Michael Jordan entered the NBA in 1984 when the highest-paid player in the league, Magic Johnson, earned $2.5 million in annual salary. That was a tick ahead of the best-paid MLB player—Mike Schmidt at $2 million—and more than double the NFL’s top earner, Warren Moon at $1.1 million, including the pro-rated share of his signing bonus. MJ’s salary that season was $550,000. It was a different time.
Goosed by blockbuster TV contracts, star salaries in team sports exploded over the next four decades, with 31 NBA players on track to earn at least $30 million this season, according to Spotrac. Yet, Jordan showed that the path to the greatest riches was paved off the court. His seminal Nike partnership, with a base pay of $500,000 during his rookie year, will pay MJ an estimated $150 million in royalties in 2021, nearly two decades after he hung up his high tops for good. The brand reported revenue of $4.7 billion for the fiscal year ended May 31, up 31% year over year.
Jordan is the highest-paid athlete of all time, with inflation-adjusted career earnings of $2.62 billion—and only 6% of the total is from his playing contracts with the Chicago Bulls and Washington Wizards. The estimate is based on salaries, endorsements, licensing and memorabilia earnings since Jordan turned pro in 1984 and includes ongoing endorsements in retirement with Nike, Gatorade, Hanes and Upper Deck.
Nike’s Jordan Brand is the dominant player in the booming “retro” or lifestyle basketball business, with market share of 52%, while Nike-brand retro product makes up another 43%, according to market research firm NPD Group.
MJ leads a quintet of basketball stars among the 25 highest-paid athletes of all time. LeBron James ($1.17 billion), Kobe Bryant ($930 million), Shaquille O’Neal ($870 million) and Kevin Durant ($625 million) also made the cut.
A trio of golfers finished in the spots just behind Jordan: Tiger Woods ($2.1 billion), Arnold Palmer ($1.5 billion) and Jack Nicklaus ($1.38 billion). The biggest paydays for Nicklaus and Palmer came after their dominance of the sport in the 1960s and 1970s, and adjusting for inflation pushed them into the three-comma club for earnings.
“With competitive careers that can span 30 years or more, golfers have the longest shelf life of any pro athletes,” said Bob Dorfman, a sports marketing expert at Pinnacle Advertising. “Combine that with their global appeal across a broad and high-end fan demographic, and it’s no wonder so many rank high among the all-time earners in sports.”
IMG founder Mark McCormack and his star client, Palmer, revolutionized sports marketing in the 1960s and made The King a global celebrity endorser and the template for the modern superstar athlete. Palmer pitched rental cars, airlines, financial services and office products, roughly 50 brands in all. AriZona Beverages launched a line of Palmer-inspired drinks in the early 2000s, and annual retail sales hit $200 million for the brand, while 500 Palmer-branded stores in Asia sold his apparel and footwear. Palmer was still earning $30 million a year at the time of his death in 2016, 43 years after his last PGA Tour win.
Woods, who has made $121 million in career PGA Tour winnings, took marketing to the next level with his longtime agent Mark Steinberg of Excel Sports Management. The 15-time major winner earned $100 million a year off the course at his peak. Woods offers a window into how diverse the income streams are for golfers. In addition to prize money, Woods has nine traditional sponsors, led by Nike, plus a media deal with Discovery to provide content for GOLFTV.
He is aligned with Upper Deck for his memorabilia rights and joined Tom Brady’s NFT company, Autograph, in September. Woods was added to the Autograph advisory board, alongside Naomi Osaka, Derek Jeter, Wayne Gretzky, Simone Biles, Usain Bolt and Tony Hawk. Top golfers also can command seven-figure appearance fees, with Woods getting up to $3 million per event at one point during his career.
Course design is also wildly lucrative for elite golfers who commit to the business. Nicklaus is the prototype, as his eponymous design firm has completed 425 courses in 45 countries and 40 states. Phil Mickelson ($1.075 billion) and Greg Norman ($815 million), each with design businesses, also ranked among the top 25 earners at No. 11 and No. 15, respectively.
Boxing legends Mike Tyson ($790 million) and Oscar De La Hoya ($595 million) made the cut on an inflation-adjusted basis, as they made $30 million-plus for fights when they were the biggest pay-per-view stars in the sport. But both would drop off, along with Jeter, without accounting for inflation and be replaced by modern-day stars Rafael Nadal, Brady and Conor McGregor in a nominal Top 25.
