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Do Athletes Make Too Much Money?

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A Blazer's Edge reader brings up an age-old complaint. We address it.

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Time for a Friday edition of the Blazer's Edge Mailbag! If you have Portland Trail Blazers related questions, send them to blazersub@gmail.com and we'll try to answer!

Dear Dave--

I think I'm going to be too old school for you whippersnappers but both the rent and athletes salaries are too damn high.  I'm trying to stay hep to the grooviness but I can't get over a batch of free agents about to make 20-30 million annually.  What have we come to?  I'm all for players getting their due but that's super-due!  Nobody needs that much money.  Sports is out of wack.

Also get off my lawn!

Not That Old But Already a Geezer

Oh my gosh on, "Stay hep to the grooviness"! It's got my immediate endorsement as the Trail Blazers' slogan for 2016-17. You just kicked the ever-living Khryapa out of "Rise with Us" or anything else that's come out of marketing in years. If the Blazers don't want it, we may just adopt it. "Blazer's Edge: Stay Hep to the Grooviness!"

At one time your viewpoint about athlete salaries was incredibly popular, if not predominant. I want to assure you that no professional sports fan gets very far into the process without at least thinking what you've said, if not espousing it. 8-digit salaries will get a rise out of anybody.

As we've discovered more about the inner workings of the sports world we've developed a more sophisticated understanding of the salary process. This has dimmed the anti-salary chant somewhat.

For the most part, the pool of sports income in a given year is fixed. Leagues and franchises will be taking in that amount of money no matter what. Calling for lower player salaries doesn't shrink the pool, it divides it differently. If Damian Lillard makes $10 million per year instead of $20 million, the excess doesn't appear in your pocket as a refund. Paul Allen and the organization keep it as profit. Campaigning for lower player salaries equates to campaigning for higher owner income. That platform isn't as attractive as your theoretical point about athlete pay, especially since the league's popularity rests on the talent of the guys in uniform. Plenty of people would say, "Pro athletes make too much!" Few would follow that up with, "So let's take it away from them and give it to billionaire owners instead!"

People commonly cry, "If salaries weren't so high the owners could lower ticket prices!" Theoretically they could, but would they? Professional leagues aren't charities or public services; they're businesses. The owners will charge what the market will bear. At the beginning of last season a reasonable ticket to see the Golden State Warriors play the Blazers in Oakland probably would have run $50-60. In their last matchup the cheapest tickets remaining a week before tip-off were going for $138 each. Did player salaries more than double during that span? They did not. The Warriors won a title in the interim, increasing demand and allowing the franchise to raise prices into the stratosphere. Those tickets would be priced the same right now even if every Golden State player were on a minimum contract.

Another Example: Why does a $4.50 burger three blocks down the road sell for $12 on game night at the Moda Center? Multiple factors sway the price but the most basic, and likely the strongest, is, "Because they can". ("They" are not the food vendors who make a profit selling that burger for $4.50 normally, but arena management leveraging their exclusive position to generate income. Production costs rise with a move to the arena, but they don't triple.) Damian Lillard didn't make that burger cost three times as much, the willingness of a certain percentage of 19,000 attendees to pay the increased amount did it. As long as that willingness endures, so will the prices, irrespective of player salary costs.

Since the benefit of lowering player salaries to any of us is going to be minimal while the loss to players would be significant--with the excess going to owners who already have the potential to turn a profit even at the higher salary level--I'm not sold that lowering salaries is a good thing.

That said, the market may give you much less reason to complain soon. The NBA's bulging salary cap centers around television rights. A certain famous four-letter network has been thick in the middle of the bidding. That network appears to have overextended itself. It's facing cuts in revenue just when its proposed payments balloon. The current contract runs through 2024-25. The NBA and ESPN will see it through as long as ESPN survives. (Massive layoffs have kept the blank ink rolling so far but they can only dip into that well so many times.) This may be a one-time increase, though, with rates correcting during the next round of negotiations. For the next decade the NBA and everyone involved in it should have it sweet, but they shouldn't get too comfortable.

Thanks, Young Geezer! Everybody else, don't forget to send your questions to the address below!

--Dave blazersub@gmail.com / @DaveDeckard@Blazersedge /

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