Celebrity Pay

People often demand to know why it is that we as a society consent to pay movie stars and professional athletes such obscene sums of money, while teachers and other people clearly providing greater benefit to society are paid so very little.

There are a great many economic and social explanations one can go into, but one basic point that probably bears pointing out is that society does not in fact spend more on Hollywood or on professional sports than it does on teachers. Nationally, the US spends an average of $10,000 per year on each student in public schools, and average college tuition (blending public and private) is roughly the same. Thus, a person with a four year college degree has had roughly $170,000 spent on his education — almost certainly more money than he will spend over his lifetime on movies or watching sports.

The reason why teachers make so much less than movie stars or professional athletes is that the total amount of money collected by these entertainment celebrities is spread over a much smaller number of people. There are under 500 players in the NBA, around 1700 in the NFL. The number of actors who make truly large amounts of money (especially when averaged over a career which often has long dry periods) is at most a couple thousand. By comparison, there are over six million teachers and three hundred thousand college and university professors.

Entertainers make so much money because modern means of communication allow large numbers of people to enjoy the performances of a comparatively small number of people.

6 Responses to Celebrity Pay

  1. c matt says:

    That is a good point. Also, athletes and other celebrities make a lot of their money off of endorsements. We do not directly spend our money on the celebrity in that case. Teachers/professors could certainly get in on that gig if they want to, and with some medical/health care products, some have.

  2. Todd says:

    It’s also due to the monopolization trends in entertainment. 100 years ago, there were thousands of baseball organizations, for example. They ranged from 16 major league teams to semi-pro outfits barnstorming and playing minor (nor development) leagues. Not so today. 30 MLB farm systems, and a few co-ops calling themselves independent leagues.

    Music, too. More people made a decent living performing and many more enjoyed music as an avocation. American culture has largely abandoned entertainment as a participatory activity. More adults watch sports, including their kids’, than play it, and many more people watch or listen to music instead of learning an instrument and doing it themselves.

  3. Anthony says:

    While certainly I’m not one to defend actors, I will make a few points in their favor.


    Having worked in advertising, let me tell you— its incredibly important to find performers that get your script, can add qualities to it that you didn’t originally see and can perform when they’re asked to.

    I once worked on a tv campaign that was a complete casting disaster. We hired exactly who the client wanted, against the recommendations of the ad agency and the director combined. This guy made about 100K to film 5 tv spots and he was TERRIBLE. When we edited, we found that the spots were dry, lifeless and totally boring.

    We worked overtime to find a solution that allowed us to edit most of the poor performance out and replace it with a new voice over. But who would do the voice over? Against the clients wishes, the agency quietly spent 50K to get a very well known “Hollywood” actor to come in and record at TEST voice over. The agreement was that if we used it on television, he would get an additional 150K.

    Let me tell you. This guy came in, he was a bit of a jerk: but in under an hour he NAILED the performance we needed and saved our campaign. As far as I’m concerned, he was worth every penny. We would have saved thousands of dollars had we been focusing on the right talent, versus believing we could find substitutes.

    I’d also put forward some other reasons why they are paid as much as they are:

    — few people do what they do well, and do it on-demand

    — many of the best paid actors also play roles in story development and production

    —yes, as has been mentioned, they “play” to a larger audience than your average 5th grade teacher

    —and of course, a single large salary for an actor might have to stretched over months or even years between major acting jobs. Only the most in-demand actors find themselves with regular work.

    Certainly I think exorbitant figures do get passed along, but considering how much money is taken in, and that a movie can make money for a studio for YEARS from licensing, dvd sales, advertising, etc. It makes more sense.

    Lets put it this way: Iron Man would have been NOTHING without Robert Downey Jr. He made that film work and overcame a fairly by-the-numbers story and a comic character that was not as well-known as Batman or Spider-man. So, I would argue that yes, he is worth every penny.

  4. Anthony,

    Agreed on pretty much all points.

    Though one thing I’d flesh out a little further: While I agree that the talen to be a top actor (or a top professional athlete) is pretty rare, it’s rarity still wouldn’t be worth nearly as much if we didn’t have the technology to take that one good performer and put him or her in front of hundreds of millions of people nearly instantly. If we lacked that ability to mass broadcast the few top performers, there would be a much bigger niche for mediocre actors and atheletes making mediocre incomes.

    By the same principle, if there was a way for the true top 500 teachers in the country to educate nearly everyone at once through some mass medium, and if people recognized their work as far superior to most other teachers, we’d probably have teacher superstars making tens of millions a year for doing their stuff.

  5. largebill says:

    Darwin Catholic,

    Thank you for addressing this subject in this manner. I’ve long been frustrated by the bumper sticker arguments about compensation for teachers. This is always a touchie subject. Many teachers are fantastic educators and earn every cent they are paid. However, it is ridiculous to lump them all together and compare their salary to the absolute best ball player. Reality is most teachers get paid more than most ball players. I’m a baseball player and I get paid nothing. Most don’t. A very tiny percentage of ball players get to play in the minors for a year or two. Out of that tiny minority an even smaller percentage get to visit the majors for a week or two. An extremely tiny percentage (one in ten million) are good enough to last long enough to have a lucrative career. Reality is they are incomparable. A good teacher and a below average teacher are equally capable of having a long career and will likely be compensated (paid) equally. That is the problem.

  6. Donna V. says:

    While I agree that the talen to be a top actor (or a top professional athlete) is pretty rare, it’s rarity still wouldn’t be worth nearly as much if we didn’t have the technology to take that one good performer and put him or her in front of hundreds of millions of people nearly instantly.

    I’m not sure about that. The top actors of the 19th century – Bernhardt, Henry Irving, Edwin Booth, etc – made fortunes. All of them spent a lot of time touring and to live in the sticks and see Booth perform was the thrill of a lifetime for many people. How their fortunes compare to the ones made by movie stars today, I wouldn’t know, but certainly they made far far more than the average worker (including the average actor) of their time. Star quality mattered as much then as now.

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