The Los Angeles Lakers fell well short of expectations on the court this season, despite LeBron James, 37, continuing to defy Father Time with the second-highest scoring average in the league and second-highest of his career. Off the court? King James crushed it.
The 18-time All-Star earned $127 million during the past 12 months from the Lakers and his expanding off-court empire, according to Sportico estimates. It is the highest tally of his two-decade career and more than any other athlete on the planet.
The top 100 athletes play 10 different sports and collectively earned an estimated $4.5 billion in salary, prize money and endorsements over the last 12 months—a 6% increase from last year’s best-paid stars. James tops a trio of global soccer stars and a boxer, as Lionel Messi ($122 million), Cristiano Ronaldo ($115 million), Neymar ($103 million) and Canelo Álvarez ($89 million) round out the top five.
Good to Be The King
James has the NBA’s biggest shoe deal among active players and a deep roster of endorsement partners beyond Nike, including Rimowa, Walmart, GMC, AT&T, PepsiCo and most recently Crypto.com, which started in 2022. But for the 0.01% of pro athletes, like James, Tom Brady, Kevin Durant, Roger Federer and Naomi Osaka, the game has moved beyond just cashing endorsement checks.
“Business ownership, along with equity- and royalty-based deals have been around forever, but there has been a shift,” David Schwab, EVP at Octagon, said in a phone interview. He points to three developments in the 2000s that have triggered the move. They include the launch of social media, where athletes could build their own audience; the proliferation of niche cable channels, including CNBC, which reached mainstream viewers and spurred a deeper interest in entrepreneurship; and lastly, the purchase of Vitaminwater by Coca-Cola in 2007, which triggered huge returns for rapper 50 Cent and a handful of athletes.
James is the archetype for this new era of athletes. He has direct access to his 200 million followers on social media and can promote his traditional sponsors, along with those brands where he also holds equity stakes, like Calm, Ladder/Openfit and Lobos 1707 tequila.
The four-time MVP has built ownership in brands for a decade-plus. A marketing deal with Fenway Sports in 2011 gave him an ownership stake in Premier League club Liverpool, and eventually the rest of the FSG platform, including the Boston Red Sox and NESN. James passed on renewing an endorsement deal with McDonald’s to double down on his belief in fast-casual pizza chain Blaze, where he is an endorser, franchise owner and investor.
James was courted by brands from an early age and quickly realized his worth and the value of equity when shoe companies were circling him as a high schooler 20 years ago. "I started thinking, if [then-Reebok CEO Paul Fireman] is willing to give me a $10 million dollar check right now, what is to say that Nike or Adidas is not willing to give me 20 or 30 upfront,” James said in 2017 on an episode of Kneading Dough, which airs on his Uninterrupted media platform. “Maybe the upfront money is not even the biggest thing. Maybe, let's start thinking about the back end."
James has definitely been thinking about the back end. The biggest business for James and his longtime business partner, Maverick Carter, is The SpringHill Company, which was founded in 2015 and encompasses production company SpringHill Entertainment, Uninterrupted and brand consultancy Robot. SpringHill sold a minority stake last year to a consortium led by Gerry Cardinale’s sports-focused RedBird Capital, which also included Nike, Epic Games and FSG. The deal valued the company at $725 million. Revenue for SpringHill is expected to be north of $100 million this year. Most of the cash infusion is expected to go toward building the company, and Sportico gave James only a marginal bump to his off-court earnings, which totaled $90 million, by our count.
“What I really like is that we are backing two people, who, individually and collectively, are pretty unique in the crossroads of sports and culture and their ability to be catalysts for advancement, empowerment and diversity,” Cardinale told Sportico in a phone call after the deal.
James’ fellow NBA MVPs, Stephen Curry ($86.2 million) and Durant ($85.9 million) rank sixth and seventh among the highest-paid. Curry has his own brand within Under Armour, and a multimedia company, Unanimous Media. Durant’s Thirty Five Ventures is run by his longtime business partner Rich Kleiman. It has 32 full-time employees focused on KD’s endorsements, an 80-plus company investment portfolio, film and TV projects, as well as sports and entertainment business media network Boardroom.
Brady ($58.4 million) fell eight spots to No. 16, because his football earnings dropped $40 million due to the ebbs and flows of NFL signing bonuses. However, his off-field game is soaring, fueled by lucrative new endorsements with FTX and Subway, as well as his expanding businesses.
Last year, Brady co-founded NFT platform Autograph, and the company announced $170 million in new capital in January from a funding round led by venture capital firms Andreessen Horowitz and Kleiner Perkins. Autograph joins TB12, 199 Productions and the BRADY brand in the quarterback’s business portfolio. His latest venture: NFL analyst for Fox Sports, once he retires for good.
Osaka, once again, ranks as the highest-paid female athlete at $53.2 million and No. 20 overall. Injuries and a break from tennis limited her on-court earnings to $1.2 million, but she banked an estimated $52 million from more than 20 endorsement partners. Only James, Federer, Tiger Woods and Ronaldo earned more from sponsors.
