With unemployment near record levels and the jobs outlook grim, millions are struggling to pay bills, stay in their homes and afford basic necessities.

So it might be hard to comprehend the salaries of professional athletes when you break it down to pay vs. hours worked. But as it's been discussed before, player salaries aren't so much about hard work, sweat and tears as they are about the bottom line - namely, revenue. How much can those star players generate for the owners and corporate sponsors, and how much credibility do they offer to their respective leagues and sports organizations?

TUTORIAL: Stock Basics

Here's a look at five sports and a few of their "hardest working" athletes. (For related reading, see When Celebrity Endorsements Don't Work.)

Indianapolis Colts quarterback Peyton Manning was the highest paid NFL player for the 2010-11 season with $30.8 million ($15.8 million in salary and $15 million for product endorsements). During the off-season, though, Patriots' QB Tom Brady inked a four-year deal worth $72 million, so the battle for the league's highest paid is on - providing, of course, there is a season. In any case, Manning's contract last year breaks down to just slightly under $1 million per regular-season game.

Players whose teams make the post-season earn additional bonus money. For example, the eventual Super Bowl champion Green Bay Packers, whose highest paid player was wide receiver Greg Jennings ($7 million), paid each player $19,000 each for the wildcard game, $21,000 each for winning the divisional playoff game and $38,000 for the title game. Their Super Bowl win earned each player an added $83,000 for a total of $161,000 for their playoff run. Break that down by game and it comes to $40,250 per game, not too shabby for an extra few days' work. (When an old NFL team wins, the market will end the year higher. For more, see Making Sense Of Market Anomalies.)

Alex Rodriguez's salary has been making news since he signed that $252 million, 10-year deal in 2001. When that contract expired, he signed a one-year deal worth nearly $32 million with the Yankees. Still, A-Rod's astronomical salary didn't guarantee a World Series win. The Yankees, who finished second in the American League East and needed a wildcard to get to the post-season, lost in six games to the Texas Rangers for the AL pennant.

For argument's sake, however, pretend he played every regular season game (162) and every possible playoff game (17) for a total of 189. That would mean he earned $184,357 per game, or $20,484 per inning. With approximately four at-bats per game, that's $46,064 every time he stepped up to the plate. Not bad for a summer job. (For related reading, see A History Of Baseball Economics.)

Imagine it's 2003 and you're a teenager in Akron, Ohio, scrambling for a summer job after graduation. Now imagine you're Lebron James and your first paycheck from your first job out of high school is $12.96 million for three years to play professional hoops. That's $4.32 million a year, $52,682 a game or nearly $1,100 per minute. Fast forward to 2010 and a contract with the Miami Heat worth $14.5 million. For each game appearance, King James earned more than triple his original pay, a cool $192,437 per game, whether he suited up or not. But according to Bloomberg.com, those numbers are far below the NBA's top earner, Kobe Bryant, whose contract with the L.A. Lakers earned him $24.8 million this season. Hey, you do the math. (For more, see The Numbers Behind Shaquille O'Neal.)

The average hockey player in the NHL makes approximately $2.4 million, a relatively small chunk of change compared to their other sports brethren but still substantial.

To put things in perspective, consider this: the average brain surgeon makes $450,000 a year. A social worker makes around $46,000. A teacher in Connecticut, the highest paying state, only makes an average of $63,000.

The Vancouver Canucks, who are looking for their first-ever Stanley Cup win, are paying star goaltender Roberto Luongo $10 million for this season. His earnings - which are about $170,000 for each of the 60 regular-season games played, could increase substantially if the team ends up taking the big prize against the Boston Bruins. Luongo is a rarity, however. When it comes to big payoffs, the top earners in the NHL are the ones who put the puck in the back of the net. For instance, Tampa Bay center Vincent Lecavalier, who also made $10 million for this season, is one of eight wings or centers who surpassed the $8 million mark. (For related reading, see The Most Expensive Kids' Sports.)

The world's most popular sport yielded enormous salaries for some of its global stars. Americans thought David Beckham's $250 million, 5-year contract (salary and endorsements) with the Los Angeles Galaxy was out of this world - after all, Major League Soccer was struggling to stay afloat. But Beckham's big payday was designed to do a few things - open the door for teams who hoped to woo other international stars, and increase visibility and credibility for the MLS, which desperately needed a boost.

But Beckham's payday doesn't even crack the list of the top 20 highest-paid soccer stars in the world, whose salaries averaged $14.7 million a year with clubs like Real Madrid, Barcelona and Inter Milan.

However, despite his enormous fan appeal, through 2010 Beckham played in only 48 games of the Galaxy's 120 regular-season games since signing his contract in 2007. That's 40% work for 100% pay. Not bad.

TUTORIAL: Economic Basics

The Bottom Line
Enormous salaries are now the norm for professional athletes. When you break down the pay per-game, per-inning, per at-bat numbers, it's staggering. But as long as teams are willing to dish out giant paychecks, players are going to accept them. Meanwhile, the rest of us can only look on as we struggle to earn a living. (For related reading, see The Professional Sports Portfolio.)

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