Why Don’t NPB Players Make More Money?

» 05 May 2014 » In npb »

…a later article appears. The delving begins.

The glass is half empty: only 91 NPB players earn JPY 100m ($1m) or more per year, a relative paucity compared to their Major League counterparts.

The glass is half full: 91 is more than 10% of the total number of NPB players and all 91 are probably quite happy to be earning such a comfortable income; the vast majority NPB farm leaguers earn JPY 4.4m ($44k) and up, a relative fortune compared with their MLB-affiliated minor league counterparts.

So why don’t NPB players earn more? And more importantly, why haven’t NPB’s top salaries grown? Aside from the blips of Roberto Petagine and Tony Batista cracking JPY 700m ($7m) in the mid-aughts, the top salaries have leveled off at about JPY 600m ($6m).

This subject probably requires expertise or research that exceeds what I have to offer, but I do have a few observations, ordered numerically for convenient reference, rather than in order of precedence.

  1. Most of the biggest stars move on MLB, rather than driving up their NPB salaries.
  2. Domestic free agency does increase salaries, but is so restrictive that only a small percentage of eligible players even file.
  3. Pre-free agency salaries tend to go year to year, and pay cuts for non-performance or injuries are a bit more common.
  4. The almost complete lack of agents in NPB.
  5. A cultural aversion to crossing the salary thresholds set by previous stars.
  6. Payroll is spread more equitably across the entire baseball operation.
  7. NPB teams are operated as business units of large corporations, rather than independent businesses funded by wealthy investors.

I would point to Hideki Matsui’s departure for the Yankees following the 2002 season as the starting point of NPB salary stagnation. Matsui’s salary in 2002 was JPY 610m, and while we’ve seen that line crossed a couple times (see above), the JPY 600m figure has essentially become the benchmark number for top-notch NPB players. Shinosuke Abe has this year’s top salary, at the magic JPY 600m mark. He could have had more, but he didn’t feel ready to surpass Matsui’s number. If he Abe had had an agent involved. I’m sure he would have nudged him in the direction of the higher paycheck.

Following the 2001 season, Yomiuri offered Matsui an eight-year, JPY 6bn ($60m), which would easily have . Had he taken the Kyojin-gun’s offer, that would have dragged the benchmark up to JPY 750m. Ichiro’s final NPB salary (2000) was JPY 550m. Yu Darvish’s was JPY 500m (2011). Kazuhiro Sasaki’s was JPY 500m (1999), then JPY 650m after he returned to Yokohama. It’s reasonable to think that any of these guys would have raised the bar as well, though none ever had a publicly-disclosed offer of the size of Matsui’s.

Epilogue: I suppose this doesn’t explain much. NPB teams are mostly operated as loss leaders, and the league as a whole has been less aggressive than MLB at developing new revenue streams. I could easily write a whole post exploring the balances sheets of NPB clubs, but the fact that they are less profitable than their MLB counterparts is a big piece of the puzzle here.

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