Well, I really shouldn't say "awful" because a lot of pros make pretty decent-to-very good money in the grand scheme of things. But the reality is that, in the sports world, cyclists have to be among the most poorly compensated athletes on the planet. When you begin to consider the lifestyle and sacrifices these pro bike riders must suffer to be successful, it becomes almost criminal that these guys make so little compared to their "professional" counterparts in other sports.
For reference, I will list the top 5 highest-paid professional cyclists and compare them (and their salaries) to a few professional baseball players. I have chosen to limit my baseball comparisons to the Giants and the A's (because even though I live in Colorado now...I'm still a homer for the Bay Area teams) with the exception of Bartolo Colon from the Anaheim Angels. This is primarily because I have no love for any LA teams and Colon is maybe the highest-paid fat, unathletic guy I can think of. You think Jan Ullrich was big? Check out the picture of Colon below. Now that's fat. Jan looks like one of the Olsen twins compared to Bartolo.
So...on to the list of athletes and annual salaries. Just for fun (as well as additional anger and frustration) I have chosen to include the Fantasy Ranking for the baseball players on this list. Whenever I feel like a dork for fanatically following bike racing, I just take a quick look at some Fantasy Leagues in baseball and suddenly I feel much better about myself. Fantasy Baseball geeks have even less of a life than I do. Don't get mad...I'm only being real. Anyway, the "FR" stat is a function of fantasy rankings and is actually a very good indicator of the player's worth. On to the list:
1) Alejandro Valverde - $3.8M
Now...I actually like Feliz a lot but I still cannot comprehend how he should earn more money that the Green Bullet. GreenBack Bullet - not so much. Maybe in Spain but not here in the old US of A, where lots of people earn way too much for their performance.2) Paolo Bettini - $3.3M
Baseball equivalent: Mike Matheny - $3.35M; Catcher, SF Giants; 6’2” – 205lbs; 13 years pro - .239 BA; 67 HR; 925 H; 795 SO; .293 OBP.
Matheny retired after severe post-concussion syndrome but is still getting paid. My beloved Giants then went out and replaced him with Bengie Molina for $4.5M per year. By the way, Molina is the highest ranked fantasy player in this post at a grotesque 14th place among catchers. That means he is just barely in the top half of MLB starting catchers. Ughhh. The 14th ranked cyclist (overall) in the ProTour for 2006 was none other than our very own George Hincapie, followed closely by Boogerd, Leipheimer, Sastre, Jaksche, Pozzato, Cancellara, Cunego and Friere. Yeah...Molina deserves $4.5M compared to these guys.
3) Tom Boonen - $2.6M
Steve Kline – $3.0M; LH Pitcher, SF Giants; 6’2” – 200lbs; 10 years pro – 33W-37L (.471); 3.42 ERA; 0 SHO; 0 CG; Fantasy Ranking: 69th for Relievers.
So...basically what I am saying is that arguably the best bicycle racer on the planet, with huge results and even bigger potential, is worth as much as a journeyman pitcher with a losing record who ranks barely in the top 70 relievers. The moral of the story: Teach your kid to throw left-handed. Seriously.
4) Alessandro Petacchi - $2.2M
Dave Roberts – $2.25M; Outfielder, SF Giants; 5’10” – 180lbs; 8 years pro - .270 BA; 21 HR; 594 H; 278 SO; .344 OBP; Fantasy Ranking: 16th for Left Fielders.
Okay, this makes sense. The best road sprinter in the world over the past few years is worth the same as a left fielder who has hit a total of 21 homeruns in 8 years? What the? Petacchi wins more bike races in one year than Roberts has hit homeruns in his entire career. And he's an outfielder - a position that is supposed to have power. My brain hurts right now.
5) Ivan Basso - $2.0M
Mark Ellis – $2.25M; Second Baseman, OAK Athletics; 5’11” – 190lbs; 4 years pro - .270 BA; 39 HR; 478 H; 275 SO; .341 OBP; Fantasy Ranking: 20th for 2nd Basemen.
It's totally logical that a Grand Tour winner and arguably the best stage racer in the world is worth less than a mediocre 2nd Baseman on one of the cheapest teams in all of baseball right? The A's are notorious for under-paying their players so take Ellis' salary for what it's worth. Amazingly, most other teams would probably be paying him more than just $2.25M.
6-15) Damiano Cunego - $1.8M; Alexandre Vinokourov - $1.7M; Robbie McEwen - $1.6M; Erik Zabel - $1.6M; Thor Hushovd - $1.3M; Yaroslav Popovych - $1.3M; Andreas Kloden - $1.3M; Cadel Evans - $1.3M; Paolo Savoldelli - $1.0M; Oscar Friere - $1.0M
TOTAL SALARY FOR 6-15th HIGHEST PAID PROFESSIONAL CYCLISTS - $13.9M
That's right folks, a 5'11", 240 lb pitcher makes more money annually than Cunego, Vinokourov, McEwen, Hushovd, Zabel, Popovych, Kloden, Evans, Savoldelli and Friere combined. For those of you scoring at home...that's 4 Grand Tour wins, 3 World Championships, 9 Green Jerseys and a handful of Grand Tour podium appearances - for less than one fat guy with a strong right arm who works a maximum of 1 game for every 5 that his team plays.
Let's marinate in this information for a while and then address the meaning of it later. This is far too big a topic to handle in one post. However, my first impression is, once again, professional bicycle racers really need the power of a unified organization that looks out for both their financial and legal interests. I need to collect a bit more data before I tackle this issue but I'll leave you with a final nugget of curiosity with regard to athlete income:
The 49th highest paid athlete in the world in '06/'07 is Anfernee Hardaway - formerly known as "Penny" when he was still actually playing. The following statistics should put Penny in finals of the "Oh Man, What Is The World Coming To?" competition.
Now for the really good part: Having played a whopping 18 minutes in 4 games this season, Hardaway will earn $15.1 Million dollars for his effort - or lack thereof.
Why, oh why, was I not born to be 6' 7" or have a cannon for a left arm? I had to have big calves instead. Just between you and me...I would have taken small calves and $15M per year. But that's just me. I will now go do intervals on my ride home from work and earn exactly $0 for my effort. NICE.