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It's that time of year when many of the nation's top paid athletes earn their keep. Playoffs are under way in the NHL and the NBA, and Major League Baseball is hitting its stride.

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But as much as American sports fans complain about the astronomical payrolls of teams like the Yankees, the Bronx Bombers have slipped in the latest world rankings of best paid teams. Occupying the list's top four slots are soccer teams in Europe. And at number one, Barcelona, the average player earns more than $8.5 million a season. The first U.S. team on the list makes an appearance at number five with the L.A. Lakers earning just under six and half million per player. Then come the Yankees. Nick Harris is the man behind these rankings. He's from the research company sportingintelligence.com, and he joins us from Scotland where the firm is based. Hello there, Nick.

NICK HARRIS: Hi.

CORNISH: So to start, European soccer teams seem like they're doing pretty well. I mean, did they start spending more or, did U.S. sports teams finally started spending less?

HARRIS: The former, I'd have to say, to keep it short and sweet. The relentless rise in pay of the elite 10 of European soccer is continuing a pace, whereas in American sports, it's basically staying level or dipping very, very slightly. So that in a nutshell is it. If we kind of put this, you know, in terms of a global investment context, some of the biggest sports tycoons from North America now investing in European football, particularly English EPL soccer clubs. John Henry, who owns the Red Sox, bought Liverpool in the fall of 2010.

And we've also got Malcolm Glazer, the longest standing American owner who owns Manchester United, one of the most famous, biggest, most lucrative, attractive football clubs in the world. So this is American tycoons switching onto the fact that soccer is the global game.

CORNISH: So tell me more about this investment money, then. I mean, is it in danger of drying up? Is this a bubble?

HARRIS: In terms of the football, this is a big debate in Europe at the moment. Some of these clubs are very much growing businesses who are really switching on now to the commercial aspects of their businesses globally. So the big Spanish soccer clubs - Real Madrid and Barcelona - are making 400, heading to 500 million euros, which will go 650, $700 million a year in terms of income. And obviously, they're able to pay out a lot of that in payroll. Just below those two in the list, we've got Manchester City and Chelsea from the EPL.

And they both got billionaire benefactors, and they've spent hundreds of millions of pounds in the last few years, basically writing off their money to invest in a football club. And that's completely unsustainable, but it's something they've chosen to do, so different stories at different clubs.

CORNISH: Now, your data is broken down in terms of average per player, per team, but how much of these numbers are reflecting one or two superstars on a team kind of inflating the whole payroll?

HARRIS: Good question. I think, as a general rule, when you look at the U.S., particularly NFL, what you'll have is two, three, four players, the quarterback and a couple of other guys making more than $10 million and then a whole load of guys on a 50-man roster who'll be earning 400,000, relatively low sums compared to those guys. However, in European soccer, the difference between the best paid players on each roster and the worst paid would be much smaller within a roster.

CORNISH: Nick, one thing I noticed is that in looking at the rankings and looking for teams I recognize or don't recognize, I saw a team by the name of the Kolkata Knight Riders. They pay their players more than the New York Knicks or last year's World Series champs, the St. Louis Cardinals. Who are the Kolkata Knight Riders?

HARRIS: Well, they're one of our cricket teams from the Indian Premier League. It was set up a few years ago, signed a billion-dollar TV deal. And there's - it's now 10 franchises. So we're eight to start with, and they're all bankrolled by Bollywood millionaires and industrialists. Perhaps a lot of people in North America don't follow cricket would not necessarily even know that this league exists, but it's extraordinary sums of money.

CORNISH: Nick Harris, thank you so much for talking with us.

HARRIS: A pleasure.

CORNISH: Nick Harris of sportingintelligence.com covers the business and finance of sports.

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