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Maybe Evan McPherson had a feeling he would come up clutch again. Five days before Sunday’s AFC Championship game, the Cincinnati Bengals kicker filed a trademark application for the phrase “Money Mac.” It quickly proved true. The 22-year-old nailed a 31-yard field goal in overtime to defeat the Kansas City Chiefs and send his team to their first Super Bowl in 33 years.
He wasn’t the only one to pull out a heroic moment. Los Angeles Rams kicker Matt Gay blasted a 30-yarder with 1:46 left, which proved to be the difference for his team in their NFC Championship victory over the San Francisco 49ers, the latest in a string of playoff cliffhangers.
It’s obvious how much teams rely on kicking–it’s an almost surefire way to score. This season, NFL teams succeeded in making an average of 85% of field goals attempted, according to Pro Football Reference. It’s proven especially poignant during these playoffs. Five of the last six games have been won by a margin of three.
“Although they don’t play much, when they play all the eyes are on them,” says Lisa Delpy Neirotti, director of the sports management program at George Washington University.
Yet, despite how pivotal of a role kickers can play, they remain one of the lowest paid positions in the NFL. That’s not likely to change. Kickers only appear during a handful of plays per game. Financial emphasis in the league is placed on more impactful positions. The four quarterbacks in yesterday’s games made a combined $71 million on the field this season. The kickers just $6 million.
Las Vegas Raiders kicker Daniel Carlson notched the highest on-the-field earnings of his contemporaries at $6.7 million, thanks in part to a $4 million signing bonus, according to Spotrac. McPherson, a rookie, pulled in just over $1 million. Gay collected $850,000. By comparison, the top five on-field earners in the NFL this season made at least $29 million, with Dallas Cowboys quarterback Dak Prescott leading the way at $75 million.
When it comes to kickers, brands are no less generous than the teams. The league’s stars, who are primarily quarterbacks, can unlock multi-million dollar marketing windfalls. Kickers are lucky if they do a mere fraction of that, according to Delpy Neirotti. She estimates these players are grabbing low five-figure deals at best from local or regional partners.
There are outliers. Baltimore Ravens kicker Justin Tucker has appeared in commercials for Dr. Pepper, Duracell and Royal Farms throughout his 10-year NFL career. Things like longevity, authenticity and a strong social media can attract deals. Though even a more recognizable kicker like Tucker, who holds the league record for the longest field goal at 66 yards, doesn’t earn anywhere near seven-figures, Delpy Neirotti estimates.
Those consistent as Tucker can still carve out a lucrative existence in their playing salaries. Eighteen kickers, including Tucker, have earned more than eight figures in their career. That number will only continue to grow as rising media contracts continue to raise league revenues and increase the salary cap. McPherson’s trademark is a nice flick at potential, but true earning power for him and the other NFL kickers is pegged to the league’s TV ratings.
It won’t be easy. The NFL’s 32 teams are limited to 53 roster spots, most of them with just one kicker on a roster and typically two or three quarterbacks. For that reason, Eugene Lee, an agent at Vanguard Sports Group, rarely takes on kickers as clients, calling his approach “pragmatic.”
“There’s a limited number of jobs and it’s a high-pressure position,” he says. “You can’t have two bad games in a row.”