Space Jam: A New Legacy opened this past weekend to tepid reviews—no different than the original 1996 cult classic—but moviegoers embraced the family-friendly fare. The movie’s star and producer, LeBron James, gloated a bit on Twitter after reports of a $32 million weekend at the box office. The project was seven years in the making for James, who put himself in position to be compared to Michael Jordan on screen after nearly two decades of endless comparisons on the court.
James, 36, will be hard-pressed to beat MJ’s six NBA titles—he trails by two—but he already tops Jordan in another category—first NBA player to crack $1 billion in career earnings while still active. Jordan fell short of $1 billion during his playing career, even adjusted for inflation. Don’t shed a tear for MJ, though. His highest annual earnings have come in retirement, thanks to skyrocketing revenue at Nike’s Jordan Brand, and Jordan’s total earnings are now roughly $2 billion since he left Chapel Hill for the NBA in 1984.
Since being drafted in 2003, James has earned $330 million in playing salary—net of recent escrow deductions—and another $700 million off the court from endorsements, merchandise, licensing and his media business. Current endorsement partners AT&T, Beats, Blaze Pizza, GMC, Nike, PepsiCo, Rimowa and Walmart help James earn more than $100 million annually. The latest addition is Epic Games, where Fortnite players will have access to a pair of James-themed outfits or “skins.”
His closest comps among active players are Kevin Durant ($580 million in career earnings) and Stephen Curry ($430 million). The only other athletes to earn $1 billion while still active are Tiger Woods, Floyd Mayweather, Cristiano Ronaldo, Lionel Messi and Roger Federer.
James is the first player in a U.S. team sport to hit the three-comma club, but he won’t be the last, as a new generation of athletes hunts for big scores through equity deals, and as changes to name, image and likeness rules can start the clock earlier on sports stars making bank.
Durant, 32, is the most likely to reach $1 billion among active players. He is still owed $84 million from the Brooklyn Nets over the next two seasons and roughly $85 million from Nike through 2024, when his 10-year Swoosh deal expires. KD has largely eschewed new endorsements in recent years and focused on his investment vehicle, Thirty-Five Ventures, which has made more than 75 investments and has a couple of huge wins with Coinbase and Postmates. Elite athletes have access to opportunities typically reserved for billionaires, venture capitalists and Wall Street insiders.
“Each player is their own little business conglomerate,” said Bob Dorfman, a sports marketing expert at Baker Street Advertising. “It is more on the equity side and creating side; it is less holding up a product for 30 seconds and saying I shave with this.”
The NBA is the quickest way for U.S. team sports stars to stockpile earnings. The league, with some assistance from Nike and Adidas, turn All-Stars into global icons, goosing endorsement deals beyond what an NFL or MLB player could earn. Salaries are also surging. Luka Dončić, 22, is eligible for a five-year contract extension this summer worth $200 million. The Dallas Mavericks star could bank more than $700 million in salary alone by the time he is 36 if the NBA salary cap continues to rise and the two-time All-Star maintains his elite play.
The rules in marketing are changing as well. “We are living in a borderless world where athletes now have a chance to take advantage of global opportunities,” said David Carter, a principal of Sports Business Group, an industry consultant. “The filters have also been removed; no longer does an athlete need to worry about a focus solely on his brand coming from how the media filters it or what his team or his league does with his intellectual property; they can reach out directly.”
James is the archetype for this new era of athletes. He has direct access to his 167 million followers on social media, fifth-most among athletes after Ronaldo, Messi, Neymar and Virat Kohli. He can promote his traditional sponsors, along with those brands where he also holds equity stakes, like Calm, Ladder/Openfit, LOBOS 1707 tequila and Blaze.
With longtime business partner Maverick Carter, the 17-time NBA All-Star formed his own media and production companies, which are part of The SpringHill Company. He is potentially in line for another giant payday, as reports last week suggested the business could invite outside investment at a $750 million valuation.
James entered the NBA straight from high school in 2003, armed with endorsement deals with Nike, Coca-Cola and Upper Deck; the NBA banned drafting high school players two years later. Updated NIL rules will provide a wide swath of athletes the ability to capitalize on their fame before turning pro. The overwhelming majority of these agreements will be for limited compensation, but a massive score is always possible with an equity stake, and it likely won’t stop at college, as deals for high school students are inevitable, according to USC’s Carter.
“You are building your own brand earlier, faster and bigger because of social media,” said Dorfman, who points to a 16-year-old “Bronny” James with six million Instagram followers, a FaZe Clan ambassador role and prenatal fame as someone who could be another potential $1 billion hoops star. “He’s learned from someone who already has been in the league and has business acumen and knows how to find the right opportunities. And there are going to be a lot more opportunities.”