Osaka has equity in roughly a dozen brands she works with, including Hyperice, Sweetgreen, Modern Health, FTX and Autograph, where she was an early investor and advisory board member. She is also the founder and CEO of KINLO, a start-up sun care brand. This month, it became available in 2,500 Walmart stores.
One early exit for the 24-year-old was BodyArmor, which Coca-Cola bought in November at an $8 billion valuation, and it netted Osaka a seven-figure check. James Harden ($76 million, No. 9) and Mike Trout ($49.5 million, No. 24) had two of the biggest athlete paydays from the BA deal, with Harden earning close to $20 million.
Osaka and Serena Williams ($35.3 million, No. 52) are the only female athletes to crack the top 100, just as they were in 2021. Williams has more than 15 endorsement partners, but she has increasingly focused her time on her early-stage venture capital firm, Serena Ventures, which has invested in more than 60 companies and is run day-to-day by Alison Rapaport Stillman. The firm raised more than $100 million for its inaugural fund, announced this year.
Federer ($85.7 million, No. 8), Osaka and Williams are all crossover stars, so even when they are not playing, they benefit sponsors. The three tennis aces earned a combined $2.2 million in prize money and $172 million off the court.
By the Numbers
The cutoff to crack the top 100 increased from $26 million to $29.6 million—with basketball player Andrew Wiggins rounding out the list this year—thanks to a full season of baseball in 2021 and climbing salaries in both basketball and football. There were 41 newcomers and nearly half were from the NFL, as huge signing bonuses drive football contracts.
NBA players represented the largest slice of the top 100 with 36 players making the cut. Matthew Stafford ($73.3 million, No. 11) scored a pair of huge wins in 2022, with the Super Bowl in February and a new contract in March. His extension with the Los Angeles Rams included a $60 million signing bonus. He ranks first among 25 NFL players.
Soccer (13 athletes) and baseball (12 athletes) were the only other sports to land more than four stars in the top 100. Conor McGregor ($52 million, No. 22) and Virat Kohli ($33.9 million, No. 61) were the lone representatives from MMA and cricket.
While the list's three tennis players earned only 1% of their income on the court, the three boxers—Alvarez, Fury ($69 million, No. 14), and Jake Paul ($37 million, No. 45)—made more than 90% of their pay in the ring.
Athletes from 24 different countries made the cut, but Americans dominated with 69 entries, thanks to the heavy representation for the NFL and NBA. The U.K. landed five athletes, including those with dual citizenship, while France had four.
Nike, including its Jordan Brand, is an endorsement partner of at least 42 athletes, while Adidas has a minimum of 16 athletes in its stable and PepsiCo 14 (Sportico could not confirm sponsors of all 100 athletes.)
Eight teams had three athletes qualify for the top 100, including the Brooklyn Nets, Buffalo Bills, Golden State Warriors, Los Angeles Dodgers, Los Angeles Lakers, Milwaukee Bucks, Paris Saint-Germain and Philadelphia 76ers.
Trevor Lawrence ($32.8 million, No. 72) was the youngest athlete in the top 100. The Jacksonville Jaguars quarterback won’t turn 23 until October. Golfer Phil Mickelson ($37.1 million, No. 44) is the oldest at 51. Amstel Light, KPMG and Workday dropped Lefty after his controversial comments around Saudi Arabia were revealed in February, but he earned the bulk of his $30 million off the course before the sponsor defection. Rolex told Sportico it was sticking with Mickelson.
Our estimates are based on 12-month earnings between June 2021 and May 2022. The salary and prize money are inclusive of all bonuses paid during that time, including signings, incentives, playoffs and All-Star game pay. Bonuses from the PGA Tour's Player Impact Program are included in prize money, led by $8 million for Woods. NFL signing bonuses that are paid within 12 months of contract signing are included in the tally, even if partial payments are made outside our scoring window.
Sportico reduced NBA salaries by 10%. The league’s collective bargaining agreement ensures a roughly 50-50 revenue split between players and teams, with an escrow account in place to withhold salaries to ensure the split. In recent years after the league's $24 billion TV contracts, players received all or nearly all of the escrow funds back before COVID-19 crushed revenue. The league agreed to smooth out the escrow payments that will likely cost NBA players roughly 10% of their 2021-22 salaries, according to multiple sources. In James’ case, that means instead of $41.1 million, he received $36.9 million after adjustments for All-Star Game and playoff earnings, as well as a one-game suspension in 2021.
Endorsement income includes earnings from sponsorships, licensing, royalties, memorabilia, appearances, golf course design, media, book deals and branded car dealerships. Sportico conducted more than 30 interviews with industry insiders to gauge the earnings.
Investment income was not included, but we did factor in payouts from equity stakes of brands that stars promoted when there was a sale, such as BodyArmor.
With assistance from Asli Pelit