Top 12 Best Paid Sports Careers

For many, sports careers are the stuff of dreams, with countless kids and adults alike aspiring to a career as a professional athlete. Though the physical demands of professional athleticism are intense, so too are the rewards, with players in many disciplines averaging extremely high salaries.

Which sports leagues get paid the most? While the term “professional athlete” often evokes ideas of basketball, football, hockey and soccer players, leading athletes in individual sports such as golf, horse racing, tennis, track and field, gymnastics, and auto racing can also generate large incomes and lucrative endorsement deals.

However, there are many high-earning careers off the field, court or rink too, such as working in sports management or as a sports marketer, agent, doctor, broadcaster, and more. Here is a list of some of the best paying jobs in the sports industry.

1
Professional Basketball Player

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Competing as a professional basketball player involves much more than playing in scheduled games. Successful players maintain rigorous exercise and weight training regimens to achieve the top conditioning necessary for competitive performance in fast-paced games.

Players practice regularly with their team and work on individual shooting and ball handling skills on their own. The National Basketball Association (NBA) season includes 82 regular season games as well as several rounds of playoffs for winning teams, so players are subjected to a challenging travel routine in addition to the physical demands of the sport.

According to Business Insider, NBA players earned an average salary of 4.58 million dollars in 2015, making them the highest paid athletes. NBA rosters include fewer players than baseball and football teams, allowing franchises to devote more resources to recruiting players. Players typically sign guaranteed contracts so that even if they become injured or are cut from a team, they still receive their compensation.

Top players in the most prominent international basketball leagues in places like Spain, Greece, Italy, China, and Argentina also garner high salaries exceeding 1 million dollars, though the average player receives much lower compensation.

2
Professional Baseball Player

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Successful Major League Baseball (MLB) players have implemented rigorous off-season training programs to improve strength and flexibility. The MLB season contains 162 games, as well as several rounds of playoffs, so players must cope with a taxing travel schedule. Many experts believe that hitting a baseball is one of the most difficult tasks in sports, requiring players to continually practice their batting skills to maintain an edge.

MLB players averaged an annual salary of 4.17 million in 2015. Backed by a strong union, players are afforded the security of guaranteed contracts and a generous pension program. Most of the professional baseball players in the United States play for one of over 240 minor league teams.

They receive much lower compensation, between $1,000 - $3,000 per month, with no guarantee that they will ever make the big league team. However, the top 100 players drafted from college or high school receive bonuses ranging from $500,000 to two million dollars.

3
Professional Hockey Player

Ice hockey players in action
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Pro hockey players must maintain high levels of conditioning to compete in games that are often very physically taxing, even combative. In recent years, off-season condition requirements have increased in order for players to withstand a grueling 82 game schedule and several rounds of playoffs. Skating, puck handling, and shooting skills are refined in practice drills.

National Hockey League (NHL) players earned an average salary of 2.62 million in 2015, in part due to the relatively small roster size of 23 players and a 50-50 split in revenue between owners and players.

Most pro hockey players in the United States and Canada play for one of the over 150 minor league teams. They are compensated at the rate of $40,000 to $90,000 per year depending on the minor league level. 

4
Professional Football Player

Football line of scrimmage
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National Football League (NFL) players engage in one of the most physical sports, in which athletes collide at high speed. Strategy in football exceeds most other sports in its complexity. Players must study and master extensive playbooks to prepare for a myriad of potential game situations. Injuries are common, and players spend considerable time in physical therapy and other treatment settings to repair damage.

Recent attention has centered on traumatic brain injuries, and the NFL has instituted limits on player contact during practice sessions. The average length of a player's career in the NFL is by far the shortest of all major sports, only about 3.5 years.

Although the NFL is America's most popular and lucrative sport, NFL players are compensated at a much lower level than other major sports, an average of about $2.11 million dollars per year (2015).

Football rosters are much larger than other sports, totaling 53 players, so salary money must be divided among multiple team members. NFL contracts are not guaranteed beyond the current season, so teams can cut a player whose skills have diminished without awarding compensation.

Players do typically receive guaranteed signing bonuses which are non-refundable. Colleges serve as the minor leagues for football, so most of the paid jobs are in the NFL or Canadian Football League.

5
Sports Broadcaster

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Sports broadcasters announce live sporting events and provide commentary and analysis of teams and athletes. They prepare for broadcasts by researching and studying the performance of athletes, as well as stories of personal interest.

The emergence of sports television and radio networks like ESPN, Fox Sports, and NBC Sports has created opportunities for hosts on sports talk shows as well as sports highlights and news broadcasts. Successful hosts develop interesting takes on current sporting trends and personalities, and often introduce an element of humor into their broadcasts.

