The Lowest Paid Athletes in All of Professional Sports

Credit: Left; Mike Zarrilli / Getty Images; Helios de la Rubia / Real Madrid / Getty Images

When Derek Jeter left baseball this fall, he had a massive mansion in Tampa to retire to. The custom-built, 30,875-square-foot estate, dubbed by locals as "St. Jetersburg," was constructed on two parcels of land and features seven bedrooms and nine bathrooms. Over the course of his career, it's estimated that Jeter earned more than $400 million in salary and endorsement deals, a total that merits such a manor. Arguably bigger.

But not all professional athletes earn that kind of cheddar. Minor league ballplayers across the country are crammed into small apartments and sleep on air mattresses as the gulf between the highest and lowest paid players in sports continues to widen. Some pro athletes make close to nothing — or even less than that when you factor in travel, food, and lodging expenses — for the chance to pursue their goals.

Ben Ivers is a 25-year-old marketing consultant and the captain of the New York Empire, one of 16 teams that compete in American Ultimate Disc League. Players don't receive a standard salary playing professional Frisbee, and instead are offered a portion of gate receipts based on the number of people they get to buy tickets to their games. They also earn ownership shares in the team based on the number of games they play.

In 2014, Ivers earned half of one percent in the team and made no money from gate receipts. In lieu of a multi-million-dollar contract, he is content playing the game he loves with a tight-knit group of guys. "There are some nice fringe benefits," he says. "I'm not expecting to make a lot of money right now. It’s about being able to play ultimate in front of a crowd, which is really fun. We get to travel all around the country and the team pays for that. I love ultimate and I would be playing even if I weren't in the league. We get to go to all these amazing cities. And when we all go out for dinner, the team pays for our food."

The perception that all athletes live like kings with garages full of tricked-out cars and overflowing bank accounts is a fantasy. The reality for many of these guys is that chasing down their lofty dreams comes with a hefty price tag. Their passion for whatever sport they play far outweighs the money. Here are some of the lowest wages in professional sports:

Boxing
No athlete earns more today than Floyd Mayweather, who rakes in more than $73 million per year. He can make a guaranteed $30 million on a single fight in a sport where only a select few cash checks as large. Small club fighters might make a couple hundred bucks per fight as they build up a following, like Mayweather once had to do. But now he’s at the top of the heap and just getting into the ring with him can earn a challenger a million-dollar payday.

Bowling
The Pro Bowlers Association is a true meritocracy: If you don’t win, you don’t get paid. According to Bill Vint, a PBA media relations representative, bowlers first have to pay an entry fee around $200 to get into regional tournaments for a chance to win up to $5,000. The PBA World Series of Bowling is a 10-day, five-event super tournament that costs $900 to enter. Nobody has ever won all five events, but if you do, you could walk away with $130,000.


Football
NFL QBs Aaron Rodgers ($40 million), Matthew Stafford ($31.5 million), Tom Brady ($31 million), and Matt Ryan and Joe Flacco ($30 million each) are among the 10 highest paid athletes in the world. The NFL pays rookies a minimum salary of $420,000, but on lower levels, the pay isn’t as generous. Arena Football League players often work part-time as bouncers, or at other jobs to supplement an $830-per-game paycheck, which is an upgrade from the old rate of $400 per game. That amounts to less than $15,000 for the 18-game regular season. AFL players also have the option to get $150 monthly housing stipends. In 2009, the AFL declared for bankruptcy amid rising player salaries when the league minimum was a more respectable $31,000 and the league average was around $80,000 a year.

The FXFL, which opened for business in 2014, offers NFL hopefuls $1,000 per game for a six-week season with some housing incentives. North of the border, the Canadian Football League recently increased minimum salaries 11 percent to $50,000.

Golf
Golf is another sport in which you are paid only if you win. Win a lot, and you’ll earn a lot. Don't win, and it can be hard to make a living, particularly on developmental levels like the PGA-sanctioned Web.com Tour, especially when you factor in expenses you have to cover such as travel to tournaments, lodging, and food.

