereupon he was released. "Did Itell you this was not a straight story?" he says, laughing. ThePhiladelphia Eagles brought him in, cut him; the Carolina Panthers brought himin, waived him; the Jacksonville Jaguars signed him, let him go. With theHouston Texans in 2002 he found a 3-4 defense for which he was a perfect fit."My career catapulted," he says. "I had a great year and signedwith the Bills."
Had job security,acclaim or big money ever been the primary motivation for Posey, he wouldn'thave lasted long enough to attain a measure of each. "I've seen a lot ofpeople faster, stronger, going back to that first season in San Francisco, whoare just not here anymore," he says. "You wonder why. But you have toenjoy this game, you have to love to play this game."
These are notsports' divas, highly courted, lavishly praised, obscenely compensated. Theirgift is desire, their reward opportunity. Center Steven Reinprecht of thePhoenix Coyotes, a seven-year veteran who earned a tad less than the NHLaverage in 2005--06, has never hit the back of the net more than 22 times in aseason. While he aspires to get in touch with his inner 40-goal scorer, he hasset the more modest goal of increasing his productivity each season. "Myadvice is not to think too far ahead, not to get too far ahead of yourself, notto get overwhelmed by where you are and what you've done," Reinprecht says.Certainly hockey has been more lucrative than firefighting, a career heconsidered while growing up in Edmonton. Reinprecht and his wife, Sarah, whodesigns pillows, often travel to Europe to scout fabrics. Not many firefightershave the money, or the summers off, to do that.
At Reinprecht'slevel, players learn to appreciate the difference between making it and not,instead of resenting the difference between making it ... and making it reallybig. Texas Rangers outfielder Kevin Mench knows that he's not having a Hall ofFame career at the moment (though there is some balm in his--approximatelyaverage--$2.8 million salary), but he understands also that if not for a bit ofluck he wouldn't even be in baseball.
"I always knewI had the ability," says Mench. "But you still need some things to goyour way." He remembers being brought up to Double A, getting hurt, hittingjust .265, generally floundering. "A shot of reality," he says. Thenext spring he was assigned to Triple-A Oklahoma City, but when Juan Gonzalezgot hurt, the big club called him up five days into the season. "There yougo," he admits. "Right place, right time." Mench, 28, hit 26 homersin 2004 and 25 in '05, suggesting he could move right out of the confines ofthis story. But he says that he's still "starry-eyed" and, in thepresence of such onetime Rangers luminaries as Orel Hershiser and AlexRodriguez, has paused to wonder, "Am I really here?"
Nowhere doesaverage pay better than the NBA. But with a maximum workforce of a mere 450,nowhere is average so extraordinary. Making a team, much less having a career,is the equivalent of hitting the lottery--which is what Antonio Daniels thoughthe did in 1997, when he was selected No. 4 out of Bowling Green by theVancouver Grizzlies. But instead of achieving the stardom augured by such alofty pick, the 6'4" guard has been a versatile role player on five teams."I don't do a lot of things great," says Daniels, "but I do a lotof things well." Fortunately in his second season he joined the eventualNBA champion San Antonio Spurs. "Playing with Avery [Johnson] and Tim[Duncan] helped me learn what it takes to play in this league," saysDaniels. "After that I knew I was here to stay." He's happy to pass onthe primary lesson imparted by those Spurs stalwarts. "This game is 20percent physical, 20 percent mental and 60 percent about health," saysDaniels, who has been largely injury-free. "You can be the most talentedguy in the league, but if you can't stay on the court, you're not going to makeit."
But if you canstay on the court, there's a decent chance you'll be richly rewarded. Beforelast season Daniels signed a five-year, $30 million contract with theWashington Wizards; his salary for 2005--06 was $5 million, the league average.That kind of money affords Daniels the one vice he'll own up to: cars. (He hasseven, including a Ferrari 360.) Wealth has also brought Daniels one largeheadache--he's constantly being hit up by friends for loans. His response toprospective mendicants: "Don't call it borrowing when you have no intentionof paying it back."
these average proathletes--the No. 7 hitter in the lineup, the backup guard, the guy or gal whofades from early view at Wimbledon--seem best able to enjoy the play, to savorthe game, to appreciate the experience. As WTA player Nathalie Dechy, No. 40 onthe WTA money list, puts it, "I think we have a really special life; we doa special thing compared to normal people."
