In basically one generation, professional athletes went from making less money than your local school teacher to receiving contracts that over the course of one’s career could make them a billionaire. There are a few reasons for the massive jump in player contracts but they all boil down to the same thing, popularity. Sports are more than just a source of entertainment for most people, they become part of one’s heritage, of their city/state, their source of emotional well-being (in bringing joy or heartbreak). Because of their popularity, there’s a ton of money to be had through lucrative television (and soon to be internet) contracts and that money is both shared and determined depending on how many players play in each sport, how good their unions are, what type of sport they play and also how good a player is. Beyond getting their game checks, players can earn even more money through super lucrative sponsorship deals with clothing and shoe brands, beer or food companies that target the sporting crowd, cars or really anything that’s deemed to be masculine (like Campbell’s Soup?) and they can also continue to make that money long after they’ve hung up their cleats/sneakers/skates. So, let’s take a look at the Top 15 Highest Paid Sports Players of all-time, taking into account both the money they made as a player as well as the sponsorship deals they’ve received.
15. Roger Federer (Tennis)
Earnings: $675 Million
There are few tennis players that have been as successful as Roger Federer, who after a resurgant 2017 re-captured the price as the top earning player in ATP (Association of Tennis Professionals) history. The Swiss born player is, as of the writing of this piece, still the number two rated Men’s pro-Tennis player despite the fact that he’s 36 and the “prime” of most Tennis players ends before they hit 30. Federer has been so good, for so long, that it’s hard to imagine that his numerous records will ever be overtaken. He has the most Grand Slam title wins in history, with 19 in total (and 8 coming from Wimbeldon alone) and because of that consistent success he’s made a fortune both on the court and outside of it. He’s made $111.9 million dollars on the court and over five-hundred-million outside of it, which should show you just much money there’s to be had from sponsorships (and Tennis is hardly a giganticly popular sport in the large countries where sponsorships can really make dividends like the United States). Federer is so good at Tennis and making money that he’s actually outearned Tiger Woods in career winnings, which may not seem like a lot right now but considering the limited life span of the typical Tennis career (especially against a sport like Golf) and the amount of tournaments per year a Tennis player can play in (again as compared to Golf), then it’s truly a remarkable achievement.
14. Mike Tyson (Boxing)
Earnings: $700 million
While he’s mostly gotten himself together lately, there was a time where Mike Tyson could be considered the poster child of what not to do as a sports star. Between his time in prison, his drug addiction(s), his blown millions, his in sports issues (with ear biting) and bouts with mental illness, Mike Tyson really had a rough time after his talents began to fade and he entered his post-fight life. Arguably the best pound-for-pound (or at least the most powerful) fighter of all-time, Tyson had a really rough upbringing on the streets of Brooklyn and was teased mercelessly for his voice. Because of that he took up boxing to defend himself and his natural power was identified and then honed by old-school boxing coach, Constatine “Cus” D’Amato, who really stepped in as his father figure as well and kept him away all of the terrible elements that existed in boxing at the time (and still do). One could argue that it was D’Amato’s death that really ended up putting Tyson down the wrong path, with drugs and an eventual rape conviction that cut him down in his prime. While he’s always denied that charge, it’s not hard to see why/how Tyson should be higher on this list, as he would’ve had a few more years with championship level purses and a ton more sponsorships as well. Either way, Tyson still has earned a ton of cash and has admitted that he squandered at least $400 million dollars of it, which the amount that he listed that he was out when he filed for Bankruptcy in 2003. After years of struggle though Tyson has remergered in recent years and reinvented himself as an affable actor that has multiple successful businesses that have helped him earn back at least some of that money, bringing his grand total to around $700 million, although you’d think that if not for all of the negative press, drugs and prison time that he’d easily cleared $1 billion dollars.
