In the first two stops of the 2014 FINA World Cup Series, which took place in the same week in Doha, Qatar and Dubai, UAE, Hungarian star Katinka Hosszu earned $125,000 in prize money, thanks in part to 5 World Record breaking swims, each of which came with a $10,000 bonus.
And for that one week, she made a wage the equivalent of her counterparts in other sports.
Different professional sports leagues structure their pay in different ways. In American Football, the NFL, for example, players typically get their salary spread out over the 17-week season. In the NBA, players used to be paid across 6 months, though under the new Collective Bargaining Agreement, most now get paid over 12 months instead.
At the end of the day though, athletes are being paid for the time when they’re competing. We wanted to see how Hosszu’s one-week earning stacked up against the weeks-of-competition pay of different leagues.
If you take Hosszu’s $125,000 in prize money, and extrapolate it out over the length of different American sports seasons, you get:
- NFL (17 weeks): $2,125,000
- NBA (36 weeks): $4,500,000
- WNBA (26 weeks): $3,250,000
- MLB (26 weeks): $3,250,000
- NHL (26 weeks): $3,250,000
- Major League Soccer (32 weeks): $4,000,000
- Soproni Liga (top Hungarian soccer league – 44 weeks): $5,500,000
To put that in real-world, tangible terms, that’s the equivalent of:
- NFL: Late first round draft pick, veteran defensive starter but past his prime
- NBA: good 6th man/5th starter; Carlos Boozer, Mike Dunleavy, Jason Smith
- WNBA: Hosszu’s one-week earnings is more than the WNBA’s veteran maximum salary of $107,000
- MLB: part-time starter in the field, A.J. Ellis (LAD), Kelly Johnson (BAL)
- MLS: Superstar, National team level, Carlos Bocanegra, Landon Donovan, Thierry Henry
- Soproni Liga: If she made that much money for a year, she’d be the best-paid Hungarian athlete in any sport, according to ESPN.
That’s pretty good company, and if there’s anyone in swimming who legitimately competes enough to start creeping into those numbers, it’s Hosszu.
She is the top-earning swimmer in the world right now, excluding endorsements (Michael Phelps, presumably, still leads that category). Some will throw their hands up in frustration at the above, saying that she deserves to be making as much as Lebron James or Albert Pujols or Peyton Manning or other superstars of the above sports. For now, though, that’s not a realistic goal – the economics of swimming just don’t exist yet to justify those kind of paychecks. Even at the World Cups where Hosszu won so much money, ticket sales probably didn’t cover even one World Record bonus for her.
There are a lot of things that would need to change about swimming for anybody to be earning upwards of $10 million a year, or for a bigger number of swimmers to sneak into the $1,000,000 range. That’s the subject for a different post.
What Hosszu is proving, however, is that when you participate consistently and perform consistently as a swimmer, there’s plenty of money to be made in swimming. Hosszu will have another few weeks before the World Cup starts up again and she has another chance to earn as much money, and that’s the key. There are certain weeks in the year where swimmers can make six figure paychecks, but there’s just not enough weeks in the year where those opportunities exist.
Expanding those opportunities is a little bit of a chicken-and-the-egg situation. The organizers, governing bodies, and sponsors need to create more of those opportunities. When USA Swimming finally added race-by-race prize money to its Grand Prix series for the 2012-2013 season, the number of weeks grew by about 6. All-told, there’s probably 15-18 weeks per year where athletes can earn this type of prize money.
But to attract the kind of attention, crowds, and event sponsors to warrant those kinds of prizes, athletes need to show up more consistently as well, and need to be ready to race consistently. Katinka Hosszu is doing a lot of interesting things, but by far her most revolutionary contribution to swimming is that she keeps showing up, week-after-week, and swimming well. Fans know that when they go to a meet expecting to see Katinka Hosszu, they’ll see Katinka Hosszu, they’ll see her often, and that they’ll see her swim out every final that she qualifies for. While she doesn’t go a best time at every meet, she’s prepared to race at every meet. If you go to a FINA World Cup event, you can expect that Hosszu will be there.
The fact that her husband is her coach makes the travel schedule more digestible, but heavy travel is part of being a professional athlete in all sports. Since the European Championships, Hosszu has already competed at three different meets since the European Championships.
Hosszu is garnering a lot of attention for what she’s doing; hopefully, more-and-more athletes see what she’s accomplished and the kind of financial success she’s had and are encourage to participate at the same level. That’s when the momentum will build, and swimming could finally turn the corner into the big leagues.