Depending on whom you believe, Alex Rodriguez may or may not be heading to the Chicago Cubs next year, and he may or may not become a part-owner of the storied franchise.
Certainly, any contract that gives a player an equity stake in the team would be unprecedented in modern Major League Baseball — and not allowed, according to the league — but it also would join a sizable list of contracts known for their uniqueness and financial creativity. Here’s a sampling of some deals on that list:
The soccer whopper
Chic soccer star David Beckham crossed the Atlantic this season to become the highest profile player in the history of MLS, and he didn’t do it for free. Beckham’s deal with the Los Angeles Galaxy has been valued at nearly $250 million over five years or more than twice as much on an annual basis as the record contract signed by Alex Rodriguez in 2001.
But the contract isn’t a simple “I play, you pay” type of situation. Only about $50 million of the money is guaranteed, with the rest tied to marketing revenue, merchandise and ticket sales and profit sharing with the Galaxy and MLS. Beckham will be cashing checks from a number of sources — the Galaxy, MLS, Adidas and other companies — but is unlikely to see all of the oft-quoted $250 million. Nevertheless, sports marketing experts said the Beckham deal could set a precedent.
“The days of it being cookie-cutter are behind us,” said David Carter, principal of the Sports Business Group in Los Angeles. “Athletes now want to take advantage of their own brands.”
In 1995, Deion Sanders was arguably the best defensive player in the NFL, and the Cowboys paid him accordingly, providing him with a seven-year, $35 million contract that included a $13 million signing bonus. The hefty bonus was a clear attempt by Cowboys owner Jerry Jones to circumvent the NFL’s strict salary cap rule and led to a change in league policy. The so-called “Deion Rule” essentially prevents teams from handing out big bonuses and low base salaries to beat the cap system.
Granted, NFL teams still find ways to beat the cap system, often by creatively backloading and staggering contracts. The teams that maneuver the best under the cap (New England, Philadelphia) have shown sustained success, while teams that struggle to get under the cap (Washington, Jacksonville) have failed to win consistently.
Richest in perpetuity
When mercurial slugger Albert Belle signed a five-year, $55 million contract to join the White Sox in 1997, it wasn’t enough that the deal made him the richest player in baseball at the time. Belle wanted to ensure he remained near the top of the salary scale, negotiating for a clause that allowed him to opt out of the contract if he was not among the top three highest players in the game. After several players eclipsed his salary before the 1999 season, Bell voided the remaining years of the deal and signed a five-year, $65 million contract with the Orioles that put him back in the top three. A number of players eventually passed Belle in salary, but his White Sox deal set a precedent: Rodriguez’s current 10-year, $252 million deal has a similar “highest-paid player” provision. In A-Rod’s case, the provision has proved unnecessary.
Just win, baby
When the Royals’ Mike Sweeney was due for a big contract after the 2002 season, he wanted to make sure his All-Star bat wouldn’t continue to be wasted on a losing team. Since debuting with Kansas City in 1995, the Royals had recorded no more than 77 wins and fared no better than third in the American League Central. So he and agents Sam and Seth Levinson cooked up a contract that allowed Sweeney to leave Kansas City if the team failed to win. The five-year, $55 million deal permitted Sweeney to opt out of the last three years if the team did not finish above .500 in either 2003 or 2004. The Royals finished with a record of 83-79 in 2003, locking Sweeney in for the full length of the contract. (In the four seasons since, the team is 155 games under .500.)
Ricky Williams has made many mistakes during his football career, but his biggest blunder may have been hiring rap artist Master P as his first agent after turning pro in 1999.
Master P associate Leland Hardy negotiated a deal for Williams with the New Orleans Saints that was heavy on incentives but light on guaranteed money. The contract called for an $8.84 million signing bonus and $11 million over seven years, an unimpressive number for a man who had just broken the all-time NCAA rushing record and won the Heisman Trophy. With incentives, the contract could have been worth more than $64 million, but most of the incentives were backloaded and difficult to obtain. (He could have earned $3 million for breaking the single-season rushing record, for instance.)
Williams later dropped Master P and his posse for the more experienced Leigh Steinberg in 2000. Master P’s sports agency swiftly folded.
“It’s a contract that’s unique in the annals of NFL history,” Steinberg told the Associated Press after Williams was traded to the Miami Dolphins in 2002. “It’s a contract that cries out for renegotiation.”
Williams, of course, has spent the last few years simply trying to negotiate himself back into the NFL after a series of positive drug tests.