A strange thing happened in sport this week.
In the current climate of a Covid-19 pandemic impacting on the way everyone is forced to operate, that might not seem much a stretch but even by the abnormal existences of professional athletes in these troubled times, the record-breaking contract negotiated on behalf of NFL quarterback Patrick Mahomes II with the Kansas City Chiefs was pretty extraordinary.
Even if sport is emerging from some lockdown restrictions, it is doing so behind closed doors with dressing rooms turned into biosecurity bubbles. Yet from the midwest of the United States there came news of a deal that defied the coronavirus narrative.
American Football’s Super Bowl-winning quarterback had signed a 10-year contract in addition to the two years still to run on his existing deal (worth $27.6m, €24.4m) that could be worth $503 million (€444.7m) if he can cash in on the incentive bonuses agreed. It would make him sport’s first half a billion dollar man.
From the Super Bowl’s Most Valuable Player to sport’s MVP in six months, the Mahomes deal is eye-watering. It is the biggest contract in the league’s history for starters and the first NFL contract to outstrip the best on offer in Major League Baseball (the previous record was the 12-year, $426.5M deal Los Angeles Angels centre-fielder Mike Trout signed last year) or the NBA, whose athletes are required to play multiples of the at-most 20 games a quarterback will need to start in order to win the Super Bowl.
The Chiefs will be banking on the 24-year-old Mahomes ensuring that is exactly how he will be occupied between September and late January/early February between now and 2031, and their willingness to agree to the terms set out by Leigh Steinberg and his fellow agents is reflected in the quarterback’s superlative performances and statistics to date.
In 2018, his first season as a starter, he threw 50 touchdown passes, matching Tom Brady’s feat in 2007 and bettered only by Peyton Manning’s 55 in 2013. It is also worth noting the Hall of Fame QBs he eclipsed in doing so, the likes of Aaron Rodgers, Brett Favre, Steve Young and Dan Marino, as well as the fact that Brady and Manning were both in their 30s when they reached their milestones.
At 24, Mahomes has an awful lot more to give and the Chiefs are investing in the promise of him giving for a long time to come and building a dynasty around him they hope can match the likes of Brady and his New England Patriots.
That’s certainly the view of former NFL cornerback and BBC pundit Jason Bell, who said of Mahomes: “As long as he's on the field, they have a chance to win a lot of football games. They've tasted glory, they've won the Super Bowl and know what it takes.
“And their quarterback understands what it takes for the team to get there — the sacrifice, the discipline. He's your leader that can rally the team together to go out there and have success year in and year out, the same way Tom Brady has done for the New England Patriots. You need that position to be steadfast and understand what it takes to win.”
Put this deal into the context of the pandemic, though, and it looks even more remarkable. The sports industry has been hit as hard as any other sector by this global public-health emergency as games were ground to a halt. Athletes have and will continue to be asked to bear some of the burden of collapsing revenues by taking pay cuts or facing into a new reality of smaller offers when their contracts come up for renewal.
Mahomes and his agents have been operating in the tranquil eye of the storm, it seems though as Sports Illustrated NFL columnist Albert Breer explained this week, neither side of the negotiations had been oblivious to pandemic swirling around them.
American sports contracts are complex at the best of times, with salary caps, free agency clauses and “guarantee mechanisms” in contracts to protect against, for instance, injury or either party going cold on the relationship between team and player.
Yet, as Breer wrote: “The Chiefs and Mahomes’s people planned for COVID-19 with this deal. They knew the NFL might try and push pay cuts on players, so they agreed to keep the cash relatively low in 2020. And they knew the cap might be low in 2021 in the aftermath of whatever this season becomes, so Mahomes’s cap figures don’t jump until 2022.”
Reports suggest Mahomes has picked up a $10m guaranteed signing bonus but the structure of his deal will mean he will collect a 2020 base salary of $825,000, satisfying the Chief’s salary cap pressures with his income increasing year-on-year until 2031, when he will be 36.
Also interesting for those used to a less complicated look to their payslip if that Mahomes is guaranteed a little over $140m of the headline $503m against injuries, leaving $300m potentially up in the air.
You can bet whether he is the half-billion dollar man or not, it will not really concern Mahomes too much. Either way, the 24-year-old quarterback can look forward to a comfortable future with this family – and several generations of Mahomes to come.