Finances made Kyler Murray’s decision obvious before anything else

Kyler Murray has chosen the NFL over the MLB and the financial comparison makes it clear why

If you make the assumption that Kyler Murray has the same level of affection for both baseball and American football, despite the indications being this is not the case, then the fundamentally broken financial system in Major League Baseball would drive anyone with ability in both sports to the NFL. After being the higher than projected ninth choice in last June’s MLB draft, the Oakland Athletics made the now disastrous choice to allow Murray to play another season of American football at the University of Oklahoma. This has put him in the position to go in the top 10 and maybe even top five of the upcoming NFL draft after a season within which he won the Heisman Trophy.

MLB leadership recently allowed the A’s the opportunity to offer him a major league contract, which would see him reach free agency sooner and, consequently, give more money to Murray in order to keep him in the sport. The question was then raised of would these increased finances make his choice worth it, but the gap between the signing bonuses was too great to breach. Furthermore, Murray has always indicated a preference for American football.

His initial bonus last summer was $4.66m, which would be less than he would receive if he went anywhere in the first round of the NFL draft. During these recent negotiations, the reported number offered by baseball was in the vicinity of $15m, the equivalent of the sixth overall pick in last year’s NFL draft. These figures are also limited as they are just the discussion of a signing bonus and do not indicate the salaries of the initial contract or what age he would become a free agent.

A number of years ago, this discussion would have been a lot simpler. In 2012, MLB teams were limited in their draft spending which severely hampered the ability of teams to pay a dual sport prospect more to persuade them to play baseball, such as with Jeff Samardzija in 2007.

“Murray plays the most highly prized and therefore highly paid position”

The consideration of the likelihood of success also comes into play. The traditional argument with NFL vs MLB is that if you are certain of stardom, the choice is baseball. The earning potential for superstars in a non-capped league with guaranteed contracts, as well as the lack of head trauma, would seem to severely tilt the scales. However, Murray plays the most highly prized and, therefore, highly paid position, and the pay for superstars has disappeared in baseball in recent years.

Murray has also missed out on important development time due to playing both sports collegiately, as well as spending this last season at Oklahoma, he also has an issue with strikeouts, is raw in the field and the average production from even a top 10 talent in the draft is extremely low. In spite of this, there are concerns for Murray in the NFL, as no one under 5’10” has received significant playing time since 2001 and the coaching ability needed for a player with his skill set and situational reliance further those concerns.

So, even if we assumed that the signing bonuses were able to be equivalent, that Kyler Murray had the same affection for both sports and that he were equally likely to be a star in either, then the financial trajectory would seal the argument in favour of the decision that Murray has actually made. If we project a typical star progression for Kyler Murray in baseball, with his original $4.66m signing bonus, and use the contract of last year’s sixth overall pick in the NFL draft as the NFL template, the year by year comparison looks something like this:

Year/Age at end of season MLB level/earnings NFL earnings
2019/22 A/Minimum wage and $4.66m signing bonus $15.9m ($480,000 base + $15.45m signing bonus)
2020/23 A+/Minimum wage and signing bonus $1.56m
2021/24 AA/Minimum wage and signing bonus $2.65m
2022/25 AAA/Minimum wage and signing bonus $3.73m
2023/26 80% MLB season/Pro-rated league minimum (approx. $570,000) “Fifth year option” – Average of top 10 salaries at position, approx. $22-27m

After this five year period, Murray would become a free agent in the NFL, meaning he would be free to sign a contract of whatever value depending on this performance. In baseball on the other hand, he would have three more years at the MLB league minimum salary, then three years of salary arbitration, meaning he would only be a free agent at the age of 32. As has been shown this winter, teams are already reticent to pay significant money to players long term in their late 20s, let alone in their 30s.

Even if Murray is a total failure in the NFL, he would be guaranteed to earn more. In his first four years in the minor leagues of baseball, he would be living off his signing bonus and earning less than minimum wage otherwise as is standard for minor leaguers. The minimum pay from the NFL contract for the sixth pick would be around $24m, so $20m more than Kyler Murray’s signing bonus from Oakland.

The X factor in all of these calculations is the probable work stoppage in MLB after 2021. Relations between players and owners are particularly contentious due to egregious service time manipulation and the avoidance of paying free agents, regardless of ability. Players are paid the league minimum in their first three seasons, or two for exceptional performers, with salaries then being arbitrated for the next three. Teams are manipulating this rule by getting a free season at league minimum if a player plays less than 90% of the season. This means that teams will use nebulous reasons to avoid calling up major league ready players for a month.

This winter has also served as a tipping point, as two of the best players to ever hit free agency, 26 year olds Manny Machado and Bryce Harper, were still unsigned on the eve of the start of training camp. By all precedents, these players should be signed to long and lucrative contracts by this point, however, teams are citing all sorts of mysterious reasons not to pay them their worth. This upsets the whole established economic system, where players used to be underpaid for the starts of their careers but then became free agents and were able to cash in. Therefore, there could be a stoppage that would affect Murray’s progression as well as possibly reshaping the economic picture.

“There is very little reason to choose baseball if you are an equivalent prospect in both sports”

The finances of the situation starkly illustrate that, at this point, unless there is a seriously significant preference for someone in Kyler Murray’s position for baseball, there is only one clear decision to make. At best, it takes eight or nine years before a baseball prospect gets paid their worth with any level of security. With the money on offer in the top half of the NFL draft, within which it also only takes five years for one to become a free agent, there is very little reason to choose baseball if you are an equivalent prospect in both sports. The fact that Murray is a quarterback, the highest paid position with the least head trauma, only tilts the scales further.

This decision will have been driven by the seeming fact that, fundamentally, Kyler Murray prefers American football. But even is that wasn’t the case, it is evident he has made the right choice. The MLB need to take a look at their economic structure if they want to stop losing out on players to the NFL and other sports.

Callum McPhail

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Featured image courtesy of @TheKylerMurray via Twitter.


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