Which College's Athletes Have the Highest Career Earnings?
Out of the hundreds of thousands of athletes who compete at the college level, just a handful will move on to the big leagues. The fulfillment of a lifelong dream comes with many perks — it is no secret that top-performing sports stars bring in the kind of money that most people can only dream of.
Organizations such as the NBA, NFL, MLB and NHL handsomely reward players for their participation in their respective leagues. On the journey to becoming a master of their craft, many athletes pass through college programs to develop their skills in the hopes of hearing their name called on draft day. Some schools excel more than others in producing the next generation of stars and can consequently be responsible for their eventual paydays. They develop a certain amount of clout in the athletic community and become perfect fits for all types of prospects, and the career earnings of athletes across all leagues tells a story about the influence and success of sports programs across America.
An Introduction to Athlete Payouts
From 2011 to 2020, the most densely populated professional sports league was MLB, with 3,381 players during that time frame. Over the same period of time, the NFL paid their players the most — $47.29 billion was spent on athletes’ wages.
The University of Connecticut (UConn) and Marquette separated themselves from the pack in terms of average professional athlete earnings this past decade — they totaled $36.18 million and $35.43 million, respectively. Famous UConn athletes include the likes of Andre Drummond, Rudy Gay, Ray Allen and Kemba Walker. Marquette has also produced household names such as Dwyane Wade and Jimmy Butler. The school’s per athlete average earnings were over $10 million higher than the next, the University of Pittsburgh at $25.09 million.
Athletes who played in the Big East Conference this past decade collected, on average, the highest earnings at $22.84 million. The conference consists of ten sports for men, and twelve for women. Interestingly, both UConn and Marquette are a part of this conference.
Touching Down in the Big League
Looking exclusively at college football, athletes who graduated from Pitt earned the most since 2011 with an average of $30.56 million.
High-profile NFL players and their career earnings included Joe Flacco ($162 million), Larry Fitzgerald ($131 million), Darrelle Revis ($84.5 million) and Aaron Donald ($77.6 million). California was not far behind, with an average payout of $28.8 million for their big names, such as Aaron Rodgers ($231.6 million), Jared Goff ($88 million) and Cameron Jordan ($86.7 million).
Not surprisingly, being a quarterback paid well above any other position in football. Boston College products earned, on average, $119.92 million this decade. Former Boston College star Matt Ryan amassed over $216 million in his career.
The next highest-paid position was left tackle at Central Michigan with an average of $75.09 million. Eric Fisher played there and was a former first overall pick, while retired offensive lineman Joe Staley, who was also a first-rounder, played there.
Wide receivers and defensive linemen at Pitt were the next highest ($63.51 million and $47.32 million, respectively). Cornerbacks at Stanford accumulated $47.22 million, on average. Richard Sherman, a former Stanford Cardinal, is one of the biggest personalities and technically-skilled players in football.
Lastly, kickers from Texas made an average of $24.82 million.
The MAC Conference produced the highest average wages among NFL athletes at $18.1 million. Notable active players from the conference are Khalil Mack, Antonio Brown and Ben Roethlisberger.
The ACC produced, on average, the wealthiest quarterbacks, defensive linemen and wide receivers since 2011. Still, the SEC is regarded as the best conference in college football, even though they don’t have the highest average earnings. One reason may be due to the high-caliber coaching. The conference has always attracted top coaching prospects, and they are considered an integral part of the team and fan culture. They also boast both fantastic offensive- and defensive-minded teams, making for an exciting watch. Over the last five years, 54 SEC players have been selected in the first round, which is more than the Big Ten (29) and ACC (24) combined.
Overall, every NFL player this decade has previously played in the NCAA.
Buckets Equal Big Bucks
Texas, USC and Florida were neck and neck regarding NBA player average salaries this past decade. They all hovered around $47 million.
Each school has produced a collection of NBA stars — one example from each school and their earnings over the decade, respectively, is Kevin Durant ($254.8 million), DeMar DeRozan ($172.85 million) and Bradley Beal ($145.82 million).
Coming out of college, the highest earners, by far, were point guards. Ones that graduated from Wake Forest earned an average of $176.98 million since 2011. Former Demon Deacon point guard Chris Paul has amassed close to $260 million in his career. Although every position in basketball is important, the point guard is the coach on the floor. This might explain why point guards are extremely coveted by schools and eventually make the most money in the NBA.
The next richest position was the small forward, which Durant plays. Texas averaged $102.95 million for their small forward prodigies-turned-stars.
Shooting guards that graduated from Marquette, like Wade and Butler (who have both earned well over $100 million), earned an average of $70.49 million in their career.
UCLA centers cashed out the most, averaging $51.73 million. Their most-coveted center was Kevin Love, who has made more than $200 million.
The Pac-12 Conference ($29.08 million) slightly edged out the Big East ($28.53 million) in terms of highest salaries after college. They also produce, on average, the highest-paid shooting guards and centers.
Notable and former Pac-12 players currently in the NBA include James Harden, Klay Thompson, Russell Westbrook, DeMar DeRozan, Kevin Love and Jrue Holiday.
