If opening day is the best day of the year for professional athletes, then April 15 -- tax day -- is probably the worst. Especially now that 20 of the 24 states with franchises in at least one of the four major pro leagues -- the NFL, NBA, NHL and Major League Baseball -- have laws that require visiting athletes to pay state income tax for each game they play there.
Considering that top-level athletes in football, basketball, hockey and baseball now make an annual average salary of $2.9 million, that means big bucks for states such as California. Home to 15 major professional teams, the state raked in $102 million in taxes from visiting athletes in 2006-07, the last year for which records are available.
As salaries have skyrocketed, the so-called "jock tax" has become widespread and controversial. Its imposition has raised questions of fairness and, for tax expert Joseph Henchman, has laid waste to the once-revolutionary prohibition on taxation without representation. "Politicians are seeking to shift tax burdens to people that don't vote," he says. "It does create a rather disturbing trend because it essentially allows politicians to provide more government services than [citizens] are willing to pay for." ...
In the tax world, it's no secret that athletes are treated differently from other highly paid workers -- investment bankers and corporate lawyers, for example -- who also work in multiple states. The jock tax, critics say, is poorly targeted, arbitrarily enforced and unrealistically burdensome -- and also completely understandable given the current economic climate. ...
Athletes are taxed based on "duty days" they spend in each state. In baseball, there are approximately 181 "duty days," meaning a player earning $1.81 million would make $10,000 each duty day. Therefore, if that player's team had three games in California, he would be responsible for taxes on $30,000 of income.
At that point, all the tax collectors have left is a math problem to figure out that Ichiro Suzuki, the highest-paid baseball player in Washington, a tax-free state, will have to pay more than $218,000 in California taxes for the 25 games the Mariners will play there this summer.
The salaries and schedules for lawyers, bankers, entertainers and other professionals who might be subject to nonresident taxes aren't as accessible. But that hasn't stopped some states from trying to reel in CEOs and other well-paid executives by auditing corporations for their travel records, tax professionals say.