Why do NHL players get paid less than NBA, NFL, MLB?

No one feels bad for NHL players and the salaries they are paid – they still do make millions. But, the highest paid players in the NHL seem like they make significantly less than the other major sports leagues in the US/Canada.

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And, this is true. On average NHL players do get paid less than NBA, NFL, and MLB teams.  I have some numbers later on.

Why do NHL players get paid less? The main sources of revenue for a professional sports team are broadcasting rights for television and ticket sales. The NHL gets a much smaller amount of revenue from its TV deal than the NFL, MLB or NBA and, therefore, has less money to pay its players. 

Let’s look at the numbers that the players get paid and the sources of revenue more closely. 

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The High, Low, and Average Salary for each sports league

If you were to look at a list of the top 100 paid athletes in the world, there would be no hockey players. There are many soccer players, tennis, golf, basketball, football, and baseball players who make it, but no hockey players. 

But, let’s turn our focus off of the whole world and look at the four major leagues – NHL, NBA, NFL, MLB –  in North America to get a better idea of why hockey lags behind. 

Paid Player
NHL$750,000$3 million$12.5 millionConnor McDavid
NBA$582,000$7 million$37.44 millionLeBron James
NFL$495,000$2.1 million$35 millionRussell Wilson
MLB$550,000$4.36 million$37.7 millionMike Trout

Now that we have a picture of the salaries of players in each league let’s look at how the leagues get their revenue.

Sources of Revenue

The two biggest sources of income for all the sports leagues are television (national and local rights) and ticket revenue

The NFL is the most popular league and gets the highest television contract, but they can only sell tickets to 16 games per season (17 once their new CBA kicks in). MLB gets the most out of ticket revenue due to the sheer number of games (162) plus the huge stadiums they play in. 

The NHL actually does fairly well with ticket revenue and other sponsorships, as they are known to have passionate fans who devotedly follow their team and are willing to pay high ticket prices.

Where the NHL falls behind these other leagues is in television revenue – especially television revenue from the U.S. national television contract. 

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Revenue of TV Deals

Look at the chart below that outlines the national rights packages that each league secures:

LeagueNational TV Revenue $/year
NHL$700 Million (Canada + U.S.)
NBA$2.66 Billion
NFL $4.95 Billion
MLB$3.6 Billion

I put in 700 million for the NHL. I should clarify in that number I put in the revenue that they get from the Canadian national rights contract which is $500 million per year. If I only included the U.S. number, which is $200 million per year, it would make it look much, much worst in comparison. 

$200 million per year – that is a rounding error when compared to the NFL deal. 

The NHL only gets saved on its tv deal because the NHL Canadian deal props it up.

I am actually quite impressed that the NHL is able to get so much revenue with a U.S. television contract that is so much less than its peers. 

This speaks to the way the league has been able to maximize revenue inhouse through tickets, sponsorships and licensing agreements. 

I expect that the NHL’s next television deal in the U.S. will be much higher. It is good to remember that in the 70s and early 80s the NHL was more popular than the NBA in the U.S. 

Will it become again? Maybe not, but it shows that they still have a lot of room for growth. 

Size of Roster

Another factor about how much an NHL player gets paid to other professional sports is the number of players on a team. 

For instance, the NFL generates the most revenue of any of the leagues, but they also have the largest rosters. This means that they have a larger pie, but the pie gets divided up between more players. 

The NBA has the smallest rosters, and therefore the players each get a larger portion of the pie. An NBA player has the highest average salary of any of the four sports. 

The NHL has a maximum roster of 23 players. And, of that group of players the low end of the roster does well in comparison to other sports. 

What I think the NHLPA (NHL Player’s association) has done well for the players is make sure the guys at the bottom get paid well. 

If you look at the minimum salary for each of the leagues the NHL has the highest lowest salary (that is a bit of a tongue twister). The minimum wage for an NHL salary is $750,000, whereas the NFL has the lowest minimum at $495,000. And, remember that NHL contracts are guaranteed – an organization cannot simply cut them loose, unlike the NFL. 

I am always surprised that the other leagues do not fight for the guys at the bottom a little harder. For instance in baseball it seems like everything is geared towards the guys who have made it to free agency and the guys entering the league get the scraps.

How does Aaron Judge make under a million dollars, where Jacoby Ellersby gets paid $10s of millions for doing nothing? That is one case, but not uncommon.

So whereas the high-end guys do not get paid as much, the NHL guys at the bottom get taken care of better than the other leagues. 

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Top 100 paid athletes – no hockey players 

Of the top 100 athletes in the world there are no hockey players on it. This list includes endorsement money as well as their earnings from playing. 

Here is a list of the top 10: 

1.Roger Federer$106.3M
2.Cristiano Ronaldo$105M
3.Lionel Messi$104M
5.LeBron James$88.2M
6.Stephen Curry$74.4M
7.Kevin Durant$63.9M
8.Tiger Woods$62.3M
9.Kirk Cousins$60.5M
10.Carson Wentz$59.1M 

Hockey players still have a way to go to catch up to the other sports. 

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