Why Are Kickers Paid More Than Running Backs? Economic Logic Provides an Answer
Think of the best football players of all time. One of my immediate thoughts is running back LaDainian Tomlinson. However, as you think about your list, ask yourself this: where do kickers like Justin Tucker (or my favorite college kickers like Jaden Oberkrom or Griffin Kell) rank? No matter who you are, odds are you thought of several running backs before even considering a kicker. Sure, you probably have a few favorite moments where a kicker saved the day with one second left on the clock, but several more moments where an RB broke through the defensive line and ran away as you stood up and screamed.
Despite this reality, Dez Bryant recently brought attention to the fact that the average salary for an NFL running back is $1.81 million, significantly shy of the $2.26 million that an average kicker makes. How does one square this circle?
The most likely answer comes down to the number of running backs in the league compared to the number of kickers in the league. One running back simply cannot possibly play the entire game play after play after play in the trenches. As such, each team needs multiple running backs. In addition to that reality, running back is a much more dangerous position than kicker, far more likely to get injured, and for that reason the team has even more pressure to need more running backs on the roster.
However, as we Austrians know, there is a diminishing return on each player you add to your team. While your first choice may be worth millions to you, your second will be less, your third will be even less, and so on and so forth. The average number means that the lowest paid running backs will be included. Such backs are incredibly talented; however, it is still a reality that they sit on the bench for much of the game. On the flip side, most teams have only one kicker. As a result, there are almost 4 times as many running backs as there are kickers (with 32 kickers compared to between 100 and 125 running backs).
With this knowledge in mind, if we were to look at only the top thirty two running backs, we would find an average salary more in the range of $5.64 million, more than twice that of an average kicker. One could expect that if the NFL went out and hired almost one hundred more kickers, we would find a sharp decrease in their average pay.
Having squared that circle, it is important to answer one more dangerous question being posed in relation to this. Every time the talk of pay comes up, the talk of unions comes up. This has been a debate ranging for years and one can see even back in 2014, arguments were claiming: “That position needs its own union. We treat our equipment people better than we treat our running backs.”
This is simply untrue. Even if we accepted half of the original $1.81 million number, it is still difficult to imagine any struggle worth unionizing over. But that’s also ignoring the value outside of salary in this discussion. If we are really treating our equipment people better than our running backs, I’d like to ask how much our equipment people are making in sponsorships? I’m prepared to bet it is somewhere in the ballpark of $0.00, significantly less than running backs.
This does not even include the fact that it is very rare that equipment managers – and even kickers – find themselves with stadiums full of fans cheering their names, which is a form of psychic profit that cannot be accounted for. Furthermore, if a running back’s talent is really that desirable, then go out there, put up some yards, and get another team to offer you a better deal or go out and levy that into a sponsorship offer. Whenever talk of unionization arises, we must remember the full context that is easy to miss in the not so nuanced world of sports.