Typically, pro sports teams that spend more money on players are more successful. In recent years, American sports leagues have instituted financial restrictions on teams to keep a more level playing field — either a salary cap, or a luxury tax for teams that spend beyond a certain threshold on their payroll. Despite these restrictions, since they were instituted, championship-winning teams typically rank in the top 10 in spending. But if teams draft wisely and negotiate shrewdly, they can win championships despite being outspent by a majority of their opponents.
24/7 Wall St. reviewed data from USA Today and sports contract site Spotrac to determine the teams that won championships on a shoestring budget. These NBA, MLB, NHL, and NFL teams were ranked based on how many other teams in the league had larger payrolls in their title-winning season. We considered teams from each league’s modern era, either during or just before financial fair play rules like the luxury tax or salary cap were adopted. This period encompasses 20-30 years for all four leagues.
The key to winning a championship on the cheap is finding talented young players. Rookies, especially those drafted in later rounds, sign much less lucrative contracts than players who have proved they can make it as pro athletes. Young players who can contribute to team success while taking up a smaller share of the team’s payroll enable the front office to sign high-priced veterans and create a well-rounded team that can compete for titles. Each of the teams on this list features players that would become superstars later in their careers. These are the youngest players to dominate their sport.
These inexpensive rookie deals do not last forever, though. Young players who contribute to titles can use their success as leverage to negotiate more lucrative contracts. Patrick Mahomes, who led the Chiefs to a Super Bowl on a rookie deal that cost Kansas City less than $4.5 million in 2019, will likely earn over $30 million per year soon. His teammates Tyreek Hill and Chris Jones cost Kansas City around $2 million each last season, but both will earn over $16 million in 2020. Players who earn these mega deals must continue to play at a high level, or they risk tanking their team’s chance of success. These are the most overpaid athletes in pro sports.