We’re Paying You to Leave: The Sports Franchises That Have Paid People to Do Nothing
Bobby Bonilla gets paid $1 million per year to not play for the Mets until 2035. Somehow, other teams have wasted money in even more spectacular ways.
For our neighbors to the north, July 1st is Canada Day. But for Mets fans, it’s a chance to rejoice at yet another year in which ex-outfielder/third baseman Bobby Bonilla is handed a nifty check for $1,193,248.20. Amazingly, he’ll pocket this tidy sum until 2035, even though he hasn’t snarled at a reporter or taken a mental heath break to play cards during a playoff game since 2001.
Why is Bobby Bonilla still on the receiving end of this largesse? Well, after the 1999 season, the Mets wanted to rid themselves of the $5.9 million that Bonilla was still owed on the final year of his contract. The Wilpon family cobbled together a fiendishly clever plot that at the time, seemed destined to further fatten their wallets. The problem was, said bit of accounting legerdemain was accomplished in concert with their close personal friend and hedge fund whiz, Bernie Madoff.
“The $5.9 million went into a [Bernard] Madoff account, which was theoretically supposed to collect a double-digit interest rate over the life of the agreement, Mark Winegardner wrote at ESPN The Magazine. “Only about an 8 percent return would have been needed to pay Bonilla his $1.2 million a year from 2011 to 2035. The Mets did the math and figured they’d be able to turn a $60-70 million profit on the arrangement.”
Of course, once Madoff was sent off in irons, the Mets were left in a perilous financial situation, perennially refinancing not just the 250 million dollar loan that Major League Baseball gifted them to keep the team afloat, but also the 600 million that they’ve borrowed against future earnings from SNY, the team’s broadcast network, leaving what should be a big market powerhouse unable to swing even the tiniest trade if it meant adding a few more zeroes to the beyond-shaky bottom line.
The Bonilla deal isn’t the reason that the Mets are screwed, or as Howard Megdal reported at Capital New York, “spending more on financing debt than they are on payroll,” but it does make for a dandy avatar for the groaning incompetence of a sexual harassment-infested front office.
That said, for all the easy, and well-deserved LOLMets jokes, they’re far from the only team cutting checks for athletes that are no longer in their employ. The Rockies set aside $13.1 million of the money owed Todd Helton until 2023. Zach Randolph has deferred payments lined up from both the Portland Trail Blazers and the Memphis Grizzles. And former stars like Bruce Sutter (2021) Ken Griffey Jr. (2025), Manny Ramirez (2018) and many, many more have nice little nest eggs set up.
But to celebrate Bobby Bonilla Day, let’s take a look at some other ill-considered sports contractual agreements gone terribly, horribly wrong.
The Spirits of St. Louis
In 1976, the National Basketball Association and their chief rivals, the upstart American Basketball Association, were hammering out the terms of a merger, one that would fold the San Antonio Spurs, Indiana Pacers, New York Nets and Denver nuggets into the league and shutter the remaining ABA squads. Ozzie and Daniel Silna, the owners of the Spirits of St. Louis, though, simply would not budge.
Eventually they did cave, but not before snagging the absolute sweetest plum, a seemingly never-ending stream of manna from heaven, “one-seventh of the national television revenue that each of the four teams was to receive, as long as the league continued to exist.” Given the massive uptick in TV money over the last 40 years, that’s netted them somewhere in the neighborhood of 300 million dollars.
In January 2014, not coincidentally just before the NBA landed a nine-year, 24 billion dollar broadcast deal with ESPN and TNT, the Silnas cashed out, agreeing to a settlement for that’s reported to total an additional 500 million.
Fittingly, last year, the Silnas claimed that they, too, had been swindled by Bernie Madoff. Note to pro sports owners: stop doing that.
In February, the Milwaukee Bucks’ big man decided that he really didn’t like playing pro basketball anymore. He’d been more or less exiled from the team, following a suspension for violation the league’s substance abuse policy and a whole slew of cryptic statements regarding Sanders’ health and general state of being from head coach Jason Kidd.
“‘I don’t get along with guys whose lives revolve totally around basketball,” Sanders told Sports Illustrated’s Lee Jenkins. “Someday that rubber ball will stop bouncing, and if you’ve built your whole identity around it, who will you be?”
That’s certainly his prerogative, but he does have quite the golden parachute coming his way, agreeing to walk away with about half of the 44 million he was still owed, according to Adrian Wojnarowski of Yahoo! Sports. The Bucks decided to utilize the NBA’s stretch provision, such that Sanders will be earning approximately 1.9 million a year until 2022.
Arenas was drummed out of the NBA in 2012, not so much for his rapidly declining game and shredded knees, but for an ugly incident in which a locker room fight between he and his Washington Wizards’ teammate, Javaris Crittenton, escalated to the point where, according to Mike Wise of the Washington Post, plopped “four unloaded weapons in Crittenton’s cubicle with a note that read, ‘Pick One.’”
Arenas was suspended for the remainder of the season, but Washington soon trading him and his six-year, 111 million dollar deal to Orlando, before bouncing to Memphis and finally Shanghai. Even though the Magic used the amnesty provision to remove his contract from their salary cap and the original deal expired, the money hasn’t stopped flowing.
“They extended the years and dropped the money down,” Arenas told a local Washington radio show. “I think it was two years ago… So instead of getting 20 [million a year], I was getting 12 [million a year]. So I’m still getting paid until 2016.”
Keith Van Horn
Back in 2006, the Dallas Mavericks swung a trade with the New Jersey Nets to reacquire Jason Kidd. But in order to make the math work under the near-Talmudic rules and regulations of the NBA’s collective bargaining agreement, they needed to include Van Horn. This necessitated first signing him to a three-year deal, even though he’d pretty much hung up his Nikes. Luckily for the Nets and Mavs. So for three years running, Van Horn would schlep to New Jersey, make it clear that he was still a carbon-based life form that took up three-dimensional space, and accept 4.3 million for his troubles.
Luke Ridnour has not been bought out, but he has proven to be somehow even less wanted than anyone else on this list. Over the course of the last six days, five NBA teams decided that Ridnour’s non-guaranteed contract was far more prized an asset than Luke Ridnour. He racked up some serious frequent flyer miles—or rather, his contract did. On draft night, he was shuffled from Orlando to Memphis to Charlotte and finally to Oklahoma City. He remained in the Sooner state for a solid five days before being traded to Toronto.
Now, Toronto could actually use a backup point guard. If that’s a need, you could certainly do far worse than Luke Ridnour. But given today’s free agent frenzy, with Toronto adding DeMarre Carroll for four years and 60 million, it’s entirely possible that he’ll be on the road again soon enough or he’ll be cut, sacrificed to the great salary cap gods. Meaning that Toronto—or whereever his final traded destination is—will be paying him not to ply his trade.