Last month, LeBron James passed Kareem Abdul-Jabbar to become the NBA’s all-time leading scorer. It marked another notch in his resume in the ongoing debate on whether he or Michael Jordan is the league’s G.O.A.T.
But on the financial scoreboard, MJ is still the clear champ—and the gap is growing.
Since he was drafted in 1984, Jordan has earned an estimated $3.3 billion when adjusted for inflation, more than any other athlete in the history of sports; the tally is $2.37 billion unadjusted. James ranks sixth overall at $1.53 billion after factoring inflation—he is fourth on a nominal level at $1.23 billion, by Sportico’s count. (Click here for the full list of 50.)
James was the world’s highest-paid athlete in 2022 after bringing in $127 million, but that list only reflects active athletes. Jordan out-earned all of them with an estimated $180 million, almost entirely from Nike.
The Nike-Jordan partnership was born in 1984 and helped turn the Swoosh from a barely profitable enterprise with $920 million in revenue, to a $49 billion sportswear giant with a market value of $187 billion. Jordan has grossed roughly $1.8 billion from Nike, not factoring inflation, since that first contract, negotiated by David Falk for $500,000 a year plus royalties. It represents 75% of MJ’s career earnings, and the annual check has ballooned with the growth of the brand over the past decade. Jordan also has maintained endorsement relationships in retirement with Gatorade, Hanes, Upper Deck and 2K Sports.
Interest in the Nike-Jordan origin story is such that four decades later—and 20 years after Jordan put away his high tops for good—it has been retold in a feature-length film called Air that will reach theaters in April. Ben Affleck stars as Nike co-founder Phil Knight, while Matt Damon is Sonny Vaccaro, a legend in the basketball sneaker game and the person who recruited a reluctant MJ to Nike.
“The deal was a gamechanger for Nike and sports in general,” Henry Schafer, an executive at the Q Scores Company, said in a phone interview. “It opened up doors for athletes to generate significant income and brought to life the value of celebrity endorsers. Jordan was a trendsetter.”
Schafer’s polling shows 20% of Americans six and older still tab MJ as one of their favorite personalities, producing a Q Score of 26, tied for No. 1 among all athletes. Only Tiger Woods has a higher awareness level than Jordan’s 77%, but Woods’ negative ratings push his Q Score to a below-average 10.
The Jordan Brand is a separate division of Nike and generated $5.1 billion in revenue for the fiscal year ending May 2022. It was a 7% increase compared to 2021, versus 1% growth for the company overall. Jordan sales are up 79% over the past four years.
Jordan is the only former player to become the majority owner of an NBA franchise, a path that James and Kevin Durant have both said they want to follow. In addition to the Hornets, MJ has also built up his equity portfolio with stakes in his 23XI Racing team, Cincoro tequila, eponymous steak houses and companies such as DraftKings, Sportradar and Dapper Labs. Jordan’s net worth is $1.7 billion, according to Forbes.
Like Jordan, LeBron has maximized his off-court game to join the three-comma club. James has made roughly $415 million in player salary over 20 NBA seasons, but he has been the league’s highest-paid player only once during that time. Jordan had the top salary only twice and made a combined $90 million during 15 seasons. His NBA salaries represent 4% of his career earnings.
James shills for a deep roster of companies, including Nike, AT&T, GMC and PepsiCo, but his net worth has also soared with his investments. He and longtime business manager Maverick Carter built SpringHill Company—which includes production company SpringHill Entertainment, media platform Uninterrupted and brand consultancy Robot—into a thriving business that enticed a consortium led by RedBird Capital Partners to buy a minority stake in 2021 at a $725 million valuation. The four-time NBA MVP holds stakes in Calm, Blaze Pizza, Ladder/Openfit, Lobos 1707 tequila and Fenway Sports Group.
Jordan and James lead a group of 13 NBA players in the top 50 earners of all time, more than any sport. Basketball players benefit from skyrocketing salaries and rich sneaker deals that dwarf what an NFL or MLB player can earn.
Eight golfers landed in the top 50, including the three athletes ranked directly behind Jordan: Woods ($2.5 billion inflation-adjusted), Arnold Palmer ($1.7 billion) and Jack Nicklaus ($1.63 billion). Golfers benefit from decades-long careers, and the sport’s biggest stars remain popular pitchmen long after their biggest victories. Palmer was earning nearly $40 million a year from endorsements and licensing his name when he died in 2016 at 87 years old. It was 43 years after his last PGA Tour winand 28 years from his final title on the PGA Tour Champions, formerly Senior PGA Tour.
Another advantage for elite golfers: diverse revenue streams, including prize money, endorsements, appearance fees and course design work. Nicklaus Design has been the architect for 425 courses around the world.
Boxing landed seven entries, thanks to the massive pay-per-view scores for the sport’s biggest attractions. Floyd Mayweather ($1.41 billion) claimed the top spot for boxers in large part because he kept a bigger slice of the pie as both promotor and fighter for his bouts during the second half of his career. Racing—including F1, NASCAR, and MotoGP—landed six athletes, led by Michael Schumacher at No. 11 with $1.31 billion.
All together, the Top 50 have earned a combined $45.9 billion when adjusted for inflation and $33.2 billion on a nominal basis. They represent nine different sports and 17 countries. Americans make up 62% of the list.
Fifteen athletes have reached $1 billion on an inflation-adjusted basis, with Greg Norman at $1 billion even. The Shark’s business empire involved apparel, wine, restaurants, turf, course design and more, before he became CEO of LIV Golf. Eight athletes earned 10-figures without adjusting for inflation. The latest is Phil Mickelson, who hit the mark after his reported $200 million signing bonus for joining LIV.
Serena Williams is the only woman to make the cut, coming in at No. 38 and $600 million in 2023 dollars. The recently retired 23-time Grand Slam champion is the WTA’s all-time prize money leader with $95 million but has earned the bulk of her income off the court through dozens of endorsements deals, including those with Nike, AT&T, Beats, Ford Motor, Gatorade and Subway. Not included in the estimate are earnings from Serena Ventures, which she founded in 2014 and which has made more than 60 investments. Williams ranked second among the world’s highest-paid female athletes last year at $35 million, behind Naomi Osaka ($53 million).
Our earnings estimates are based on conversations with industry insiders, Sportico research and historical estimates in media outlets, such as Forbes and Sports Illustrated.
Earnings include salaries, bonuses, prize money, purses, endorsements, licensing, royalties, memorabilia, book deals, media, appearances and golf course design fees. We included cash earned from equity stakes in sponsor companies, like James’ stake in Beats Electronics, Durant’s share of Postmates and James Harden’s piece of BodyArmor. We did not factor in traditional investment income.
Sportico included earnings during playing careers and retirement through 2022 and adjusted them for inflation. Earnings are calculated up until the time of death for Palmer and Kobe Bryant. All earnings are pre-tax and before any fees for agents and lawyers.