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Mulligan: Real money isn’t in playoffs

Like every Bear Brian Urlacher will receive check for $21000 if team wins Sunday. | Tom Cruze~Sun-Times

Like every Bear, Brian Urlacher will receive a check for $21,000 if the team wins on Sunday. | Tom Cruze~Sun-Times

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Updated: January 14, 2011 11:58AM

The NFL’s anticipated offseason labor strife promises to remind everyone that professional sports feature millionaire players and billionaire owners and a love of money more than a love of the game. That’s not a surprise, of course, after an allegedly amateur college football season that was defined by a search for secret payments and parental blackmail.

There’s nothing amateurish about the NFL. Well, nothing outside the Bears’ drafts, anyway.

And there’s nothing amateurish about the NFL playoffs. Well, nothing except for the players’ salaries and the fact that teams don’t get a lot of front-end money for their postseason success. The money eventually spreads to all corners of the NFL through its lucrative television deal and revenue-sharing, but a team like the Green Bay Packers, for instance, could make a run to the Super Bowl and wind up losing money in the short term.

The financial benefit of reaching the playoffs is generally felt in subsequent seasons in the form of increased ticket sales and rights fees for marketing partnerships for franchises, and in individual sponsorship opportunities and increased free-agent value for players. But in terms of immediate impact, the NFL playoffs reward teams and players with less income than any of the major U.S. sports. That’s what happens when you have a limited number of playoff games.

NFL teams split ticket revenue during the regular season, with the home team keeping one-third of the gate. That’s not the case in the playoffs, when all of the ticket revenue goes into a pool shared equally by teams. That leaves the home team with only the earnings created by stadium sales — concessions and merchandise.

The league rewards teams that win in the wild-card round with $590,000 if they lose and $650,000 if they win. In the divisional round, each team gets $650,000 to cover expenses; that jumps to $1.01  million for the conference championship game. The Super Bowl winner gets $4.108 million and the losing team $2.878  million.

Teams often will lose as much as the NFL gives them for expenses just on playoff bonus money written into staff and player contracts. Many players have big bonuses for playoff advancement. Teams also face added costs in road games: moving equipment and paying for the travel of sponsors and family members.

Players make comically less for playoff appearances than they do for regular-season games. In the NFL, a base salary is spread over 17 game checks. A guy like Bears linebacker Brian Urlacher, for instance, will get a few million in bonus money and a $6.75 million base salary, or around $397,000 per regular-season game.

For the divisional-round game Sunday against the Seattle Seahawks, Urlacher will get a check for $21,000 for a win, just like every other guy on the roster.

During their unprecedented free-agent spending spree in March, the Bears gave defensive end Julius Peppers a six-year deal worth up to $91.5  million, including $42 million guaranteed. Peppers made a cool $20 million for 2010, which moved him into 36th on Sports Illustrated’s annual Fortune 50 of the highest-paid athletes in America. But he’s on the same pay scale as the rest of the NFL in the playoffs.

Players earn $21,000 for winning a wild-card game and 19 grand for losing one. That rises to $21,000 for the divisional round and $38,000 for the conference championship game. Players on a Super Bowl winner receive $83,000 each; the losers get $42,000 each.

That’s not much money for millionaires, and even less for a billionaire, but what price glory? How much is immortality worth? In the NFL, nowhere near a normal paycheck.

Still, the ring is the thing, and winning means everyone is paid, even if it comes on the back end.

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