The top 10 leading sportscasters earn an average of over 5 million dollars (2017). The vast majority of sportscasters receive more modest compensation while working in less prominent positions, earning an average of $82,730 in 2015, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. 

6
Coach

Foorball coach crouching in huddle, talking to team
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Roles and compensation for coaches vary greatly by the level of competition (e.g., high school, college, minor league, professional) and the particular sport. Coaches organize practice sessions to develop or strengthen skills and strategies. They also analyze the strengths and weaknesses of opponents and how they match up with their team, and devise game plans to optimize performance.

They motivate players and encourage sportsmanship and academic achievement. Head coaches select, train and supervise assistant coaches. College coaches travel to recruit high school prospects to improve the talent on their team.

The top 25 college coaches earn an average of 5 million dollars and often have lucrative endorsement deals on the side. Even the 100th highest paid NCAA coach earns over $500,000. Top pro coaches often earned in more than 5 million dollars in 2016.

Coaches in smaller colleges and high schools earn considerably less. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, coaches and scouts earn an average of $59,730 in 2015.

7
Sports Executive/General Manager

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General managers and team presidents hire coaches and administrative staff for their organizations. They assess the strengths and weaknesses of their teams, oversee the drafting of players, and orchestrate trades with other teams. General managers interpret salary caps and other budgetary considerations to optimize talent within constraints. They negotiate contracts with players and agents. Sports executives oversee the development of sponsorship and promotional arrangements.

According to a survey by Sports Business Daily, top sports executives within professional organizations garnered an average salary of about $435,000. Top general managers received salaries of more than 2 million dollars.

8
Professional Soccer Player

Female soccerplayer standing with foot on the ball
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Soccer has gained popularity in the United States with the emergence of the MLS. Soccer players must maintain high levels of aerobic conditioning to cope with the constant motion and fast pace of their sport. Regular practice is required to maintain and upgrade ball handling and passing skills and to execute game plans.

The average salary in the MLS rose to $316,777 in 2016, still a far cry from the average salary for players in European leagues like England's Premier League —​ 3.82 million dollars. There is also a huge differential between what professional male and female soccer players earn in the US, with the women trailing the men by a significant amount. 

9
Sports Physician

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Sports doctors specialize in the diagnosis and treatment of athletes. They may work directly for a team or maintain an individual or group practice that treats local athletes. Sports physicians prescribe and interpret tests to determine the nature and extent of injuries. They design rehabilitation programs to expedite the recovery of athletes from injury.

Sports physicians provide advice and training to coaches and athletes about medical implications for exercise and nutritional practices. Team physicians attend games and assess athletes to determine if it is advisable for them to continue competing with head and other injuries. 

Sports physicians earn an average of $217,115 (2017) according to Salary.com.

10
Umpire/Referee

Midsection Of Referee On Field
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Umpires and referees must study the rules of their sports and apply them instantly to game situations. Officials in basketball and hockey must maintain excellent physical fitness to run or skate up and down the court or rink.

Professional umpires and referees travel constantly during the season, moving from one city to another to cover games. Concentration, excellent vision, quick reactions and sound judgment are vital to success. Emotional control to remain calm despite criticism from players, coaches, and fans is essential.

Major league umpires have beginning salaries of $120,000 with eventual increases to as high as $350,000. NFL referees receive salaries of about $200,000. NHL officials receive salaries between $110,000 and $360,000. NBA referees earn between $150,000 and $550,000.

Most referees and umpires work in lower level leagues or on the college circuit where compensation is much lower, an average of $37,810 according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics.

11
Sports Marketer

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Sports marketers promote teams, leagues, players, stadiums, media outlets, and other products and services related to sports. They analyze markets and develop strategies to expand attendance, endorsements, consumer sales, readership, and viewership. Sports marketers negotiate agreements to set prices and terms for products, services, endorsements and advertisements. They compose profiles and content for social and traditional media to spotlight players, teams and other sports-related entities.

Marketing professionals within spectator sports earned between $117,000 and $122,000, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics in 2015. 

12
Sports Agent

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Sports agents represent the interests of athletes, coaches, managers, and other talent in the sports industry. They analyze data and statistics to prepare presentations about the value added by players to their teams.

Agents negotiate contracts, and propose contract language. Sports agents advise clients about opportunities for endorsements and ways to enhance or repair their public image. They pitch the services of their clients to prospective employers. Many sports agents help clients to manage their finances.

Agents earned an average of $103,370 in 2015 according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics. However, Forbes Magazine reported that the top 10 sports agents earned over 30 million dollars a year.

More About Sports Careers: Sports Management, Marketing, and Communications Careers