Earnings opportunities for the modern athlete have also skyrocketed, but a crop of icons from a century ago stood out from the pack. Babe Ruth’s salary peaked at $80,000 a year, $1.3 million in today’s dollars, and when asked about making more than the president, the slugger famously quipped: “Why not? I had a better year than he did.” Overall, Ruth earned nearly $2 million on and off the field, roughly $30 million adjusted for inflation. Boxer Jack Dempsey earned more than $300,000 for multiple title fights during his 13-year pro career that ended in 1927 and racked up at least $100 million in inflation-adjusted earnings.
The current generation of elite athletes, like James and Durant, have built on the marketing legacies of Palmer and Jordan by creating wealth through investing in businesses. Last month, James sold a minority stake in SpringHill Entertainment, the venture he formed with Maverick Carter, which valued the business at $725 million. Durant has scored major investment wins with stakes in Robinhood, Coinbase and WHOOP. Durant has more than 75 active startup investments through his Thirty Five Ventures and recently launched a special purpose acquisition company.
While Jordan blazed the current athlete trail to mega-riches, for all of his Nike millions, the Jumpman did not become a billionaire until the value of his investment in the Charlotte Hornets soared.
Sportico’s earnings estimates are based on conversations with industry insiders, Sportico research and historical estimates in media outlets, such as Forbes. Earnings include salaries, prize money, purses, bonuses, endorsements, licensing, royalties, memorabilia, book deals, appearances and golf course design. We included cash earned from equity stakes in sponsor companies, like James’ stakes in Beats Electronics and Durant’s share of Postmates, but did not factor in traditional investment income. Sportico included earnings during playing careers and retirement through June 1, 2021, and adjusted them for inflation. Earnings are calculated up until the time of death for Palmer and Bryant.
Athletes from eight sports made the top 25, and their cumulative earnings are $25.5 billion. It's an all-boys club, with the closest female athlete, Serena Williams, at $480 million, just inside the top 40.
1. Michael Jordan: $2.62 billion (career earnings adjusted for inflation)
Jordan earned more than $4 million in annual salary only twice over his 15-year NBA career, but Nike has paid him more than $1 billion in royalties since he retired for good in 2003.
2. Tiger Woods: $2.1 billion
Last year’s back surgery and a serious car accident in February limited Woods’ prize money to less than $200,000 over the past 12 months, but he still collected $62 million off the course and ranked 13th on Sportico’s list of the world’s highest-paid athletes.
3. Arnold Palmer: $1.5 billion
Palmer, who won $3.6 million in prize money during his 50-plus years on the PGA and Champions tours, was a marketing juggernaut up until his death in 2016, including a 50-year relationship with Rolex, one of the longest athlete-brand relationships ever.
4. Jack Nicklaus: $1.38 billion
The Golden Bear sold a minority stake in the Nicklaus Cos. to investor Howard Milstein in 2007 for $145 million.
5. Cristiano Ronaldo: $1.24 billion
Ronaldo’s sponsors, such as Nike, Herbalife and Clear, benefit from the biggest social media following of any person on the planet, including 362 million followers on Instagram and 150 million on Facebook.
6. Floyd Mayweather: $1.2 billion
“Money” Mayweather is the only boxer to pocket more than $200 million from a fight, and he did it twice, first against Manny Pacquiao in 2015 and then versus Conor McGregor in 2017, when he raked in a record $275 million.
7. LeBron James: $1.17 billion
King James’ Lakers contract runs through next season and will make him the first NBA player in history to earn more than $400 million in playing salary alone.
8. Lionel Messi: $1.14 billion
Messi became the first athlete brand ambassador for Hard Rock International in June, under a five-year deal with the hospitality brand that pushed his annual off-pitch earnings to nearly $40 million.
9. Michael Schumacher: $1.13 billion
Schumacher challenged Woods for the title of world’s highest-paid athlete at the start of the 21st century, thanks to an exorbitant salary from Ferrari, with whom he won five of his record seven Formula One championships, a tally since matched by Lewis Hamilton.
10. Roger Federer: $1.12 billion
Federer’s career earnings, unadjusted for inflation, hit $1 billion in 2021, a first in tennis. Half of his 14 sponsors have been partners with the 20-time Grand Slam champion for more than a decade.
11. Phil Mickelson: $1.08 billion
Lefty became the oldest major champion in golf history with his two-stroke victory in the 102nd PGA Championship in June worth a career-high $2.16 million in PGA Tour prize money. Mickelson had won only twice on the Tour over the last eight years before the victory.
