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In professional sports, a franchise player is an athlete who is not simply the best player on their team, but a player that the team can build their "franchise" (team) around for the foreseeable future. The misunderstanding that a franchise player is only "the best player on a team" disregards the fact that an inordinately bad team will undoubtedly still employ a player with superior skills, relative to his team. However, such a player could be so bad in comparison to players at large that labeling such a player a franchise player would be inappropriate. It is an elite status, but it is not necessarily a singular position; a large team such as an American football team might have a few franchise players at different positions. The term may be used alongside a particular position name to describe a player, such as a "franchise quarterback".
In the United States, outstanding players were referred to as "franchises" at least as far back as the 1950s. By the 1970s, the concept of a "franchise" player who single-handedly generates success was commonly understood in the sporting trade. The term franchise player was in widespread use by the early 1980s to describe both star rookies like John Elway and Kelvin Bryant and veterans like George Brett. While the term is primarily associated with North American English and sports, it is sometimes used in reference to athletes in sports outside the United States, such as rugby league and soccer players. It has frequently been applied since the advent of free agency in sports, which made it less likely for players to stay with one team for their entire career. A franchise player has the confidence of the organization and has the comfort of knowing that he will probably not be traded or released. Ideally, the franchise player will generate both wins and revenue for his team, and after a successful career, will be long remembered as a member of that team.
Franchise players may have some or all of the following specific characteristics:
The term also has a separate contractual definition within the National Football League. Any NFL team can designate a single player as its franchise player and therefore restrict the player from entering a free agency. In return, the team must pay the player a premium salary. The NFL requires that a franchise player be paid at least the average of the top 5 players in the league at his position, or 120% of his previous year's salary, whichever is greater. The franchise player status lasts for only 1 year and can be renewed, but if not renewed the player is granted unrestricted free agency.
In practice, many teams do not utilize the franchise tag; in 2008, only 12 of 32 NFL teams had a tagged franchise player. The tag, or the threat of using the tag, can be used as a negotiating tactic by the team to convince a player to sign a long-term deal with the same team. The player's alternative is to take a single highly paid year and then free agency. The player's next contract as a free agent will depend on how the player performs in the single year, and some players may decide to take the more certain long-term deal up front.