13. Greg Norman (Golf)
Earnings: $705 Million
Known as “The Shark” the Australian Golfer made a fortune by consistently being at the top of the earning charts during his long and illustrious career. Despite his reputation as a choker, he’s got a ton of accolades to his name. He was the number one rated golfer in the world for 331 weeks between the 1980’s and 1990’s, he won 91 international tournaments (including 20 PGA Tour tournaments) and two majors (in the Open Championship in 1986 and 1993). He also earned thirty top-10 finishes and was the runner-up at eight separate majors throughout his career (hence the “choker” title). However, as biologists will tell you, Sharks can’t choke and perhaps that’s why he received the highest percentage of votes of any golfer to date when he was eligible for the World Golf Hall of Fame (with 80% of the votes). In terms of making money, he was actually the first person in the history of the Tour to surpass $10 million dollars in career earnings and was the Tour’s leading money winner in 1986, 1989 and 1995. It’s that consistency that helped him land this high on the list and it appears that he’ll get near $1 billion dollars in career earnings before all is said and done as he recently sold his future licensing rights to Authentic Brands Group in March of 2017 (following Shaquille O’Neal and Muhammad Ali before him).
12. Cristiano Ronaldo (Soccer)
While he’s not on a first (or last) name basis in the United States it’s easy to say that the largest star in the world’s most popular sport is Ronaldo. He’s a relative new-comer to these lists but is quickly ascending up the ranks and goes to show you that if you really want to make money playing sports, then soccer is the way to go. He is the highest paid sports player in the world the past three years and from June 2016 to June 2017 earned almost $100 million dollars. His contract with Real Madrid extended his contract from the end of the 2017-18 season through 2021 and before taxes clears $50 million dollars. That’s without sponsorhips or the like (despite all the logos on soccer jerseys), meaning that soccer players are by far the highest paid of any major sport in the world. What’s even more amazing about Ronaldo is that he has years and years left to add to his gigantic pile of money, as he is 32 years old and only now leaving the prime of his career. Despite his young age, though he has been a professional for more than just his adult life, signing to Manchester United before the 2003-4 season (which would’ve made him around 17 or 18. While some may say that he’s overpaid (mostly people that don’t watch sports/soccer) he is really, really good at what he does. He’s won five Ballon d’Or awards, which is the largest individual accolade that exists in the sport of soccer. With Ronaldo set to make over $100 million dollars every two years through the 2021-22 season and his countless sponsorships, it would be surprising if he didn’t top this list in ten or twenty years.
11. Lebron James (Basketball)
Earnings: $730 Million Dollars
Speaking of one of the best ever still being in the prime of his career, LeBron James has been annointed as the chosen one since basically he was a Freshman in High School. One of the main success stories before the NBA changed it’s rules so that all players needed at least a year between high school and it’s ranks (after a few players attempted to enter the league straight from high school and basically ended up without a contract or a future), LeBron has been called the successor to Michael Jordan since his time playing High School ball near Akron, Ohio at St. Vincent – St. Mary High School. As a freshman there he averaged 21 points and 6 rebounds for a 27-0 team that ended up winning the Division III state title. As a sophomore his legend had grown to the point that his high school team ended up playing at the University of Akron’s 5,500 capacity arena to satisfy demand and while his story could’ve ended very poorly, he’s mostly lived up to the lofty expectations that people placed on him and is without a doubt one of the best basketball players to ever do it. He’s also very business-centric and has taken advantage of the NBA’s seemingly ever increasing television contracts by signing one-year deals each season to maximize his earnings. While some think that he’s disloyal because of that (and the whole “Decision” thing on ESPN), it’s clearly worked for him and because of that he could unseat Michael Jordan as not only the largest money maker on this list but also potentially as the greatest to ever play the game.
10. Shaquille O’Neal (Basketball)
Earnings: $735 Million
That’s a lot of Icy Hot!