Dechy, whograduated from high school in France at 16 in 1995 and then rapidly graduatedto the tour's top 100, adds, "I really love the emotion we have and the upsand downs we have." Having reached a Grand Slam semifinal at the 2005Australian Open and suffered a first-round exit in Melbourne this year, she'shad both. Perhaps being average has kept her grounded. "I was lucky enoughto play a women's sport where you can earn money," Dechy says, "butit's never been [that important]."
When Goldsteintalks about his career, he is unable to list a rivalry with Roger Federer, buthe can remember each of the countries he has visited, every player he hasfaced. He says, "One of my greatest moments ever was when I went to theCzech Republic with my buddy. It was the first time his father could show hisson his home, post-Communism. He was so proud. It was an awesomeexperience." Better than taking that set from Sampras? Right up there.
The lesson? Itcould be this: Being average in pro sports is harder than it looks, and it paysbetter than you'd think. It also provides some very special dividends. Not foreverybody, of course. But on average.
AVERAGE JOE |NFL
AGE: 30. College:Southern Mississippi. Ninth season, four teams; originally signed by SanFrancisco 49ers in 1997 as undrafted free agent
2005 STATS: 39tackles, three sacks, one forced fumble
CAREER: 241tackles, 20 1/2 sacks
BEST SEASON: 49tackles, eight sacks for Houston Texans in 2002
MISCELLANY:Converted to linebacker from defensive end in third season with 49ers
ALTERNATIVECAREER? Real estate
1986 MARK MOSELEY $244,700
2006 WILLIE MCGINEST $1,700,000
"I've seen alot of people faster, stronger who are just not here anymore. You wonderwhy.But you have to enjoy this game, you have to love to play thisgame."
AVERAGE JOE |BASEBALL
AGE: 28. College:Delaware. Fifth season, all with Rangers; drafted by Texas in fourth round of1999
2006 STATS: .284,12 HRs, 47 RBIs (through Sunday)
CAREER: .274, 80HRs, 262 RBIs
BEST SEASON: .279,26 HRs, 71 RBIs in 2004
MISCELLANY:Fourth-most homers among players born in Delaware
ALTERNATIVECAREER? A Philadelphia Eagle
1976 DICK BOSMAN$52,300
1986 RON DARLING$402,579
1996 DARRENFLETCHER $1,101,455
"I knew I hadthe ability, but you still need things to go your way.... [to be] in the rightplace, right time."
AVERAGE JOE |GOLF
PGA MONEY LIST
AGE: 38 on Aug. 4.College: Florida. Joined PGA Tour full time in 1991
2006 RESULTS: 19events, three top 10s
CAREER: Twovictories (last one in 2000; no majors)
BEST SEASON: Threethirds, 29th on the money list in 1999
MISCELLANY: Temperonce earned him nickname the Mini-Volcano
ALTERNATIVECAREER? NHL backup goalie
1976 DAVEEICHELBERGER $25,814
1986 LON HINKLE$97,610
1996 JOHN ADAMS$257,840
"Then all of asudden Tiger happens.... Now, make the cut and you make 10 grand."
AVERAGE JANE |TENNIS
WTA MONEY LIST
AGE: 27. College:None. Joined WTA tour full time in 1995
2006 RESULTS: Bestfinish, mixed doubles semifinals at Australian Open
CAREER: 375--272singles, 120--135 doubles, two victories, last in '03
BEST YEAR: Reachedfour semifinals and ranked No. 12 in 2005
MISCELLANY: Nativeof Guadeloupe; two-time Olympian
1986 BETH HERR$55,965
1996 AMY FRAZIER$165,477
"We have aspecial life, we do a special thing compared to normal people. I love the upsand downs we have."
