April 19, 2014 at 1:00 am

Chris McCosky

Why do you care how much money Matthew Stafford makes?

Lions quarterback Matthew Stafford will be one of the highest-paid athletes in the world this season. (Daniel Mears / Detroit News)

Allen Park — Our local sports talk radio lads had some good fun at Matthew Stafford’s expense earlier this week, culling segment after segment from ESPN the Magazine’s Money Issue.

Stafford ranked sixth among the magazine’s list of the 50 top-paid athletes in the world. His listed salary of $31.5 million was topped only by Floyd Mayweather ($73.5 million), Cristiano Ronaldo ($50.176 million), Lionel Messi ($50.05 million), Aaron Rodgers ($40 million) and Zlatan Ibrahimovic ($35.06 million).

The first thing that came to mind was, dang, why didn’t I push my kids into soccer? The second thing was, the $31 million number for Stafford is a little hyped and misleading.

But it was enough to spark outrage on the airwaves. “Welcome to Detroit, the home of the most overpaid athlete in the world,” or something along those lines. People seemed to be insulted that Stafford, with zero playoff wins in five years, was being paid all that money. As if they were the ones paying his salary.

Skewed scale

Personally, I will never understand the preoccupation with the salaries paid to professional athletes. Of course they are out of whack. Of course it’s absurd that a second-string veteran pulling guard in the NFL can make more than most teachers and cops. Of course it’s absurd that a quarterback can make more in a year than the president of the United States and every judge on the Supreme Court combined. Yes, these guys are ridiculously overpaid.

But so are actors and entertainers. Miley Cyrus outearned the president, too. This isn’t a new development. And while I often hear fans say, “I can’t watch the (NBA or NFL or MLB) anymore, those guys just make too damn much money,” I never hear people say, “I can’t watch movies anymore; do you know how much those actors are making?”

Who cares? How does that get in the way of your enjoyment of the games or movies? Would you enjoy the games more if the players made less money than you and me?

Look, if we could get television networks to pay billions of dollars to watch us work, we could be grossly overpaid, too. It’s the ever-increasing size of the networks' investment into professional sports, and the ever-increasing profit that investment generates, that drives up and pays for the salaries of the players.

You and I aren’t paying for Stafford’s salary or anybody else’s. Ticket prices aren’t tied to player salaries. If the Lions signed Ndamukong Suh to a $100 million extension tomorrow, ticket prices wouldn’t go up. There have been multiple studies in all sports — those with salary caps and those without — that have shown no meaningful relationship between increased player salaries and increased ticket prices.

Ticket prices, put simply, are based primarily on consumer demand. The Lions will raise ticket prices as high as they think you will pay for them — regardless of the size of the payroll. So if you really wanted to make a statement, you could persuade 67,000 people to stay away from Ford Field for the 10 home games a year. That would perhaps lead to lower ticket prices, but not necessarily lower player salaries.

But I digress.

Franchise fees

So Stafford is sixth on the ESPN list at $31.5 million. I am guessing he falls out of the top 20 in the 2015 list. The $31.5 million may be what he ultimately reports to the IRS this year, but it does not reflect his burden on the Lions’ operating expenses this season.

His base salary for this year is $2 million. He also earns another $13.82 million in prorated bonuses. His cap hit is $15.82 million. The other $15 million plus comes mostly from money that was deferred in previous years — “dead money,” they call it.

Stafford had twice restructured his contract to give the team more cap space to sign free agents. Some of that repayment came due this year and thus, his gross earnings climbed over $31 million.

Next year, his taxable income will be in the low-to mid-$20 million range. Yes, that’s still a ridiculous sum of money to pay a quarterback who has largely underachieved the last two years. But it is the going rate for franchise quarterbacks in the NFL, and like him or not, the Lions are committed and deeply invested in Stafford as their franchise quarterback.

Stafford is 26 and entering what is considered the prime years of a quarterback’s career — years six through nine. He’s only two years removed from the 5,038-yard, 42-touchdown season of 2011 for which he earned this contract extension.

My guess, and the Lions’ most fervent hope, is by this time next year the talk radio boys won’t find as much critical or comedic fodder in Stafford’s salary status.

chris.mccosky@detroitnews.com
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