On Tuesday, Sportico released its list of the Top 100 highest-paid athletes. Conor McGregor topped the list, netting $208 million over the trailing 12 months (the $170 million he earned from the sale of Proper No. Twelve, his Irish whiskey brand, was more than any other athlete grossed during the period).
No league (or sport) had more athletes on the list than the NFL (the NBA trailed right behind), despite the majority of pro football’s highest paid players earning little in the way of off-field revenue. Of the 32 NFL players that made the list, 23 took in less than $1 million in non-football related income last year.
NFL players can be both among the highest paid athletes in the world and live in relative anonymity (like Laremy Tunsil and Donovan Smith)—at least as far as brands are concerned—because of how much total revenue the league generates (the players are entitled to 48.5% of it, and five or six on each team account for a large portion of the cap). The last media deal “catapulted salaries to a whole other level,” former Jets and Dolphins general manager Mike Tannenbaum said.
Added Kurt Badenhausen, Sportico’s valuations writer: “Now, if you’re the best center or guard, you’re going to get paid a ton of money from your team. But you’re not necessarily attractive to corporate marketers.”
Our Take: Sportico’s list shows there are myriad ways for professional athletes to make their money. But its architect, Badenhausen, explained how an athlete earns income largely depends on the sport. “When you are talking about the U.S.-centric sports leagues, namely the NFL and MLB, endorsement opportunities are [going to be] relatively limited outside of star NFL QBs,” he said.
There are several reasons why star NFL players find endorsement opportunities harder to come by than athletes in other leagues, starting with pro football is largely an American game. “You see in sports like basketball, soccer, tennis and golf, where the biggest stars resonate all over the world, the endorsement opportunities are almost unlimited,” Badenhausen said. That’s not the case with football, where the sport’s biggest names only appeal to a select group of domestic markets. Of the 23 athletes that earned $25 million or more off-the-field last year, all but two (McGregor and cricket star Virat Kohli) played one of those four sports.
Another factor that makes it difficult for football players to post off-field earnings on par with stars in other sports is the lack of shoe money available to them. “The biggest deal for every basketball player [on the list] is their shoe deal. It is often half or more of their endorsement income,” Badenhausen explained.
But while Adidas, Nike, Under Armour and Puma use NBA stars to sell shoes and apparel, “people don’t buy cleats to wear in everyday life,” super-agent Leigh Steinberg (Steinberg Sports & Entertainment) noted. As a result, few NFL players have shoe pacts worth more than $500,000 annually (Tom Brady is among the exceptions with a seven-figure deal) and most of the money shoe companies spend on football endorsement deals flows to a few players at the top of the pyramid. For perspective, there are a dozen NBA players who will earn at least $8 million from shoe contracts this year.
Basketball, soccer, tennis and golf stars also benefit from the visibility their sports afford. “Football players wear helmets, which makes it much more difficult to get a sense of identification with their facial features, and there are more players,” Steinberg said, so naturally a smaller percentage of them will stand out. One must look no further than a list of athletes with the largest social following to see football players aren’t as widely recognized as stars in other leagues. According to Hookit, just three NFL players were among the 50 most followed athletes in 2019 (JJ Watt, Russell Wilson and Tom Brady).
The size of one’s social following is no longer just a measure of their popularity. It is now directly correlated with earning power (which is another reason why NFL players lag in off-field income). “We’re seeing an explosion in revenue made from players monetizing their online presence and social media [content],” Steinberg noted.
Eight of the top 13 off-field earners play an individual sport. Sponsors tend to flock to the biggest golf and tennis stars because of the opportunity to gain exposure during match/tournament play—something NFL players don’t have to sell. “Players in individual sports are walking billboards for their corporate partners. You don’t see that in team sports because [the players] are wearing team uniform,” Badenhausen reminded.
By and large, superstar quarterbacks are the exception when it comes to NFL players and off-the-field revenue opportunities. Unlike a Pro Bowl offensive lineman who might only receive $50,000 in non-playing revenue (including the $17,000 they receive from NFL Players Inc.), guys like Tom Brady and Patrick Mahomes—the league’s most recognizable faces—can find lucrative national ad campaigns. Brady, Mahomes, Dak Prescott, Drew Brees, Aaron Rodgers and Russell Wilson were the only NFL players to earn $10 million or more off-the-field last year. Steinberg is Mahomes’ agent.
It should be noted that the number of NFL players on the list is partly a reflection of the methodology used (think: income earned over trailing 12 months as opposed to annual salaries). “The nature of NFL contracts, which include big upfront signing bonuses, enable players to get paid an incredible amount of money in a one-year stretch,” Badenhausen explained. While MLB and NHL clubs do issue signing bonuses, they pale in comparison (at least on a percentage basis) to what NFL players receive. For perspective, Francisco Lindor received a $21 million signing bonus on a $341 million contract (an abnormally large bonus for a baseball player). Dak Prescott received $66 million to sign his name on a $160 million deal.