AVERAGE JOE |NHL
AGE: 30. College:Wisconsin. Seven seasons, four teams; signed as free agent by Los Angeles Kingsin 2000
2005--06 STATS: 22goals, 30 assists (best season)
CAREER STATS: 81goals, 133 assists
MISCELLANY: WonStanley Cup with Colorado Avalanche in 2001; led Division I in scoring (66points) in 1999--2000
*Includes signingbonus **League work stoppage
1985--86 RON SCOTT$159,000
1995--96 ROBNIEDERMAYER $892,000
"My advice isnot to get too far ahead of yourself, not to get too overwhelmed by where youare."
AVERAGE JOE |TENNIS
ATP MONEY LIST
AGE: 30. College:Stanford. Joined ATP tour full time in 1998
2006 RESULTS: 14events, two semifinals
CAREER: 72--94singles, 39--69 doubles, no victories (26 wins on lower-tier circuits)
BEST SEASON:20--23 singles, reached one doubles final in 2000
MISCELLANY:Four-year All-America; 1998 NCAA singles finalist
ALTERNATIVECAREER? The renewable-energy industry
1976 OVE BENGTSON$18,034
1986 GREG HOLMES$62,892
1996 CHRISTIANRUUD $231,827
"There havebeen times when it's been touch-and-go, [but] I've always been able to supportmyself."
AVERAGE JOE |NBA
AGE: 31. College:Bowling Green. Nine seasons, five teams; selected No. 4 by Vancouver Grizzliesin 1997
2005--06 AVERAGES:28.5 minutes, 9.6 points, 3.6 assists
CAREER AVERAGES:22.9 minutes, 8.0 points, 3.3 assists
BEST SEASON: LedNBA in assist-to-turnover ratio (4.89) with Seattle SuperSonics in 2003--04
MISCELLANY: Wontitle with San Antonio Spurs in 1999
1985--86 PAULMOKESKI $382,000
1995--96 JEFFHORNACEK $2,000,000
"This game is60 percent about health. If you can't stay on the court, you're not going tomake it."
AVERAGE JANE |GOLF
AGE: 40. College:Longwood (Va.). Joined LPGA tour full time in 1989
2006 RESULTS: 17events, one top 10
CAREER: Onevictory (1989), 56 top 10s
BEST SEASON: 19thon money list, in 1999
MISCELLANY:Four-time Division II All-America
1976 CATHERINEDUGGAN $7,185
1986 MARTHA NAUSE$37,850
1996 STEPHANIEFARWIG $98,363
"[It's] a hardway to make an easy living... [but my guiltiest pleasure] is not looking at theprice tag on things."
Once again SI hascounted the money and determined the 50 top-earning American athletes. Therankings are based on salary, winnings, endorsement income and appearance feesin 2006. And for the third straight year Tiger Woods sets the bar. Here are theTop 10; to see all 50, as well as the Top 20 international earners, go toSI.com/fortunate50.
THE TOP 10
1. TIGER WOODS
2. PHIL MICKELSON
3. SHAQUILLE O'NEAL
4. KOBE BRYANT
5. CARSON PALMER
6. LEBRON JAMES
7. DEREK JETER
8. ALEX RODRIGUEZ
9. ANDRE AGASSI
10. DALE EARNHARDT JR.
Photograph by Darren Carroll
WALLY MCNAMEE/CORBIS (MOSELEY)
TODD ROSENBERG (MENCH)
JED JACOBSOHN/GETTY IMAGES
BILL WIPPERT (HART)
TONY ROBERTS/CORBIS (EICHELBERGER)
FRED VUICH (HINKLE)
J.D. CUBAN (ADAMS)
FREDERIC STEVENS/SIPA (DECHY)
ALISTAIR GRANT/AP (FRAZIER)
LUCAS J. GILMAN (REINPRECHT)
BRUCE BENNETT STUDIOS/GETTY IMAGES (SCOTT)
BOB ROSATO (NIEDERMAYER)
STEVE POWELL/GETTY IMAGES (HOLMES)
STEVE HOLLAND/AP (RUUD)
DANNY TURNER (DANIELS)
GREG WAHL-STEVENS/AP (HORNACEK)
MIKE POWELL/GETTY IMAGES
DAVID BERGMAN (BARRETT)
GRAY MORTIMORE/GETTY IMAGES