At the high end of the PGA stratosphere, Rory McIlroy raked in more than $8 million in 2014. Chris DiMarco, who finished No. 377 on the PGA money list after playing in seven events and making one cut in 14 rounds of golf, made $6,370. That’s a total of $524 per event, a little more than what it would cost to play a round at Pebble Beach. On the Web.com Tour, Brandon Bunn was last (No. 316) on the money list after earning $1,304 for the year.

Hockey
At $525,000, the NHL’s minimum salary is tops among the four major American sports, but at the lower minor leagues, the pay is lean. East Coast Hockey League (ECHL) rookies earn a minimum of $415 per week and veterans make $460 per week over the course of a 72-game regular season, which comes out to less than $24,000 for the year. A step down to the Federal Hockey League has its six teams operating with a weekly salary cap of just over $5,000, putting minimum salaries at about $297 per week for a 56-game regular season that spans seven months. On the plus side, the league covers dental insurance.


Lacrosse
The indoor National Lacrosse League pays a $9,200 flat salary for rookies, who could get a raise to as much as $34,000 if they rise to become franchise players. However, it's not uncommon for teams to load up on younger players or to trade away proven commodities for bundles of draft picks in an effort to keep payroll down. There is also an emphasis put on signing local players so the nine teams don't have to pay as much for travel expenses for a 16-game regular season over four months between January and March.

Major League Lacrosse pays between $10,000 and $25,000 per season, while many of the league’s 200 players work day jobs to supplement their income.

Major League Soccer
Some of the richest athletes on the planet are soccer players, with Christiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi each earning more than $50 million a year in Europe. In Major League Soccer, salaries aren’t as exorbitant, with the league minimum at $35,125 and the average player salary coming in at $160,000.

Minor League Baseball
While Major League Baseball enjoys billions in revenues, there is a stark cultural divide between the majors and the minors. Minor leaguers aren't protected by a union, can earn as little as $3,000 per season, and receive about $25 per day for food (opposed to almost $100 allotted to big leaguers). After figuring in the long hours, the seven-day workweeks, and long bus rides to the next game, it shakes out to less than minimum wage. Garrett Broshuis, a former pitcher in the San Francisco Giants system, is now a lawyer who is suing MLB to get better pay for minor league players.

Mixed Martial Arts
UFC fighters on the low end of the pay scale can earn $10,000 to show in a fight and another $10K for winning, while top earners can take home close to $200,000 for a single match. UFC promoters also pay out undisclosed bonuses to fighters turning in the "Fight of the Night," and "Performance of the Night." Smaller division, such as King of the Cage and K-1 USA fighters, typically take home a bit less: anywhere from a few hundred bucks up to as much as a few thousand per bout.


The NBA’s D-League
Kobe Bryant makes a league-high $30.5 million per year, which is almost $20 million more than what the roughly 280 players enrolled in the NBA Development League earn — combined. The NBA’s minor league tipped off in 2001 and consists of 18 teams that are affiliated with NBA parent clubs. Players are paid on a tiered system that has top players and former NBA pros earning as much as $30,000 per season. Younger, inexperienced players make about $18,000 per year. All players are eligible for health insurance during the six-month season, receive a modest per diem, and are offered housing packages.

Rugby
All players in the USA Rugby League are amateur and don't receive any payments, according to the league. Ironically, the Australian National Rugby League’s player of the year, Jarryd Hayne, walked away from a $1 million salary this year to pursue his dream of playing in the NFL in October. He was offered a tryout with the Detroit Lions but wasn't signed.

Tennis
According to Nicola Arzani of the ATP World Tour, professional tennis players earn prize money by round at each event they play. They might have sponsorship deals, but that's not included in the official prize money. While Novak Djokovic won more than $14 million in 2014 as the sport’s top-earner, Lukas Zvikas was last on the ATP money list with $36 in winnings. That is not a mistake: he made less than $40 for the year playing doubles.