12. David Beckham: $1.05 billion
The soccer icon is following the Jordan model, building his net worth through sports team ownership. Beckham was granted the right to buy an MLS expansion club at a fixed price of $25 million when he joined the L.A. Galaxy in 2007. The eventual team, Inter Miami, was recently valued at more than $600 million during a buyout of Marcelo Claure and Masayoshi Son from the partnership.
13. Kobe Bryant: $930 million
Bryant’s estate scored a massive $400 million payday when Coca-Cola agreed to buy sports drink brand BodyArmor this week in a deal that valued the company at $8 billion. Bryant invested roughly $6 million in the company in 2014, when sales were only $10 million; they are expected to hit $1.4 billion this year. Our earnings estimate covers Bryant until his death in January 2020.
14. Shaquille O'Neal: $870 million
Shaq sold a stake in his future business endeavors to Authentic Brands Group in 2015 and then pushed ABG to buy Reebok in a $2.5 billion deal this year. Shaq, who endorsed Reebok early in his NBA career, pivoted to selling low-cost sneakers at Walmart and Payless stores nearly two decades ago.
15. Greg Norman: $815 million
The Shark, who spent 331 weeks ranked No. 1 in the world—second all-time to Woods, built a fortune with businesses focused on apparel, wine, real estate, restaurants and course design. Norman, who first tried to start a rival golf tour in the 1990s, was named CEO of LIV Golf Investments, which announced last week it will create 10 new events in a partnership with the Asian Tour.
16. Mike Tyson: $775 million
Tyson is the poster child for athletes mismanaging their money. The boxer filed for bankruptcy in 2003, despite $400 million in career earnings, unadjusted for inflation.
17. Alex Rodriguez: $650 million
A-Rod’s endorsement earnings were a blip compared to those of his rival Derek Jeter, but the three-time MVP racked up $455 million in on-field salary and bonuses during his career. He is the latest former pro athlete to jump into sports team ownership through his multi-year planned purchase of the Minnesota Timberwolves and Lynx with Marc Lore.
18. Manny Pacquiao: $630 million
Pacquiao announced his retirement from boxing in September, while declaring his candidacy to run for president in the Philippines. His 2015 bout with Mayweather is the highest-grossing fight in the history of the sport, with $600 million in revenue.
19. Kevin Durant: $625 million
KD has cut back his endorsements to focus on his investments via Thirty Five Ventures, but his 10-year, $285 million Nike pact remains one of the richest sponsorships in the NBA.
20. Lewis Hamilton: $620 million
Hamilton is shooting for a record eighth F1 championship this year. He is the most marketable driver in the world, counting Puma, Police, Monster Energy, Tommy Hilfiger, IWC and Vodafone among his sponsors.
21. Neymar: $615 million
The Brazilian soccer star signed a four-year contract extension in May that will tie him to Paris Saint-Germain through 2025. This year, he became the first athlete with a "skin" in Fortnite, adding to more than a dozen other partners, such as Puma, Red Bull, DAZN, Replay and Konami.
22. Jeff Gordon: $595 million
His 93 NASCAR wins rank third all-time, producing lucrative endorsements, salaries and prize money before his retirement in 2015. Gordon also benefited from his ownership stake in Hendrick Motorsports’ No. 48 car, which Jimmie Johnson drove to seven Cup titles. Gordon was named vice chairman of Hendrick in June.
23. Oscar De La Hoya: $580 million
If Mayweather built an empire, De La Hoya provided the blueprint, serving as both boxer and promoter of a fight. The 1992 Olympic gold medalist launched Golden Boy Promotions in 2002, and the company served as the promotor for De La Hoya’s fight with Mayweather in 2007, which produced then-records for PPV buys (2.5 million) and boxing payday ($52 million for De La Hoya).
24. Peyton Manning: $575 million
Manning had perfect timing on and off the field. The five-time NFL MVP sold his stake in 31 Denver-area Papa John’s franchises in 2018, days before the NFL dropped the company as its official pizza sponsor. Manning was inducted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in August.
25. Derek Jeter: $555 million
Jeter earned as much as $10 million a year off the field during the peak of his popularity. The five-time World Series champ invested a chunk of his fortune in Bruce Sherman’s $1.2 billion purchase of the Miami Marlins, with Jeter appointed CEO of the club.