The NFL's $100 Million Myth
Why does the press overstate the value of pro football contracts?
This week, the Philadelphia Eagles agreed to a new contract with their franchise quarterback. The headlines all said some version of the same thing: "Michael Vick: $100 Million Man." There's no chance, however, that Vick will ever make $100 million from this deal—the supposed six-year contract makes it essentially impossible for him to do so. "It's a scam," says Pro Football Talk's Mike Florio. "The sixth year is pretty clearly a phony year."Florio, a lawyer turned football writer, is one of the few to actually dig into Vick's contract and show how the numbers were massaged to reach that magical $100,000,000 mark. The phoniness Florio's referring to is that the final year of the contract becomes void if Vick participates in just 35 percent of his team's offensive plays in any of the first five years. In other words, there is no conceivable way that the sixth year of the contract will ever exist. If Vick is even moderately useful to the Eagles, the last year of the contract will be voided. If he gets hurt and doesn't reach the 35 percent bar, the Eagles will simply cut him and pay a fraction of the stated $100 million price tag.
Take off the phony year, and Vick's actually getting a five-year, $81 million deal. In practice, the contract is worth even less than that. Only $35.5 million is guaranteed, though Vick could earn close to $50 million in the first three years with performance bonuses. That's still impressive, but the inflation here is enormous: Vick has no real shot of earning more than one-half of the announced value of his big deal.
Vick's phantom year is an extreme example of NFL-payout hyperbole, though one that's not unprecedented—the quarterback's first $100 million contract used the same accounting trick. Still, it's a matter of course for players, teams, and the press to misstate the true values of pro football contracts. Last year, ESPN hyped Donovan McNabb's five-year, $78 million contract extension, a deal that (according to the quarterback's agent) supposedly included $40 million in guaranteed money. Fewer outlets reported that the Redskins were on the hook for just $3.5 million if they dumped McNabb. (They eventually traded him to the Vikings.
Agents, who want to brag to potential clients about their big scores, have an obvious incentive to tout bloated contract values. It also doesn't cost the team anything to overstate a payout. "The team wants the player to think they got a good deal," says Florio, explaining that tacking on extra seasons or unattainable bonuses is a no-cost way to make your stars happy.
For the player, it's about status and respect. The dollar amount is simply another realm for competition, and negotiations are often about being the highest-paid player at a particular position. Or, at least, the highest-paid player on paper.
This numbers game would be pointless if the media wasn't a willing participant. Football writers should know better than anyone that these deals are structured to generate a good headline, yet they can rarely be bothered to investigate how much a player will really earn.
Florio explains how the game works. "The agent calls a member of the media to say the contract is done and gives them the figures," he says. "The reporter doesn't want to get scooped, so they rush to get it out on Twitter. They file a story, and then they move on." It's not that they don't know. It's that deadline pressure trumps accuracy.
The football press isn't totally blind to this problem. On Pardon The Interruption this week, ESPN's Michael Wilbon railed against how his fellow scribes reported the Vick news. "I'm taking a shot at my brethren ... which reports these numbers breathlessly and they're not true. Michael Vick is not going to get $100 million and we ought to stop saying it."
Yet, if you head over to his employer's website, the $100 million figure is still there, uncorrected. "By the time the truth comes out," says Florio, "it's a footnote." Keep all this in mind when reading the reports about Chris Johnson's new contract. It might not be what it seems at first glance.
The truth is that $100 million contracts don't exist. Of all the NFL players to receive contracts in the $100 million range, only one—Peyton Manning, who actually topped out at $98 million—stayed with his team for the duration of the contract. Donovan McNabb, Daunte Culepper, Albert Haynesworth, Drew Bledsoe, and even the eternal Brett Favre all shipped out before their deals were done, and did not get all that they bargained for. While Ben Roethlisberger and Larry Fitzgerald still have a chance to join Manning in serving out their deals, I wouldn't count on it. In pro football, it's not just the dollar values that are a myth. The idea of long-term success, and the riches that come along with it, is the biggest NFL fantasy of all.