As challenging as it might seem to handle the payroll for a small business, imagine having to write $137 million worth of checks. Of course, you’d only be writing checks to 53 “rostered” employees, so it may not be as bad as it sounds.

Strenuous or not, this task falls on New York Giants management, as that franchise had the highest payroll among NFL teams last season. The Giants, Super Bowl champs in 2007 and the home of star players such as quarterback Eli Manning, have held the distinction for only one year, however. Because of the NFL’s revenue-sharing system that more or less equalizes how much teams can spend on players, different teams typically rank No. 1 in payroll from year to year. Draft picks, free agents, and new contracts for key players often dictate where a team ends up in the payroll rankings. There isn’t a tremendous difference between first and the median, either. The middle of the pack payroll figure last year belonged to the San Francisco 49ers, who still shelled out $107.7 million to its players.

Make no mistake, though — if a team ranks No. 1 in payroll, there is an undeniable expectation that the team should be competitive, if not championship-caliber. Having the No. 1 payroll ranking is actually quite a dubious honor, as it can draw the ire and resentment from fans of teams that can’t afford to pay players gargantuan salaries. Last season, the Giants fell short of lofty expectations, fizzling from a hot 5-0 start to go 8-8 and miss the playoffs entirely.

In other major sports, the following teams rank No. 1, either in the current season or in the most recent completed season.

Major League Baseball

New York Yankees – $206.3 million (2010 payroll)

Surprise, surprise. Baseball’s all-time winningest team, which also happens to be the more popular team in the league’s biggest media market, ranks No. 1 in payroll, as it has for more than a decade. The Yanks won the World Series in 2009 behind performances from their four top earners, who coincidentally happen to be the four top earners in the entire league: Alex Rodriguez ($33 million in 2010), C.C. Sabathia ($24 million), Derek Jeter ($22 million), and Mark Teixiera ($20.6 million). This season they find themselves in the middle of an AL East pennant race with Tampa Bay and Boston.

National Basketball Association

Los Angeles Lakers – $91.4 million (2009-10 estimated)

The back-to-back NBA champion Lakers, who defeated the Boston Celtics in seven games in the 2010 NBA finals, also reign as the team with the league’s highest payroll. Featuring superstar Kobe Bryant and a stellar supporting cast including Pau Gasol, Lamar Odom, and Ron Artest, the Lakers (and their 11-time champion coach Phil Jackson) aren’t afraid to spend to win. They also will return most of the team for 2010-11, though they’ll receive a hefty challenge from the Miami Heat — in wins and in payroll. The Heat spent a fortune in the offseason to unite the game’s three biggest free agent stars: Dwyane Wade, LeBron James and Chris Bosh. Expect the Heat to be, at least, in the top two or three in payroll when next year’s data is available.

National Hockey League

New York Rangers – $63.9 million (2009-10)

Though hockey does a commendable job through its salary cap to keep teams from spending exorbitantly more than each other, it’s still worth noting who’s No. 1. This past year, the Rangers spent more than any other yet narrowly missed the playoffs, much like their Big Apple football counterparts, the New York Giants. The Rangers are a bit of an anomaly, though — a definite correlation exists between payroll and success in hockey. The Detroit Red Wings, a fixture among the league’s top teams, ranked second, and they made the playoffs as they routinely do. The eventual Stanley Cup Champions, the Chicago Blackhawks, ranked No. 4 with a $61 million payroll, not far behind the Rangers.

If you haven’t noticed, the No. 1 spending teams in each sport hailed from New York or Los Angeles, the two most populous markets in the U.S. The teams representing these megalopolises are often highly valued, charge more for tickets and TV contracts, and thus, are able to spend more money on players. If you ever discounted the business nature of professional sports, you need not look beyond payroll rankings to see it.

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