Professional sports, as opposed to amateur sports, are sports in which athletes receive payment for their performance. Professional athleticism has come to the fore through a combination of developments. Mass media and increased leisure have brought larger audiences, so that sports organizations or teams can command large incomes. Professional sport is perhaps the only activity that defies the commercial norm whereby the media expect to be paid for carrying publicity for non-media organizations; in professional sport they are expected to pay for the privilege of doing so. As a result, more sportspeople can afford to make athleticism their primary career, devoting the training time necessary to increase skills, physical condition, and experience to modern levels of achievement. This proficiency has also helped boost the popularity of sports.
Most sports played professionally also have amateur players far outnumbering the professionals. Professional athleticism is seen by some as a contradiction of the central ethos of sport, competition performed for its own sake and pure enjoyment, rather than as a means of earning a living. Consequently, many organisations and commentators have resisted the growth of professional athleticism, saying that it was so incredible that it has impeded the development of sport. For example, rugby union was for many years a part-time sport engaged in by amateurs, and English cricket has allegedly suffered in quality because of a "non-professional" approach.
People involved in professional sports can earn a great deal of money at the highest levels. For instance, the highest-paid team in professional baseball is New York Yankees. Tiger Woods is the highest paid athlete totaling $127,902,706 including his endorsement income, which massively exceeds what he earns from tournament golf. Woods recently became the world's first athlete to earn a billion dollars from prize money and endorsements. It would have taken the salary of 2,000 1980s professional golfers each making $58,500 to match up with Tiger Woods’ current salary. Samuel Eto'o is the world's second highest earning athlete and the highest paid footballer in the world, raking in £35.7 million (over $54 million) a year excluding off-field earnings. The top ten tennis players make about $3 million a year on average. Much of the growth in income for sports and athletes has come from broadcasting rights; for example, the most recent television contract for the NFL is valued at nearly US$5 billion per year.
Outside of the highest leagues, however, the money professional athletes can earn drops dramatically, as fan bases are generally smaller and television revenues are nonexistent. For instance, while the National Football League's teams can afford to pay their players millions of dollars each year and still maintain a significant profit, the second-highest American football league in the United States, the United Football League, has consistently struggled to pay its bills and has continually lost money despite allotting its players only US$20,000 a year. In the United States and Canada, most lower-end professional leagues run themselves as affiliated farm teams, effectively agreeing to develop younger players for eventual play in the major leagues in exchange for subsidizing those players' salaries; this is known as the minor league system and is most prevalent in professional baseball and professional ice hockey. Otherwise, the league may be required to classify itself as semi-professional, in other words, able to pay their players a small sum, but not enough to cover the player's basic costs of living.
- The average salary of a player in the Chinese Super League was about ¥10.7 million (£1 million) for the 2011 season, up from ¥600,000 in the 2010 season. The highest paid player for the 2011 Chinese Super League season was Dario Conca of Guangzhou Evergrande who received an annual salary of ¥66.4 million ($10.5 million) after income tax, putting him among the highest paid players in the world.
- The highest paid player for the 2011-2012 Russian Premier League season was Samuel Eto'o of Anzhi Makhachkala, who at the end of the 2011-12 season was expected to receive a total salary of RUB 900.2 million (£35.7 million) after income tax, making Eto'o the second highest earning athlete in the world and the highest paid footballer in the world followed by Lionel Messi and Zlatan Ibrahimović.
- The average salary of a player in the German Bundesliga was about €3.3 million (£2.5 million) for the 2010-2011 season, up from €2.5 million in the 2009-2010 Bundesliga season. The highest paid player for the 2010-2011 Bundesliga season was Franck Ribéry of Bayern Munich who received a salary of €6.3 million after income tax.
- In the Italian top league, Serie A, the average salary was about €5 million for the 2010-2011 Serie A season, up from €1 million in the 2005-2006 Serie A season. The highest paid player for the 2010-2011 Serie A season was Zlatan Ibrahimović of A.C. Milan who received a salary of €25.9 million after income tax and which also includes Ibrahimović's bonuses and endorsements.
- Lionel Messi of FC Barcelona is the world's second highest paid player receiving a salary of £29.6 million (over US$45 million) a year after income taxation and which also includes the incomes of Messi's bonuses and endorsements. In the Spanish La Liga, the average salary for the players of Lionel Messi's club FC Barcelona was €6.5 million for the 2010-2011 La Liga season, up from €5.5 million for the 2009-2010 La Liga season.
- The average salary of a player in the English Premier League was about £1.2 million in the 2007-2008 Premier League season, up from £676,000 in 2006-2007 Premier League season. Top players such as John Terry and Steven Gerrard can make up to £7 million per year with the players of Premier League club Manchester City F.C. receiving an average salary of £7 million for the 2010-2011 Premier League season, up from £5.5 million in the 2009-2010 Premier League season. Players in lower divisions make significantly less money. In 2006-2007 season the average salary of a player in the Championship (the second tier of the English football pyramid) made £195,750 while the average salary for League One (tier 3) was £67,850 and League Two (tier 4) was £49,600.
- David Beckham's salary of $20 million is the highest in Major League Soccer and about fifty times the average MLS base salary of $115,000. Beckham's salary is more than double that of the MLS per-team salary cap of $2.55 million for 2010; however, under MLS' Designated Player Rule, instituted in 2007 for the purpose of attracting stars of Beckham's stature, each team is allowed to sign three players (originally one) for any salary that will count for only US$335,000 each of cap room. Beckham was the first player signed under this rule.
In 1970, the average salary in Major League Baseball in the U.S. and Canada was $20,000 ($121,457 inflation-adjusted). By 2005, the average salary had increased to $2,632,655 ($3,179,013 inflation-adjusted) and the minimum salary was $316,000 (adjusted: $381,580). In 2012 the average MLB salary was $3,440,000, the median salary was $1,075,000, and the minimum salary had grown to four times the inflation-adjusted average salary in 1970 ($480,000).
Lists of professional sports
- List of professional sports
- List of professional sports leagues
- List of U.S. and Canadian cities by number of major professional sports franchises
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