There are few sports stars that have shined as brightly as Shaquille O’Neal, a player who was always bigger and stronger than those that went against him. During his prime he was so unstoppable in the paint that there was actually a technique that coaches and teams that had to play against him utilized called “Hack-a-Shaq” in which they’d essentially just foul him every-time he touched the ball because despite all of his talent and physical prowess, he was a terrible free throw shooter. Beyond his life on the court, though, he was pretty omni-present in the mid-90’s especially, starring in movies like the DC comic film Steel or the genie-themed Shazam to even having his own non-basketball video game titled Shaq-Fu and even having his own rap album with guest stars like The Notorious BIG. Since then he’s also ventured into the comedy realm, hosting his own comedy tours that highlight different up and coming stand up comedians and the comedic stylings of Shaq himself. It’s really hard not to like Shaq, even as a fan of a team that was consistently destroyed by him and a lot of that has to do with his personality, that is as large as he is. Like Greg Norman as well, he recently took a (gigantic) lump sum to sell about half of his future endorsement deals to a company called Authentic Brands Group, which is a new company that is offering cash payments to sports stars for the promise of future revenue from their endorsements. How they figure out what half of something in the future is is beyond me, but luckily Shaq is on the case to figure it out for everyone!
9. David Beckham (Soccer)
Earnings: $800 Million Dollars
It is said that after two to three years from retirement about 75% of NBA and NFL players have gone bankrupt and that’s because many overextend themselves while playing by supporting too many friends/family or children or they end up making a lot of bad business decisions. While that definitely wasn’t the case during his playing career, David Beckham has actually done better in retirement than he was doing during his career and that’s really saying something. A worldwide superstar thanks to his good looks and his famous wife (in Posh Spice of the Spice Girls), Beckham has amassed a fortune thanks to a deal to create a single-grain Scotch Whisky with Diageo Spirits (called Haig Club) and also thanks to his Beckham-branded consumer products. He’s made so much money that he’s done what few players have been able to do and that’s to actually end up owning a sports team himself. He’s getting closer and closer to adding a Major League Soccer team in Miami, which while not as expensive as other expansion teams would be, still costs a pretty penny (around $25 million dollars). So, expect that announcement in the coming year, which should only help add to his snowballing fortune.
8. Kobe Bryant (Basketball)
Earnings: $800 million
Kobe Bryant is actually tied with David Beckham and while he has a pretty good reputation right now, perhaps if he was still playing or in a lot of television commercials/advertisements he’d be caught up in the #MeToo movement as well as he was briefly accused of rape in 2003 (during the prime of his career). While his accuser eventually dropped the charges, it was still a massive blow to his good-guy persona and his “perfect” life as a married man. The first heir apparent to Michael Jordan, Kobe was really an amazing player who seemed to be the perfect guy to supplant Jordan as the face of the NBA as he was intelligent, incredibly driven and very well spoken (having grown up around the world while his father played in leagues around the world (his dad was former NBA player Joe “Jellybean” Bryant) and thus he speaks multiple languages. Like Mike Tyson, a rape charge ended up almost not only ending his career at it’s peak but also really, really cut into his sponsorship’s as he essentially lost tens of millions of dollars a year in sponsorship’s during that ordeal which is not to minimize what he did, but in the context of this piece is worth mentioning. So, while he was never formally charged, it was a definite knock to his public persona and one that you could argue he never fully recovered from as he’s not nearly as present in the media today as he was before those accusations.
