Professional athletes are earning more than ever, as highlighted by Sportico’s ranking last week of the world’s 100 best-paid stars, who made a combined $4.5 billion over the past 12 months from salaries, prize money and endorsements.
Though most likely hit their athletic peak in their 20s, their earnings mountaintop often doesn’t occur until after they hit 30. The average and median age of those on the list is 31, and 33 is the most common age with 13 entries. Global soccer star Neymar, 30, is the youngest in the top 10.
But for a select group of athletes, they hit pay dirt early. Twelve athletes age 25 and under made the cut with earnings of at least $30 million. Buffalo Bills quarterback Josh Allen, who turns 26 on Saturday, led the way with $66.5 million, including an estimated $4 million from endorsements. The Bills paid him a $42.4 million option bonus in March, as part of the six-year, $258 million contract he signed in August 2021. He ranked 15th overall in the top 100.
All of the major U.S. sports leagues have some level of salary restrictions in place for incoming players. Major League Baseball players can’t become free agents until after six years of service and are tied to league minimums and arbitration deals before then. Last year’s top pick in the NBA Draft, Cade Cunningham, had almost no wiggle room in the four-year, $45.6 million contract he signed with the Detroit Pistons—only the first two years are guaranteed. Same goes for the NFL’s No. 1 overall pick, Travon Walker, who is in line for a four-year, $37.4 million deal with the Jacksonville Jaguars.
For these athletes, it is about getting to that second contract where deals worth $25 million or more a year are available for the star players. The NFL’s Allen and Marcus Lattimore, along with the NBA’s Devin Booker, Donovan Mitchell, Jayson Tatum, Jamal Murray and Brandon Ingram all inked that huge second contract before their 26th birthday.
Endorsement earnings also take time to accrue in team sports. It is extremely rare outside of a LeBron James or Zion Williamson to turn pro and immediately earn eight figures from sponsors. It usually requires building a pro resume and winning championships for major endorsements to pile up, although the athletes on the list have beaten that timeline in a variety of ways.
These dozen young athletes represent six different sports. Naomi Osaka is the only woman to make the cut. The tennis ace, who recently launched her own sports agency Evolve, made only $1.2 million in prize money over the last 12 months, but an estimated $52 million off the court from more than 20 partners.
Highest-Paid Athletes Under Age 25
1. Josh Allen, age: 25
Total Earnings: $66.5 million
His passer rating of 149 during last season’s playoffs was the highest ever for a quarterback in a single postseason. His merchandise sales ranked third in the NFL this season, after Tom Brady and Patrick Mahomes, and his endorsement partners include Nike, New Era, Pepsi, AWS and Labatt Blue.
2. Naomi Osaka, 24
Total Earnings: $53.2 million
Osaka has seven career WTA titles and has made them count, as four were at Grand Slam events. Her contract with IMG expired at the end of 2021, leading to the launch of Evolve. ““I strongly believe in the power athletes have to use our platforms to drive meaningful business,” Osaka said in an email.
3. Kylian Mbappé, 23
Total Earnings: $48.8 million
Mbappé is one of the top-earning soccer players in the world but ranked third on his own team this season, behind Lionel Messi and Neymar. The three-time Lique 1 player of the year is on the verge of leaving Paris in a blockbuster move to Real Madrid. He earns $17 million annually from endorsement partners Nike, China Mengniu Dairy, EA Sports, Dior, Oakley and Hublot.
4. Max Verstappen, 24
Total Earnings: $43 million
The Belgian-Dutch drive racked up huge bonuses in 2021 with his 10 race wins and F1 World Championship. He signed a contract last year with Red Bull Racing that puts his salary on par with seven-time champion Lewis Hamilton.
5. Marshon Lattimore, 25
Total Earnings: $41 million
The New Orleans Saints cornerback signed a $98 million deal in September 2021 and pocketed a $23 million restructure bonus in March. The 2017 NFL Draft pick has already made four Pro Bowls. He turns 26 on Friday.
6. Jake Paul, 25
Total Earnings: $37 million
Paul rose to fame posting videos on Vine and YouTube as a teenager. He’s reinvented himself as a boxer, posting two wins over Tyron Woodley over the last 12 months. His future might lie in boxing promotion, as his Most Valuable Promotions helped make the Amanda Serrano-Katie Taylor fight last month at Madison Square Garden one of the most successful ever between two female boxers.
7. Devin Booker, 25
Total Earnings: $35.5 million
Booker just wrapped his seventh season in the NBA and only has two years left on the five-year, $167 million deal that kicked off in 2019. He signed a big shoe-deal renewal with Nike in 2019 and is likely in line for his own signature model at some point. Not many NBA players have partners who are more famous, but Kendall Jenner and her 237 million Instagram followers fit the bill.
8. Trevor Lawrence, 22
Total Earnings: $32.8 million
Lawrence is the youngest in the top 100 and makes the cut thanks largely to the $24.1 million signing bonus he got when the Jaguars made him the first overall pick in the 2021 NFL Draft. He entered the pros as one of the most marketable prospects in years, following a 34-2 career and a National Championship at Clemson. He earned $8 million off the field through deals with Adidas, Bose, Breitling, FTX, Gatorade, Subway, Verizon and Fanatics.
9. Donovan Mitchell, 25
Total Earnings: $32.5 million
The Utah Jazz guard had an equity stake in BodyArmor, as part of his endorsement agreement with the sports drink brand and cashed in when Coca-Cola bought the company in a deal worth $8 billion. Mitchell also has partnerships with Adidas, Autograph, Clorox, Crypto.com, Microsoft and Verizon.
10. Jayson Tatum, 24
Total Earnings: $30.3 million
Tatum is another young NBA star who is likely headed for a signature shoe with Nike’s Jordan Brand. The Celtics small forward co-founded a candy company, Side Step Sweets, that launched its first brand of gummies in 2022. Other deals include Ruffles, Gatorade, New Era, Beats and 2K Sports.
11. Jamal Murray, 25
Total Earnings: $30.1 million
The Denver Nuggets guard missed the entire 2021-22 campaign recovering from ACL surgery. Next season is the third season in his current five-year, $158 million contract. He is one of the athletes behind New Balance’s push into basketball.
12. Brandon Ingram, 24
Total Earnings: $30 million
In 2020, the New Orleans Pelicans locked up the forward with a five-year, $158 million contract extension. He joined the club the previous year as part of a trade for Anthony Davis after three seasons with the Los Angeles Lakers. He won the NBA’s Most Improved Player award in 2020.