Who Are the Highest-Paid Public Workers in America?

Sports money makes the world go round. 

Just ask LeBron James, Serena Williams, Cristiano Ronaldo and many other athletes around the world whose annual net worth is beyond the wildest dreams of most of us. But even beneath that pantheon of superstar athletes, other sportspeople are raking in huge sums. That roster includes college coaches who nurture many talents to stardom.

According to data analyzed by GOBankingRates, head football coaches, closely followed by basketball coaches, have been easily racking up seven-figure salaries over the last couple of years. 

In fact, coaches at state-funded colleges are America’s highest-paid public workers, pocketing far more than tenured college professors or even governors. 

Ed Orgeron, head football coach at Louisiana State University, earns $14 million annually, 30 times more than governor John Bel Edwards’ $130,000. Over in South Carolina, the disparity is even more pronounced as Clemson football coach Dabo Swinney takes home $9.3 million every year in comparison to Governor Henry McMaster’s relatively measly $106,100. By contrast, tenured professors in the U.S. typically make between $120,000 and $145,000 annually. 

Some head coaches also get to fly on private jets and benefit from fat buyout or severance clauses. During the 2015-16 season, the Ohio State University (OSU) Athletic Department spent $166.8 million. Approximately a fifth of that went to coaching benefits, including more than $6 million to Urban Meyer, coach of its Buckeyes football team. Not even pay cuts during the pandemic particularly dented the earnings of coaches. 

For years, controversy has dogged these bizarrely high salaries. Just before the pandemic, Congresswoman Donna Shalala of Florida introduced federal legislation to cap earnings. “I’m mortified at these salaries,” she said. “We have not been able to slow spending or expenditures.”

It’s an artificial marketplace.

Andrew Zimbalist, economics professor, Smith College

Yet experts say the high wages are purely down to economics. Highly qualified college coaches are in short supply — partly because they are often snapped up by professional sides — even though demand is high, especially down South where college sports are the main local entertainment in the absence of major professional sports teams. 

“It’s an artificial marketplace,” says Andrew Zimbalist, professor of economics at Smith College. “You have an athletic director who has one objective, which is to win. There are only stakeholders who want victory, not stockholders who want profit.”

It’s also been argued that sports teams generate funding for colleges from merchandising, ticket sales and an increase in enrollment numbers as the teams win trophies. This revenue generated from football and basketball helps fund less popular sports. 

Overall, athletics departments of NCAA member colleges generated $18.9 billion in revenue in 2019.

But while coaches earn so much, athletes have historically been paid nothing. Until this summer, when a landmark Supreme Court ruling opened up new avenues of revenue for college athletes by permitting them to earn from name, image and likeness (NIL) rights, athletes earned no salaries but got scholarships instead.

It is too early to tell if the new law will translate into college athletes out-earning their mentors, as is the case with most professional sports. For now though, the coach is king. 

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