7. Phil Mickelson (Golf)
Earnings: $815 Million Dollars
If you haven’t noticed by now, this list is basically just Boxers, Basketball Players and Golfers and Phil Mickelson continues that trend. After Tiger Woods’ public persona took a massive hit from his countless cheating scandals (and his subsequent struggles as a player) you could argue that the face of Pro Golf has been Phil Mickelson. He has sponsorship deals with Amgen, ExxonMobil, KPMG, Rolex, Grayhawk, Greenbrier, Intrepid Financial Partners and Workday and because of that has been able to amass a relatively large fortune. He’s also been obviously successful as a Pro, with his $84 million dollars in career prize money ranking second all-time trailing only Tiger Woods’ $110 million which is really impressive especially considering his aforementioned recent struggles. He’s also out-earned Tiger since 2015 and could eventually surpass him if Tiger can’t get his multiple physical (and seemingly mental) maladies corrected which very well could happen this year as it’s been reported that Tiger is finally pain free for the first time in years. Either way, though, after Tiger’s fall the PGA needed a new face and Phil Mickelson stepped in (or one could say out) and has performed as the hero that golf needed, when it needed it. So, if he needed the money you’d think that the PGA would give him whatever he asked for as he really helped salvage the sport at one of it’s lower moments… But luckily for everyone involved (except Tiger), he’s clearly doing pretty well and most likely will never need to fill that IOU.
6. Michael Schumacher (Formula 1 Racing)
Earnings: $1 Billion Dollars
Finally, someone who isn’t a boxer/golfer/basketball player…
Michael Schumacher is a retired Formula One driver for the Jordan Grand Prix and Benetton initially, followed by Ferrari for the majority of his career (until his initial retirement) and then Mercedes after his return from retirement in 2010. He is widely considered to be one of the greatest racers in the history of Formula One (with many saying that he is the greatest of all time), despite his controversial history as an aggressive driver. Regardless of how he got there, he is the only driver in the history of Formula One to win seven Formula One World Championships, five of which he won in a row! Because of that he owns the record for most World Championship titles, the most Grand Prix wins (in 91), the most fastest laps (in 77) and the most races won in a single season (in 13). So, at least statistically speaking, he is the GOAT of Formula One. While he did decide to retire after the 2012 season, it is often reported that he retired thanks to a devastating head injury that he suffered while skiing with his son. Either way, he’s one of the select few sports stars to become billionaires and is also one of only six athletes that have been on the list of Forbes highest-paid athletes every year since 1990.
5. Floyd Mayweather (Boxing)
Earnings: $1 Billion Dollars
Floyd Mayweather joined the billionaires sports club after the earnings for his “super-fight” with Conor McGregor netted him hundreds of millions of dollars and seemingly saved him from a massive tax bill that you’d think he wouldn’t need any assistance paying (at least if he had a competent accountant). That fight also brought his professional record to 50-0 and gave him the perfect way to end his illustrious career as the best pound for pound fighter perhaps ever. While he did start that fight out slow, he is/was an incredibly intelligent fighter and it was obvious that he was feeling out McGregor in the early rounds while also playing enough defense to allow McGregor (who was new to boxing) to punch himself out early on. That strategy appeared to work as McGregor ran out of gas in the later rounds, something that McGregor clearly planned on as McGregor was used to knocking people out in the early rounds of his MMA fights and thus wasn’t used to going 12 three minute rounds. Either way, there’s a reason why Floyd’s nickname is “Money” and it’s his entry as one of the few billionaire athletes that has finally proven that he deserves that title. Hopefully he’ll pay taxes on his earnings from the McGregor fight as well as you’d hate to see him risk his perfect record for some sad fight in the future, or if you’re a McGregor fan I guess you’d love to see that happen but still…
4. Jack Nicklaus (Golf)
Earnings: $1.2 Billion Dollars
Before Tiger Woods’ struggles with injury he was often compared to Jack Nicklaus, the fourth member on this list and the greatest golfer of all-time. Nicknamed the “Golden Bear” he has a record 18 career major championships, while producing 19 second-place and 9 third-place finishes over a career that spanned 25 years. He was so successful in major championships because he mostly focused on playing in them, while he actually only played in a selective schedule of regular PGA events. Despite that, though, he still had almost 75 victories outside of major championships, which is third on the all-time list (behind Sam Snead and Tiger Woods). While he is known as the GOAT of golf, he also may be one of the best golf course designers of all time, too. His course design company is responsible for 410 18-hole golf courses in over 40 countries, with Nicklaus himself actually personally designing 75% of the projects. Beyond his golf course design firm he also has successful businesses that run the gamut from real estate, wine, drinkware, golf academies, lemonade and even ice cream. Tiger, eat your heart out.