Overall, 79.3% of the NBA players from the last decade played in the NCAA previously.
The Home Run
Around just $7 million separated the school that correlated with the highest average athlete wages, the University of Miami ($23.03 million), from the tenth on the list. One of the school’s more successful alumni, Yasmani Grandal, has collected north of $56 million throughout his career.
The University of Missouri was not far behind, with an average salary of $22.73 million for those who made it to The Show, including the likes of Kyle Gibson who has a net worth of $26.19 million. The school also had the highest average pitcher earnings over the last decade at $24.94 million. Surprisingly, this was the lowest salary average among baseball positions.
In the MLB, the highest average earners were outfielders. Those who attended the University of Miami made just under $81 million, over $40 million more than the next highest school (Oregon). Ryan Braun, a left fielder from The U, has made over $100 million throughout his career.
The next position, catcher, came very close to matching the outfielders average. Florida State University catchers made, on average, $80.52 million. Former Seminole Buster Posey has collected over $160 million in in-game checks.
Georgia Tech infielders made, on average, $67.95 million in the pros, and Missouri State University held the highest salary averages for first basemen and hitters ($72.10 million and $37.28 million, respectively).
By a margin of about $3 million, the ASUN Conference held the highest average salaries for players going pro ($17.48 million). Regarding individual positions, a handful of different conferences claimed the top spots. Missouri Valley infielders made the most, on average ($23.94 million), while Pac-12 catchers made the least ($4.48 million).
Many eventual stars are signed right out of high school and are developed in the minor leagues, as opposed to going to college — just 42.9% of the MLB players who played within the last decade played in the NCAA previously. Front offices are looking to poach young prospects early, as many are uninterested in offering older players lucrative contracts.
Leading up to the 2019 season, former high school draftee Manny Machado signed a mammoth $300 million contract. Mike Trout, widely considered to be the best player in baseball, and also a once-upon-a-time high school draftee, recently signed an even bigger $360 million contract. This is a trend that is unlikely to change anytime soon.
He Shoots, He Scores (Big Time)
Minnesota ($9.83 million) barely edged out Clarkson ($9.72 million) to be the school that has produced the highest average hockey player earnings. A couple of household names and Minnesota alumni who are active NHLers are lethal sniper Phil Kessel and Winnipeg Jet captain Blake Wheeler.
Boston College right wings earned the most, on average, among all positions ($15.75 million). Hall of Famer Brian Gionta accumulated over $26 million throughout his career as a right-winger.
Ferris State holds dominion over the left-wing position. Their players earned $14.86 million, on average. One of the school’s most notable alumni, Chris Kunitz, amassed over $25 million during his playing days. Close behind is defenseman — ones that passed through Minnesota averaged $14.1 million in salary. Former Golden Gopher and first overall pick Erik Johnson is worth close to $50 million dollars. Centers earn the least, with St. Cloud State leading the pack at a $9.19 million average NHL salary. Longtime NHLer Matt Cullen played there and made over $17 million in the pros.
The richest goalies went through Boston University, averaging $5.06 million. One of their most noteworthy players was Rick DiPietro, who was first off the board in the 2000 NHL Draft and played in the league for 13 years. He was signed to a 15-year deal in 2006 and clearly didn’t make it through his contract.
The H-East Conference ($4.72 million) edged the rest in the transition to NHL average salaries. They also produced the highest average salaries for goalies and right-wingers who turned pro. The ECAC Conference led in the center and defensemen department, and the WCHA Conference churned out the richest left wings.
Only 10.1% of the NHL players who played within the last decade suited up in the NCAA previously, though. There are many hockey leagues around the world dedicated to the development of young players. U.S.-born players only make up a fraction of the league – there are a lot of Canadian- and European-born players that play in domestic leagues before transitioning to the NHL. Any player, though, like former first overall pick Auston Matthews might play outside of their home country if they believe it will benefit them.
Reaping the Rewards
Clearly, regardless of the sport they play, many athletes’ career earnings can be considered more than satisfactory. Over the last 10 years, the top five professional leagues have dished out tens of billions of dollars in sports contracts. College programs have helped many athletes develop the necessary skills to make the leap into the professional sports world and cash out.
One crucial aspect of these development programs is that schools have become notorious for developing specific positions better than others. For example, in NCAA football, teams have been given different nicknames based on how well they excel in a certain role on the field. Alabama has been referred to as ‘RBU’ (Running Back University) for their prowess at the position, and Ohio State has been coined ‘DBU’ (Defensive Back University) for the same reason. The same can be said about Lines.com — no one excels at sports coverage quite like us. For all your betting tips, live scores, and schedules, head there now.
Methodology and Limitations
We collected player salary data from www.spotrac.com and player college data from www.sports-reference.com for players who played in the NFL, MLB, NBA, and NHL within the last 10 years. Each player’s data points were merged by combining salary in order to see the total earnings. As a result, each athlete had one data point referencing their name, NCAA representation, conference representation, sport league, and total earnings since 2011.
No statistical testing was performed, so the claims listed above are based on means alone. As such, this content is exploratory and is presented for informational purposes only.
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