Manny Machado reportedly agreed to a 10-year contract worth $300 million with the Padres on Tuesday, meaning the first of two giant dominoes of this baseball offseason has finally fallen.
Whenever Bryce Harper signs — likely for 10 years and even more money, and likely soon now that Machado has made a match — we will once again marvel at the dollar sign with all the zeroes.
It led me to an unusual question, which sparked a quest for an answer: Will anyone alive right now be around if and when the first $1 billion contract is signed by an athlete in a major U.S. sports league?
Really, it’s not that far-fetched when you consider how far things have come already while also factoring in inflation.
If we isolate on baseball, we find a handy reference chart of single-year salary milestones and the first players to reach them, via Baseball Almanac.
Babe Ruth in 1922 was the first $50,000 a year player. We didn’t get the first $1 million player — 20 times what Ruth made — until Nolan Ryan signed for that much per season in 1979, a full 57 years later.
Just 21 years after that, in 2000, both Manny Ramirez and Alex Rodriguez reached $20 million a season, that same 20-fold increase.
Things have slowed down enough that nobody would envision a player making 20 times that — $400 million — in a single season anytime soon.
But let’s say Harper signs soon for 10 years, $350 million — the largest overall deal and single-season value ($35 million) in MLB history in a sport that traditionally has combined lucrative contracts with long ones.
Even if salaries “only” increase by 2 percent every year — a good estimation of inflation — a 10-year deal equal to Harper’s would top $1 billion a little more than 50 years from now.
I’d be in my mid-nineties at that point, yelling at those overpaid bums as I watched in seven-dimension virtual reality. Plenty of you would be even younger (and perhaps still yelling at the CHEAP POHLADS for only offering $800 million).
Of course, simply accounting for the past and inflation as a means for explaining the future doesn’t take into account the history-altering surprises that will undoubtedly unfold in the next half-century.
The rapid acceleration of salaries has coincided with an almost Monopoly money-like growth in television money. It stands to reason that there will be some sort of tipping point (and/or viewer revolt) as broadcast rights become more fragmented.
If there is some sort of reckoning — likely brought on by an eventual reduction in television contracts, a worldwide revolution or both — that started bringing average salaries back down, $1 billion wouldn’t happen.
Then again, what if the acceleration only continues? What if the introduction of aggressive bids from streaming services via Amazon, YouTube and others only serve to increase eyeballs (and profits)?
If the growth curve continues to ascend and the rich keep getting richer, maybe it won’t take a half-century. Maybe it will happen in 30 or 40 years? Maybe less?
If you think that sounds absurd, think of how a $300 million-plus contract would have sounded in 1979 when Ryan inked that million dollar a year deal.
Maybe if and when it ever happens, a $1 billion contract won’t even seem so strange to a lot of people.