3. Arnold Palmer (Golfer)
Earnings: $1.4 Billion Dollars
It’s funny that Jack Nicklaus has a lemonade company because the other man on many “best golfer of all-time” lists in Arnold Palmer actually has a lemonade/iced tea drink named after him in the “Arnie Palmer” (which is literally just half lemoade and half iced tea). When he died in 2016, Palmer had made over $40 million dollars in that year alone, showing that he was about as good at business as he was at hitting a golf ball. He was especially famous in Asia, where he had over 400 stores that sold his Arnold-Palmer branded clothing and apparel (with plans to expand into more countries like Thailand and Vietnam at the time of his death). It could be said that everyone on this list should be thankful to Arnie, too, as his partnership with IMG founder Mark McCormack basically changed who athletes were both represented and paid when it came to sponsorships in sports marketing. So, without Palmer, a lot of these athletes would have to rely solely on their contracts or tour winnings, which would just be awful considering most of them only clear tens of millions of dollars a year. Only. It’s that forward thinking mindset that ended up allowing Palmer to best Nicklaus on the money list, and at the end of the day isn’t that really what is most important?
2. Tiger Woods (Golfer)
Earnings: $1.7 Billion Dollars
Tiger Woods not only saved golf, but really changed the game from one of country clubs and older people to that that was accessible to anyone and everyone. It’s really hard to understate the impact that Tiger had on the game when he burst onto the scenes in the late 90’s, as a half black and half asian golfer who looked different from every other golfer on the tour but most importantly also played differently as well. A master of his own body and mind, it was thought that it was really only a matter of time until Woods unseated Jack Nicklaus as the best golfer of all-time in terms of every measurable category but most importantly in terms of the number of major championships won. However, the man who was synonymous with control ended up losing control over his private life after it was discovered (first by his wife and then by the national media) that he was having countless affairs with women across the country. Beyond that, years of playing golf had basically destroyed his body and his inability to control the constant media coverage about his affairs also appeared to get into his head and ruin his game while his body simultaneously failed him. Like many people on this list, sadly, it’s been said “Imagine how much they would’ve made had they not X” and perhaps better than any Tiger personifies that. But, he was and is set up to make money basically forever as he was the face of Nike Golf, and he’s even started to get new sponsorship’s as people have forgiven him for cheating on his wife. Those sponsorship’s include TaylorMade, Bridgestone and Monster Energy. It’s also been said that he’s finally playing without pain in his body which means that he could be attempting the most epic comeback in the history of the sport. If there’s anyone that can pull that off it’d be Tiger.
1. Michael Jordan (Basketball)
Earnings: $1.85 Billion Dollars
While Arnold Palmer may have revolutionized the way that Sports Marketing is done, the person that really took advantage and took that concept to the next level was Michael Jordan. The man behind the most popular basketball sneaker ever (a shoe that was so popular that at it’s peak people were being murdered for their pair), Jordan’s name is synomous with the brands that he represents and he has a pretty broad portfolio of sponsorships. From the obvious in Nike and Gatorade, to deals with Hanes Underwear and Upper Deck sports cards. Beyond his fortune from sponsorships he also gets a lot of that aforementioned NBA television revenue as he purchased a portion of the Charlotte Bobcats for $175-million-dollars in 2010 (an amount he upped to 90% in 2013). It’s that investment that will make Jordan a multi-multi-billionaire as the NBA grows year after year and the league gets to split amazing television contracts year after year. Beyond that, the team itself is now worth nearly a billion dollars and Jordan owns nearly all of it, which just goes to show you that he’s as savvy in the business world as he was on the court and that should terrify anyone who is attempting to go into business against Michael Jordan.