Defining a Professional Athlete

The terms “professional athlete” or “professional contract” appear from time to time on this website as well as national federation sites. To the uninitiated, particularly young Americans, being a professional athlete might conjure an image of playing in packed arenas with adoring fans and lucrative contracts. One needs, however, to take a closer look at the definition of professional before jumping to that conclusion.

According to Merriam-Webster a professional is defined as someone who “Participates for gain or livelihood in an activity or field of endeavor often engaged in by amateurs.”

And if you break down this definition, you’ll see that “gain or livelihood” is not quantified. In other words, if someone pays you 1 dollar or buys you lunch to play Handball for them, then by definition you are a professional Handball athlete. In fact, using this definition, almost everyone who has ever played for the USA National team was a professional. Albeit a poorly paid one, but a professional. The same is true, as well, for the British Handball athletes currently training in Denmark. For that matter, every collegiate athlete on scholarship in the U.S. is a professional using the strict definition. Their compensation for playing is the tuition and the room/board provided by the scholarship. The NCAA may claim amateur status, but for the major collegiate sports, in particular, the athletes are really amateur in name only.

A “professional contract” changes the definition and context somewhat. With a contract, a player is clearly getting monetary compensation from a private club and there is no collegiate or national team aspect so the allusion of amateur status is gone entirely. But again being a professional is simply a matter of some compensation being provided, whether it be $1 or $1,000,000. Or in an American context, a minor league class A and a Major League Baseball player are both “professionals” they just have dramatically different salaries.

The same is also true in European Handball Leagues, in that there is different compensation for different levels. But signing a contract for a single A baseball team and a low level handball club are two dramatically different things. Primarily, this is because European sports are not organized differently. First off, the overall structure is more graduated with more divisions (sometimes as many as 7 levels) between the lowest amateur teams and the highest professional teams. Secondly, the European norm is to provide compensation to players at a much lower level of play than one could expect with an American club.

This is one of the reasons why you’ll see many former NCAA basketball players with no real prospect of ever playing in the NBA playing at all levels in Europe. Some are drawing great salaries at the higher levels, decent salaries at middle levels and next to nothing at the lowest levels. And Handball in Europe doesn’t have the cachet that Basketball does, so those salaries/compensation would be even lower by comparison.

I’ve tried to extrapolate the salaries in Europe
before, but it’s a lot of guesswork due to the lack of information provided. My educated guess is that you don’t have to go very far down in the league structures in the various nations to see levels of compensation drop significantly below the median income for the nation in question. And a little farther down the pecking order, calling yourself a professional athlete, is a real stretch from an American point of view.

But, the point of this diatribe was not to belittle the fact that someone has or is playing professionally in Europe. The fact that some club values a player enough to compensate them in some fashion is a significant statement of that player’s capabilities. The point that I wanted to make instead is that being a professional athlete in Europe is not the same as being a professional athlete in the U.S. Just something to take into context when somebody says they were a professional handball player in the Elbonian League for 8 years.

3 thoughts on “Defining a Professional Athlete

  1. In simple terms it means a professional league operated as a business totally focused on generating revenue and providing a quality product/experience for its fans. National and international federations would still have a role, but it would be dramatically diminished. For instance, there is a USA basketball federation, but it's a pretty small player that knows that it can only do so much without the OK of the NBA.

    Additionally, there is the factor of "economy of scale". Western Europe is simlar in terms of GDP and population to the U.S., but the resources and talent are spread too thinly across the multiple leagues in multiple nations to provide a consistent quality product. Imagine Professional Basketball in the U.S if there were 15 leagues and 150 teams. Now imagine a pan-European handball league of 12-16 teams playing 2 games a week only against each other. It would be an incredible product, but it would be the end to a lot of established traditions.

  2. [i]"providing a quality product/experience for its fans."
    "It would be an incredible product, but it would be the end to a lot of established traditions. "[/i]
    But the thing is, for many European fans these traditions [i][b]are [/b][/i] a very important part of the product – as in general traditions are more important in Old Europe …
    People buying and selling clubs and moving them from city to city? Brrr …
    As far as I'm concerned, watching a matchup in the German first (or even second) division when you are emotionally involved is far more rewarding than watching Montpellier-Kiel without such involvement, even if the level of play is slightly lower …

    Even in the US I'd say that college footbal fans are having more fun – thanks to the traditions and rivalries involved. And, of course, you ca always sleep in on sunday mornings … :-)

  3. I'm not advocating getting rid of 2nd division rivalries, I'm just advocating getting rid of a lot of meaningless games between the top teams and the bottom teams. And I would argue that if Kiel played Montpellier more often the rivalry would develop and become more intense. Take a look at the Flensburg – Montpellier Champions League games from a few years ago. Imagine if those sides had met again the next year.

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