Skip to main content
Skip to navigation

Feb. 20, 2014 Volume 35, No. 20

Performance suffers after athletes sign big contracts, study finds

Alternate text

Ken Sheldon. Photo by Rob Hill

Researchers compiled information from NBA and MLB players

Over the years, some sports writers have noted a dip in athletes’ performance after they’ve signed lucrative contracts. The dip made sense intuitively, but lack of hard evidence kept the idea speculative. 

Now, researchers at the University of Missouri have determined that the postcontract performance crash — a two-year pattern they call the “contract year syndrome” — is backed up by scientific evidence.

Researchers also found that the contract year performance boost is real.

Researchers compiled information on NBA players who played at least 500 minutes and MLB players who played at least 300 innings in each season examined. 

To be included in the study, players must not have had back-to-back contract years; if players had two contract years within the period studied, only the first contract year was included. More than 230 NBA and MLB players were studied over a 10-year period.

“We tested whether or not there was a bump in an athlete’s performance during the contract year and found that to be true for some scoring statistics,” said Ken Sheldon, professor of psychological sciences in the College of Arts and Science. 

“We also found a lingering negative impact. In this case, there was a general drop in performance after contracts were signed. This holds true for both NBA and MLB players and follows the patterns found in past laboratory research,” he said.

“Armed with this information, owners and general managers could perhaps tie large raises to contingencies that require the athlete to maintain the same productivity in the future instead of slacking off.  

“Or, at least, fans could be prepared to expect a let down in the performance of their team’s star who just resigned,” Sheldon said.

— Jeff Sossamon