Commentary

The really fortunate 10

Originally Published: August 3, 2010
By Patrick Hruby | Page 2

A few weeks back, our colleagues at Sports Illustrated published their Fortunate 50, a list of the top 50-earning American athletes. Which is all well and good, save one important semantic detail.

Most of the listed sports figures aren't actually fortunate.

They're just really, really good.

Take Tiger Woods, who ranks No. 1. Would anyone argue that Woods is lucky? Especially lately? Or is it more accurate to state that he's incredibly skilled at golf, a pursuit awash in money, and therefore accordingly compensated?

Indeed, the sports world's most truly fortunate people are the ones receiving hefty sums by dint of happy accident, happier error or sheer kismet; the folks making serious bank almost in spite of themselves.

With that in mind, Page 2 presents our Really Fortunate 10:

1. Bobby Bonilla

Occupation: Former major league baseball slugger/grumbler.

Compensation: $1.2 million annually for 25 years, starting next July.

Summary: Bonilla calls it "that beautiful thing." Talk about an understatement. A decade ago, the New York Mets bought out the final year of Bonilla's contract -- $5.9 million -- by agreeing to a deferred, with-interest payment plan that begins in 2011 and will earn the 47-year-old former player a total of $29.8 million through 2035. Nice work if you can get it.

Fortune Quotient: Astronomical. Not only is Bonilla getting paid for doing nothing, he's essentially receiving an outsized reward for previous ineptitude -- over a 60-game span with the Mets in 1999, he hit .160 with four home runs, butted heads with then-manager Bobby Valentine and infamously played clubhouse cards with Rickey Henderson while New York lost the deciding game of the NLCS. The Mets will gladly pay you tomorrow -- and the next day, and the day after that -- for a rancid, parasite-infested hamburger today.

Fun fact: New York reportedly also is paying former pitcher Bret Saberhagen $250,000 in deferred payments through 2029.

2. Michael Buffer

Occupation: The only boxing/wrestling ring announcer anyone has ever heard of.

Compensation: Reportedly earns $25,000 per appearance. Plus expenses.

Summary: Let's get ready to rummmmble! Of such stuff is a killer payday made. Of course, don't focus on Buffer earning sacks of cash for essentially repeating the same quasi-motivational tweet; instead, consider everything else his lasting contribution to Western civilization has allowed him to enjoy: late-night talk-show appearances; cameos on "The Simpsons" and "South Park;" primo seats at the World Series, Stanley Cup finals and NBA Finals; roles in a dozen films; and even his own action figure.

Fortune Quotient: Semi-high. Luck played a role, but give Buffer credit for getting a 1992 federal trademark for his catchphrase, which reportedly has earned him over $400 million -- more than the value of the Charlotte Bobcats -- via music, video game and merchandise rights.

Fun fact: Following 2008 surgery for throat cancer, Buffer's first spoken words were "Ladies and gentlemen."

3. Peter Vidmar

Occupation: Former Olympic gymnast; current motivational speaker.

Compensation: Up to $10,000 per speech.

Summary: That corporate America is willing to pay big bucks ($50,000-plus) for win-in-sports, win-in-business, win-in-life pep talks from the high-profile likes of Pat Riley, Bruce Jenner and Magic Johnson is hardly surprising. What's shocking, however, is that lesser lights such as Vidmar, Olympic teammate Mitch Gaylord, former Miami Dolphins kicker/football shot-putter Garo Yepremian and son-of-the-legend Vince Lombardi Jr. receive relatively hefty paydays for the same platitude-spewing work.

Fortune Quotient: Up around the parallel bars. On one hand, Vidmar scored a perfect 10 on the pommel horse at the 1984 Summer Games and helped lead Team USA to an upset of favored China; on the other hand, when was the last time you thought about the '84 Olympics … beyond free food at McDonald's?

Fun fact: While giving his speech, Vidmar performs portions of a pommel horse routine. And yes, we looked for video. Unsuccessfully.

4. The Dude Who Backs Up Peyton Manning

Occupation: Professional ball cap model.

Compensation: About $330,000 for current backup Curtis Painter.

Summary: Indianapolis Colts quarterback Peyton Manning hasn't missed a start in his entire 12-season NFL career, which means second-stringers like former backup Jim Sorgi and Painter are being paid handsomely to relay signals, tidy clipboards and maintain enthusiastic -- but not deer-in-the-headlights rigid -- standing posture for up to three hours at a time.

Fortune Quotient: Moderate. Two things keep this from being the sweetest job in sports: (A) even backups want to play meaningful minutes once in a while; (B) make too much money standing on the sidelines -- Sorgi's 2009 salary-cap charge was $1.35 million -- and you'll be let go in favor of a cheap youngster like Painter.

5. Ozzie and Dan Silna

Occupation: Former owners of the ABA's Spirits of St. Louis basketball team.

Compensation: One-seventh of the television revenue of the NBA's Indiana Pacers, Denver Nuggets, San Antonio Spurs and New Jersey Nets in perpetuity. As in: forever Or at least until the sun expands and renders Earth an inhospitable hellscape.

Summary: When the NBA merged with the cash-strapped ABA in 1976, the senior league absorbed four teams -- the Pacers, Nuggets, Spurs and Nets. One problem: All six ABA owners had to agree to the deal, giving the Spirits and Kentucky Colonels unique, one-time leverage. Kentucky owner John Y. Brown accepted a $3.3 million buyout, while the Silna brothers smartly negotiated a payment reportedly between $2.2 and $3 million … plus the television revenue rights mentioned above, which according to a CNBC estimate netted the duo $180 million between 1976 and 2006.

