Thursday, September 1, 2011

Odds of becoming a professional athlete

This post has little to do with running but I hope y'all will find it interesting. If you want to make it in a sport, I'd have to say track and field is the toughest to make a living. If you are not among the ten best in the world at your event, you'll never make a living let alone be able to retire comfortably after your career is over. If you don't run in a glamour event, you have to be even better. Odds are that a casual fan can name at least 3 of the ten best sprinters in the world. Devoted fans can name some of best middle and long distance runners as well. Can anyone name some of the best hammer throwers in the world? I didn't think so. That said, if you are the 10th best quarterback in the NFL, you're a multi-millionaire. Even if you're the tenth best middle linebacker in the game and can play for at least 5 years, you will be quite well off and barring some really stupid financial decisions, you will never have to work a real job.
Several years ago, I went to a low minor league baseball game and made the comment that every single one of these players were the star of their high school team yet upwards of 80% of them will never make it to the majors. Even if a player does beat the odds and plays at least one MLB game, what are the odds that he plays at least the 3 years needed to be eligible for arbitration and the chance at a million dollar contract?

I looked up the odds of making it to MLB and wiki quoted the figure at 1 in 16,000. That sounds about right to me and I assume that it includes those who simply had a cup of coffee in a September call up. If you are a career minor leaguer who is among the first in line to get called up when key players go down with injuries, you can make good money. What I am referring to is a "4-A player," a very good AAA player who is not quite good enough to stick in the majors. Those guys can earn 6 figures for several years but that's not enough to support a family and put kids through college and many of them end up selling insurance and telling old stories to anyone who will listen. You need to last at least 5 years to truly retire comfortably and the odds of that are very long. Let's break it down.
I once read that the average player lasts about 4-5 years so figure that if you get called up, your chance of having a 5+ year career is less than 50%. Consider some of the scrubs that put on the uniform of bottom tier teams such as Pittsburgh or Kansas City.  If the odds of getting 1 call up are 1 in 16,000, the odds of a 5 year career are probably more like 1 in 50,000.  That means if you take the top 1% of the population and invite them to a camp, you would have to be a stand out among that group to even stand a chance.  Even if it becomes the top 1/10 of 1 percent, your chance of having a lengthy career is still only 1 out of 50.

If you can make it as high as AAA, you've got about a 50/50 chance (maybe a little better) of getting at least one call up. The odds get progressively longer with each lower level. In any given draft, a team signs maybe 25 players. In a good year, maybe 4 or 5 will eventually reach the big leagues and figure only 2 of them will stick. A major D-1 school may see 2 or 3 players drafted each year. On average, less than 1 will make it. As I've already said, every player in the low minors was the star of his high school team. I'll even go further than that, he was among the 2 or 3 best players in his conference that beat the odds and got drafted. That means that if you are good enough to play Varsity baseball in high school, your chances of getting drafted out of high school are about 1%, maybe even less. To take it another step further, every Varsity baseball player was an All-Star in little league and most of those Little League All-Stars will never play in high school. 1 in 16,000 sounds about right to me. I had a pitcher on my Little League team who sometimes retired the side in an inning by throwing 9 consecutive strikes. He did not even get drafted. I don't know of anyone that I knew of growing up that made it to MLB.

Other sports may be a bit less or more difficult depending on the size of rosters. Basketball teams only carry 12 players so that's the toughest major sport to make. Football seems to be the least difficult because an NFL team may carry 53 players to MLB's 25 and fewer kids play football than baseball. I did grow up with 2 people that signed with NFL team. Both were head and shoulders above their peers and could compete with boys 3 years older. One played special teams for about 3 years and the other never made it above the practice squad. Anyone ever heard of Eddie Drummond or Tyler Reed? Unless you're a die-hard Detroit Lions fan, I'm betting no.
Stay in school.

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