Shooting for Gold: The Business of Sports

Omri Casspi made history last week when he became the first Israeli chosen to play for the NBA - yes, the National Basketball Association of America. It was the first time an Israeli had been chosen in the first round of the draft. Yet five other Israeli sports stars earn more than he will.

Casspi, a 20-year-old forward with the Maccabi Tel Aviv basketball team, will be grossing about $1.2 million in his first season with the Sacramento Kings, which made him the 23rd pick in its draft last week. However, the best-paid Israeli international sports star is soccer player Tal Ben-Haim. He makes $4.4 million per season wearing the colors of Sunderland, competing in the English Premier League.

Local sports have not pole-vaulted above the financial crisis. Like all too many workers up and down the land, Israel's soccer players are being pressed to accept pay cuts, among others by Maccabi Haifa and Beitar Jerusalem (where the pay cut is still being discussed). Many other teams are also cutting salaries.

Yaniv Katan, for example, the best-paid soccer player with local champions Maccabi Haifa, will be making $300,000 next season - roughly from August to June of the next year, after taking a 15% pay cut. Not so the Israelis playing abroad: They're making a killing.

Generally speaking, the Israeli sports scene is small and inferior to that in other countries. Foreign players like Carlos Arroyo, who played basketball with Maccabi Tel Aviv last season, could demand millions of dollars - about $2.5 million per season. The locals, whether in soccer or basketball, can't, certainly not with the recession roaring.

Unless, of course, they have extraordinary talent that lifts them above the pack, whether as part of an international team like Ben-Haim and Casspi, or as solo acts, like Israel's tennis stars.

"The Israeli market is dead," says a top agent. "There's less money and nobody wants to take risks." Things are tight everywhere, but elsewhere in the world there's more opportunity, and if you're good enough, you'll make the big bucks. "In any case the differences in pay are big, and usually an Israeli sports star playing abroad will pay less tax," he says.

As noted, Omri Casspi will be making somewhere between $1.1 million and $1.2 million for his first season in Sacramento. He's about to sign the contract. Israeli players in Europe aren't stiffed, either: In fact, some earn more than Casspi will. Yotam Halperin, another Maccabi Tel Aviv graduate, is making $1.5 million a season with the Greek basketball team Olympiacos, one of the best teams on the continent. His contract is for three years.

Then there's Lior Eliyahu, who's taking his 6 foot 8 inches from Maccabi Tel Aviv to Spanish team Tao Vitoria in exchange for $1.4 million for the season.

The top earners among Israel's sports stars aren't the hoopsters, however. The jackpot goes to the soccer players, mainly the ones playing in England's Premier League. Yossi Benayoun did accept a bit of a pay cut when moving from West Ham to Liverpool, but he gets to play for one of the best-known teams in the world and is making somewhere between 45,000 and 50,000 pounds a week, or $4 million per season. Tal Ben-Haim, who moved from Chelsea to Sunderland, managed to keep his terms and is making a bit more than Benayoun: $4.4 million per season, even though his team is smaller and a lot less successful.

Is the green-eyed monster gnawing at your ankle? Well, compared with the true superstars of global soccer, neither Benayoun or Ben Haim are considered major earners. Cristiano Ronaldo's contract with Real Madrid broke the record: he'll be making 13 million euros ($18 million) per season over the next six years. The previous best-paid player had been Inter Milan striker Zlatan Ibrahimovic, who made $15 million in the last season.

They also make a lot more on the side, in case you were worried. Advertisements, sponsorships, and sometimes a share of merchandise sales - T-shirts and coffee mugs and whatnot - can inflate a popular player's take by tens of millions of dollars a year.

Soccer superstar David Beckham, for example, gets paid "only" $6.5 million a year. But his income in 2008 reached $45.5 million. Lionel Messi of Barcelona makes almost as much as Ibrahimovic, but took in more than $40 million last year. Even Ronaldinho, the Brazilian star of Milan whose star has dimmed, brought in more than $27.5 million in 2008, and only a quarter of that was from his team. The rest originated from advertising contracts signed at least two years before.

Ronaldo, by the way, earned $25 million in 2008, but with his move to Real Madrid his terms were sweetened. New sponsorships could raise him to the ranks of the best remunerated sportsmen.

Yet even soccer stars don't command the loftiest heights of pay. The apex belongs to American superstars of golf, car racing, boxing and - yes, back to basketball. Legendary golf genius Tiger Woods makes $100 million a year and boxer Oscar de la Hoya took home $43 million in 2008. Formula One driver Kimi Raikkonen was paid $40 million.

In short, the sports stars at the top of the heap aren't quite sharing the pain of the global economic crisis. Jonah Freedman of Sports Illustrated points out that typically, the stars' advertising contracts are long-term (as frequently are their contracts with teams).

It's all very heady stuff, and it can all end one day, after a losing streak, for instance, or just because their star is fading. These are people who have no steady source of income. Israeli tennis star Shahar Peer made $820,000 just from prizes in 2007. This year, with half the season already gone, she's made $180,000.