It's every general manager's nightmare: shelling out millions for players who can't stay on the field. Whether because of chronic injuries or just poor play, some highly paid pros just don't hold up their end of the bargain.
The rising revenues and strong unions of the sports business have lifted all boats. Where once stars made big money leaving the bench guys hunting off-season jobs, seven figures is now common all over the roster. And that leads to more potentially expensive mistakes. Paying for a quality backup is one thing. Laying out starter-type money for one is another.
"It's called dead money," says industry consultant Marc Ganis of Sports Corp. Limited. "It's the single most illogical part of the signing of players." And while it's tough to figure a precise number--how much of the $126 million the Giants spent on pitcher Barry Zito, who was banished to the bullpen after a string of weak performances, would be considered dead money, exactly?--there is "far more" of it lining unproductive players' pockets than there used to be, according to Ganis.
To determine those who are paid the most for sitting, we searched out playing time and production vs. salaries in the National Football League (NFL), National Basketball Association (NBA), Major League Soccer (MLS) and Major League Baseball (MLB). (Other than the goaltender position, hockey, played in shifts, doesn't lend itself as much to the starter-backup breakdown.)
Many athletes who make the list tend to be aging former starters riding out big contracts in their declining years, after they've been busted down to part-time duty. Baseball outfielders Jay Payton and Jacque Jones fit this bill. (The Florida Marlins just released Jones this week.)
Baseball has already learned about the difficulties of getting rid of dead money. During the 1980s, Commissioner Peter Ueberroth pointed out to the owners how much they were flushing down the drain on players that didn't play. The problem is that when the owners decide collectively to clamp down, they're guilty of collusion (a legacy of the Ueberroth era, resulting in legal rulings that forced owners to fork over millions to the players union).
"And if an owner decides on his own to be more cautious with these salaries, he gets hammered by local fans and media (who want the team to win)," Ganis says.
For the NBA and MLS, we looked at minutes played along with production, making note of those pulling in the biggest bucks for spending most of their time on the pine. Leading that list is a pair of veteran big men, Detroit's Theo Ratliff ($12 million for 14 minutes a game this season), and Portland's Raef LaFrentz ($9.9 million, 7.5 minutes).
The complex NBA salary cap leads to all kinds of illogical player moves. The folly reached a head in February when the Dallas Mavericks, the last team to employ retired forward Keith Van Horn, signed him out of retirement to include him in a trade to New Jersey for Jason Kidd. Van Horn was reportedly paid a pro-rated $2 million not to play, just so the salaries of the traded players would even out under the cap rules.
The numbers are less dramatic in pro soccer's lower salary scale, but the principal of team budgets taken up by unproductive players is no different than in the NBA. Leading our MLS list are Toronto forward Jeff Cunningham, who has started just four of his team's 10 games for $257,500, and Chivas' Ante Razov, who has also started four games and makes $255,000.
With a tight salary cap playing a big role in setting NFL salaries and bonuses, players were measured by how much cap space they took on their teams' payrolls. High salaried vets relegated to part-time duty include Jets quarterback Chad Pennington, Packers defensive end Kabeer Gbaja-Biamila and Raiders running back LaMont Jordan.
Is spending heavily on backups worth it? It depends on what team you're looking at. In the NFL, the perennially powerful New England Patriots employed five backups this past 16-0 season making at least $2 million.
A study by the football Web site twominutewarning.com shows that NFL teams generally get little return for big money spent on individual players. Given the frequent injuries and team focus of football, clubs are generally better off spreading money around the roster. That's certainly worked for New England. Then again, the 7-9 Detroit Lions had five backups of their own making $1 million or more last season. As with anything else, it comes down to the quality you're getting for the money, from a starter or a backup.
Going younger and cheaper with the bench can be risky, undermining the huge investment in the stars. Look at baseball's New York Yankees. Half of that club's league-high $209 million payroll goes to five players. And while 11 players make at least $11 million annually, 11 others earn $500,000 or less. No doubt the team's weak bench has plenty to do with its lackluster record so far.