The opening of the NBA’s free-agency period Saturday and the flurry of deals it spawned, including Stephen Curry‘s record-setting five-year, $201-million contract, had NFL fans and players questioning why NFL stars earn less than other sports’ stars.

Indeed, Curry’s contract dwarfs that of the extension signed last week by fellow Bay Area resident Derek Carr, whose $125 million over five years is the largest contract in NFL history.

Carr’s deal, it turns out, more closely aligns to the contract just signed by the wholly unexceptional New Orleans Pelicans point guard Jrue Holiday.

No joke, the highest-paid player in NFL history is making Jrue Holiday-level money – but with far less guaranteed cash:

Carr Holiday
5-year deal 5-year deal
$125M max. value $126M max. value
$70M guaranteed $126M guaranteed

Carr is the face of his franchise and one of the best young quarterbacks on the planet. Holiday is a perfectly acceptable player, but the former All-Star will probably never again rank among the top 10 at his position.

It seems crazy for the pair to earn the same cash, but it’s explained with a few simple points.

There are way more NFL players

Driving NFL salaries down (and NBA salaries up) are the simple mechanics of roster-building in the respective leagues. NFL teams must pay a roster of 53 players, including 22 starters on offense and defense.

NBA teams carry a maximum of 15 players on their rosters, several of whom rarely see the court.

It’s basic math. That’s almost 1,700 NFL players compared to fewer than 500 NBA players on active rosters at any given time.

The NFL players’ union is weaker

The NFL is the richest sports league on the planet, with the best estimates putting league revenue at around $13 billion annually, the bulk of which comes from TV contracts. The NBA, by comparison, generates somewhere in the range of $6 billion annually.

NBA players see a larger share of revenue, however, thanks to a more favorable collective bargaining agreement negotiated by the players’ union.

NFL teams must build a 53-man roster using $167 million in salary cap space. That’s $3.1 million per player. NBA teams have $99 million to divvy up between 15 men; $6.6 million per player.

Superstars matter more in the NBA

NFL commentators like to call football “the ultimate team sport” and they aren’t wrong. Even a star quarterback plays only half of his team’s total snaps. A star receiver rarely sees more than 10 passing targets in a game. Defense wins Super Bowls, or so the saying goes, and a defense is only as strong as its weakest link.

Teamwork matters in the NBA, but a star player like LeBron James is a trump card the likes of which doesn’t exist in football. James rarely comes off the court, is involved in every crucial sequence in every game, and is so vital to his team’s success that he can elevate a mediocre surrounding cast to championship-caliber.

Supply and demand

There are only so many men standing 6-foot-8 or taller on the planet who can make a free throw. Even fewer can make a three-pointer, or dunk, or both.

Combine the importance of superstars in the NBA with the tiny pool of available stars and it’s not hard to see why the salaries of those select few stars are driven up. It’s basic economics.

NFL salaries are flatter

At the top, the total cash (salaries and bonuses) taken home by the NFL and NBA’s highest-paid players in 2016 was remarkably similar:

NFL Total cash NBA Total cash
Drew Brees $31M LeBron James $31M
Andrew Luck $30M Chris Paul $27M
Olivier Vernon $29M Mike Conley $27M
Joe Flacco $29M DeMar DeRozan $27M
Tom Brady $29M Kevin Durant $27M

A far more telling comparison between sports is revealed when one examines salaries much further down the list.

Tied for 500th in total cash was Derek Carr’s backup, Matt McGloin. He earned a little over $2.5 million in 2016. In the NBA, the 500th player was point guard Quinn Cook, coincidentally a backup to Jrue Holiday, who earned just under $112,000. That’s a stark difference.

Nearly 900 NFL players earned at least $1 million in 2016. Fewer than 400 NBA players did. The result is an NFL salary curve that is far less steep than that of the NBA.

Upon seeing contracts like Curry’s new deal, several NFL players joked on Twitter that they will push their sons to play basketball. While there are certainly several valid reasons for an athlete to favor the court over the gridiron (such as avoidance of head injuries), it’s a myth than it’s easier to get rich player basketball than football. It may be easier to get mega-rich playing basketball, but it’s easier to become a millionaire playing football.

(All salary data courtesy of Spotrac)

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