Somewhere out there, wailing in a crib or running on a playground or preparing to get drafted by the Jacksonville Jaguars, is the NFL’s first $100 million-a-year quarterback.
Don’t try to roll that number around in your head. The idea of getting paid nine figures for one year of work just doesn’t compute under any mere mortal (or moral) assessment of value. But then, the NFL isn’t bound by worldly concerns like ours. The NFL’s on the verge of dominating everything.
Forget about floundering ratings and complaints about player protests. Those are fleeting concerns. You want to know where the league’s headed? Follow the money. More to the point: look to Dallas.
Drive on the Dallas North Tollway on the outskirts of Dallas, and you’ll see gigantic overpasses built over the highway with virtually no surface streets connecting them. Why are they there? Because developers know that before long, commerce will come. What’s now mostly a bare patch of Texas scrubland will be a stretch of Starbucks, breweries and Whataburgers come 2030.
Right about then, if all goes according to the Cowboys’ plan, Dak Prescott will be on his second massive contract, following the $40 million per year one he just signed this week. Is Jerry Jones a madman for sinking this much money into one player? Maybe … or maybe he’s already aware of something most people won’t figure out for years.
Despite their media caricatures, NFL owners like Jones aren’t fools. They wouldn’t be billionaires if they were. (One of the property owners of those vast soon-to-be-developed Dallas hinterlands? Take a wild guess.) The ability to make money obviously doesn’t correlate to the ability to field a winning football team … but make no mistake, you’ve got to be very, very good at the first before you can even think about the second.
These owners can see the future of the league, and it’s a future laced with gambling and undergirded by massive broadcast contracts, with dollar bills pouring down like rain. As our Charles Robinson notes, the next round of NFL broadcast contracts could hit $100 billion with a "B," another number you shouldn’t even try to conceive.
Amazon is, by all accounts, thundering its way into the NFL broadcast rights discussion. You may recoil at the idea of an online-only NFL game, but what’s Netflix but an online-only movie and TV distribution system? And your children and grandchildren won’t think twice about firing up an app to watch a game. Even if Amazon isn’t able to secure a game package, its presence alone will drive up the cost for ABC/ESPN, CBS and NBC.
Gambling and NFTs (non-fungible tokens, a crypto variant along the lines of bitcoin) will also shower revenue on the NFL. Imagine a scenario where you can bet on the Cowboys to win, buy an NBA TopShot-style NFT of Prescott throwing a first-half touchdown, flip the NFT and cash in your gambling winnings, all before the late games kick off. It’s not here, but it’s coming. The NFL knows it, and forward-thinking owners like Jones are planning accordingly.
Why? Because all of this revenue means an increase in the salary cap. This year’s cap dropped 8 percent to $182.5 million due to COVID-related losses. Come 2030, with new revenue streams blasting like fire hoses, the salary cap will rise ever higher.
“If you don’t think [the Dak contract is] an indication of the tea leaves,” Jones said Wednesday, giving us a look at his cards, “you misread that.”
Parsing out the specifics of contract details is a surgical business, and it’s worth noting that signing bonuses will likely get someone up over the $100 million mark long before the NFL ever gets there with straight-up salaries. Still, let’s start with average annual contract values as a baseline.
Prescott’s AAV is $40 million. Patrick Mahomes tops that with his $45 million AAV, part of Mahomes’ astounding half-a-billion-dollar deal. Granted, that’s still a long way from a $100 million deal, but frame it this way: 10 years ago, Peyton Manning signed a five-year deal with the Colts that had an average annual value of $18 million. Twenty years ago, Michael Vick signed a deal with the Falcons with an AAV of $10.3 million. Thirty years ago, Dan Marino agreed to a contract with Miami that had an AAV of $3.9 million. True, these aren’t apples-to-apples comparisons because of inflation, but the upward trend is clear.
A few athletes, mostly individual stars like Roger Federer, are already topping the $100 mil-per-season mark, though much of that comes from endorsements. Lionel Messi is playing for Barcelona on a contract that reportedly pays him as much as $167 million a season, but that mammoth deal is also a cautionary tale the NFL shouldn’t ignore: Among many other problems, Barca is now facing an apocalyptic financial picture. (Plus, Barca just got bounced out of the Champions League early, so Messi’s got that in common with Dak.)
Thing is, sports figures aren't exactly overpaid relative to other entertainers. Over in Hollywood, the dollars also fly, though without as much notoriety and publicity as in sports. For instance, Robert Downey Jr. made $75 million for quarterbacking a come-from-behind victory in “Avengers: Endgame.” Taylor Swift averaged more than $82 million a year for the entire decade of the 2010s. The bag’s always out there just waiting to be secured.
All of which brings us back to that soon-to-be-mega-rich quarterback. Whether it’s Trevor Lawrence’s second major deal or Arch Manning’s first, somebody’s going to break that nine-figure barrier. And a few years after that, $100 million per will look like a bargain.
Jay Busbee is a writer for Yahoo Sports. Follow him on Twitter at @jaybusbee or contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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