Within the lifetime of many of us, it was common for professional athletes in the NFL and NHL to hold down regular jobs in the offseason. Today, anyone making the league minimum in any major sport can enjoy an affluent life. As the years have passed, and the average major league athlete's salary has become a larger and larger multiple of the nation's income per capita, the perks have more than kept pace.
While any individual player's contract can call for equestrian training for his wife (Troy Glaus, Arizona Diamondbacks), or a fire truck (Rafael Furcal, LA Dodgers), some teams make it a point of treating everyone who wears the uniform the same way – like royalty. (For related reading, see The Rise Of Labor Unions In Pro Sports.)
TUTORIAL: Economics Basics
From Trains to Charter Planes
In the 1940s, baseball teams traveled exclusively by train. Not because human flight hadn't been invented, but because team owners were famously cheap. It wasn't until baseball's richest franchise, the New York Yankees, started chartering a plane in 1946 that whistle stops and dining cars started to become relics.
The indignity of flying commercial is to the modern athlete what sitting in a cramped wagon-lit was to his grandfather. Charters are now de rigueur among the four major sports, with the occasional team springing for its own plane.
The National Basketball Association's Detroit Pistons were America's first pro sports team to enter the aviation business, freeing the Pistons from the whim of airline schedules. Decades later, the Pistons have continually upgraded, and today fly around the country (plus the occasional trip to Canada) in a modified McDonnell Douglas MD-83.
A standard MD-83 has room for 155 passengers, but Pistons' ownership customized the plane to seat no more than 40 players, coaches, trainers and occasional family members and hangers-on. It cost the Pistons about $6.5 million to buy and modify the plane, but that's a depreciating expense on the team's balance sheet. The same can't be said for the flight tickets and hotel rooms the Pistons would have had to otherwise buy.
As you can imagine, the players love it. They can immediately fly out of town after a game instead of heading back to the hotel. They can leave their personal items on board. They can arrive at the airport just before takeoff, and they never need to submit to gropings from the Transportation Security Administration. (For those that may not be able to afford these luxuries, check out 5 Ways To Avoid The Middle Seat On The Airplane.)
The savings over using commercial flights are negligible, especially when the Pistons have to buy their own fuel, but the team can also rent out the plane in the off-season. Furthermore, season-ticket holders and corporate sponsors are only too happy to pay exorbitant amounts to ride Roundball One (yes, that's its name) and rub shoulders with the likes of Tayshaun Prince and Ben Wallace.
Cuban a Maverick Owner
Pistons owner Tom Gores bought the team last June, so some more time needs to elapse before he can claim the title of sport's most indulging patron. For that, it's hard to imagine anyone who relishes the phenomenon of owning a team quite like the Dallas Mavericks' Mark Cuban does. The Broadcast.com founder sold his brainchild to Yahoo! in 1999 for $5.9 billion in stock, in one of the single greatest market timings in history. Six months later, he bought the Mavericks, and has been a t-shirted-and-jeaned fixture at just about every one of the Mavericks' 500 home games since.
Any owner can compete on the open market for free agents and scratch the requisite checks. It's the non-salary extras that separate the truly magnanimous owners from those of average generosity. Cuban holds a special place in the former category. The $90,000 bottle of Armand de Brignac he bought his players after their recent NBA championship is but one instance of his largess.
The home locker room at Dallas' American Airlines Center is full of so many state-of-the-art amenities that former Maverick Devin Harris claims it's "nicer than (my) house." It's probably bigger, at any rate. An 8000-square-foot monument to the principle that well-rested players ultimately win championships, the room contains enough fitness equipment to put any national gym chain to shame.
Cuban doesn't suffer malcontents; he wants players who want to be there, and so creates an environment that few players would want to leave. Fitness equipment is something you'd expect to find in a pro sports team's locker room. As for the pool table, oversized leather chairs, hot and cold four-man whirlpools, satellite TVs at each locker, personal video game systems, $400 headphones, giant projection screen and designer towels you can take home, well, let's just say that the editors of Cosmo could learn a thing or two from Cuban about how to attract and keep men.
Even though he's no longer a Maverick, Harris has little to complain about. Now with the Utah Jazz, he still gets to visit Dallas twice this season, a highlight of any team's schedule (to the extent that having to play the champions on their home court is a highlight).
While the Mavericks' visitors' locker room isn't as ostentatious as the home locker room, it is the hands-down favorite around the league. By giving potential future Mavericks a glimpse of what they could be enjoying 41 times a year, Cuban manages to draw the attention of other teams' players without tampering.
The Bottom Line
It's a general rule of history that yesterday's options are today's standard features. But even if there comes a day when $90,000 champagne is the normal postgame drink after regular-season victories, there will always be a handful of sports team owners at the forefront, ready to reward their employees more generously than anyone else does. (For additional reading, check out When Celebrity Endorsements Don't Work.)