Fortune Quotient: Moderate. Under the league's current television contract, the Silnas receive about $19 million per year -- yet when they cut the deal, there was no indication that the NBA would ascend to its current status. (In fact, early annual payments topped out at roughly $300,000, a small fraction of the $5 million the brothers poured into the Spirits). Nevertheless, the duo bet on the league's potential, even including a clause that accounted for future NBA expansion. Pretty darn clever.

Fun fact (I): The NBA almost bought out the Silnas brothers in 1982, offering $5 million over eight years, but balked when the brothers demanded $8 million over five. Oops!

Fun fact (II): The brothers reportedly suffered losses in Bernie Madoff's Ponzi scam.

Quotable: Said former Pacers executive Donnie Walsh to the New York Times: "Every five years, someone calls up with this story and it puts a dagger in my heart." Sure. A dagger made of platinum. Dipped in … liquid platinum!

6. EMF, Todd Rundgren, Baha Men, Queen et al.

Occupation: Musicians who cracked the code of sports stadium-anthem immortality.

Compensation: Varies, but as high as six figures annually.

Summary: A gift that keeps on giving. Every time "Unbelievable," "Bang the Drum All Day," "Who Let the Dogs Out?" or anything sung by Freddie Mercury blasts from a stadium or arena public address system, somebody somewhere is collecting royalties. How lucrative are the payouts? According to industry insiders, music-licensing companies such as BMI guard the exact numbers like state secrets. (Note: the United States military excluded). Still, there's this: Wisconsin-based Banshee Music produces theme songs for the Dallas Cowboys, Orlando Magic, NASCAR and other sports entities, then splits the subsequent licensing revenues. The company isn't going broke.

Fortune Quotient: Will definitely rock you. Why does "Rock and Roll (Part 2)" endure, while "Tubthumping" is quickly forgotten? Your guess is as good as ours.

7. Chuck Long

Occupation: Former San Diego State head football coach; current University of Kansas offensive coordinator.

Compensation: $715,900 per year.

Summary: Fired as Aztecs football coach in fall 2008 after going 9-27, Long was guaranteed his yearly salary through the end of 2010. The twist? A contract clause stipulating that Long's payments would end as soon as he found a new gig -- effectively giving Long incentive to not test the job market, given that he was unlikely to make anything close to the same amount somewhere else. Perhaps as a result, Long spent 2009 keeping regular campus office hours working on "projects and analysis" -- exactly the kind of stuff we do when we're actually watching YouTube or poring over NCAA tournament brackets.

Fortune Quotient: Filling the hole in the ozone layer. Though San Diego State hired a $125-an-hour labor relations consultant to work out a settlement, Long left the school to become a Kansas assistant with his final $715,000 payment intact, minus his new Jayhawks salary (reportedly $350,000).

8. David Wright

Occupation: Mets third baseman/clubhouse Warren Buffett.

Compensation: About $20 million.

Summary: When VitaminWater maker Glaceau asked Wright to endorse its brand in 2006, the slugger passed on a typical cash payment and instead took a 0.5 percent ownership stake in the company. Good decision: A year later, Coca-Cola purchased Glaceau for $4.1 billion.

Fortune Quotient: Moderate. After signing his endorsement deal, Wright told the New York Post that he went with equity rather than money because "he believed in the company." In other words, the Mets infielder had the exact same attitude toward vitamin-infused sugar water that investment bank Goldman Sachs had toward the subprime mortgage backed-securities it got nailed for peddling, except for being completely opposite.

Fun fact: A similar deal with Glaceau reportedly netted rapper 50 Cent a cool $100 million. Get rich or really, really hydrated tryin'!

9. Terrell Owens' publicists

Occupation: Ensure the media doesn't overlook one of professional sports' most underexposed athletes; make Owens' reality show slightly less boring.

Compensation: Exceedingly generous, whatever it is.

Summary: Owens having a publicist is like placing a poisonous dart on the nose cone of a Minuteman III ICBM; Owens having two publicists, Kita Williams and Monique Jackson, is like having "The Decision" include Brett Favre interviewing LeBron James while Albert Haynesworth runs laps in the background.

Fortune Quotient: Immense. And you thought James friend/aspiring marketing guru Maverick Carter was blessed with the perfect client.

10. Sports pundits

Occupation: Predict the No. 11 seed in the South regional, the Baseball Hall of Fame class of 2027 and the exact final score of every Week 13 NFL contest. Forget and revise, rinse and repeat.

Compensation: Paltry -- unless you work on television, in which case it's pretty, pretty, pretty good.

Summary: Spew, spew and spew some more. Be informed, sound informed or just argue vociferously enough that actual information becomes irrelevant. The choice is yours.

Fortune Quotient: In deep space. Like television weathermen -- excuse us, meteorologists -- and political yakkers, sports pundits occupy an amazingly fortunate position for one overriding reason: There is absolutely no accountability or penalty for being wrong. Less clairvoyant than a German octopus? No worries. There's always another game tomorrow!

Patrick Hruby is a freelance writer and ESPN.com contributor. Contact him at PatrickHruby.net.


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