What athletes have in common with actors

In a books column on the sports business in the May 16, 2016, New Yorker, Louis Menand mentioned this:

The entire industry rests on the labor of athletes. The number of athletes is actually quite small, but, as a class, they are not getting that much of the money. According to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, only 13,700 people make their living playing spectator sports in the United States (compared with, for example, sixty-nine thousand people who are actors). The median annual wage for athletes is $44,680.

Are those numbers correct? Prepare for a bit of head spinning.

Possibly few people in either field will like the comparison, but actors and athletes have at least one thing in common: entertainment and sports is a single occupational group, from the standpoint of the federal government’s labor statistics. More precisely, as you can see here, actors are part of a broad occupation called “actors, producers, and directors,” which belongs to a minor grouping called “entertainers and performers, sports and related workers,” which in turn falls within a major grouping of “arts, design, entertainment, sports, and media occupations.” (In case such things interest you, the government maintains, and periodically revises, a huge list of occupations, called the Standard Occupational Classification System, in which, among other details, egg gatherers are distinguished from egg packers.)

Now, about the jobs and the dollars. The Bureau of Labor Statistics also compiles an Occupational Outlook Handbook, which tells you what you can expect in a given line of work. This appears to be the source for Menand’s figures.

The OOH entry for athletes is here, and it’s pretty straightforward. Meanwhile, the OOH entry for actors does indeed report that, in 2014, there were 69,400 “jobs” for actors. But this is where things get tricky. A job for an actor isn’t obviously the same thing as an actor “making a living” from that work. For an actor, a job might be an hour’s work voicing an ad, a day or two on a film or TV set in a brief supporting role, a few days as the voice and embodiment of a manufacturer at some kind of industrial show, a few weeks rehearsing and performing a play, or (as a friend does) a relatively steady though less than full-time job as the voice and operator of planetarium shows. I have no idea what the OOH means by a job, but anyone who’s truly making a living as an actor is probably doing 5, 10, or more gigs like this over the course of a year. If, in your midlife delirium, you’re thinking of going upon the stage, you might be tempted by the prediction that employment for actors will grow by 10 percent from 2014 to 2024, faster than the average for all occupations. On the other hand, the median pay last year was $18.80 per hour.

If you want to go a little further in your daydreams of glory before the public, check the OOH entries for musicians and singers and for dancers and choreographers. Comedians? They’re not even listed.

(Postscript: To be honest, “comedian” does occur in the current Standard Occupational Classification list. It simply has no outlook in the OOH. This may be the government’s way of saying, “Don’t even think about doing stand-up.”)

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