History’s Highest Paid Athletes, Ranked
The best professional athletes are paid more than almost any other group in the world. Their earnings come from some combination of salaries, bonuses, prize money, endorsements, licensing, appearances, investments and business deals that probably wouldn’t have happened without their sports-related fame. While there is definitely a connection between athletes’ popularity and income, this is not always the case…
This article features some of your favorite players, and a few you’ve never heard of. Many of the bigger stars, especially those who have been around for a while, take their rightful spots here, but their placement may surprise you. The list covers almost every major sport on earth, and you won’t believe which one takes up the majority of the top ten…
One of the most interesting things about this article is the fact that almost any major athlete could’ve ended up in it, but only those who took really good care of their money and used their fame wisely made the cut. The list will go in order until the highest paid athlete of all time is revealed. Definitely stick around to end for the shocking number one result….
Anna Kournikova – $50 Million
Russian beauty Anna Kournikova is a former professional tennis player who, thanks to her appearance and resulting celebrity status, is one of the most famous the sport has ever seen. At the peak of her fame, fans looking for images of Kournikova made her name one of the most common search strings on Google Search. But was she a successful player?
Despite never winning a singles title, she reached No. 8 in the world in 2000. She achieved greater success playing doubles, where she was at times the world No. 1 player. With Martina Hingis as her partner, she won Grand Slam titles in Australia in 1999 and 2002, and the WTA Championships in 1999 and 2000. They referred to themselves as the “Spice Girls of Tennis”.
Due to serious back and spinal problems, including a herniated disk, she retired at the young age of 21. But thanks to multiple endorsements with companies like Adidas, Omega and Berlei, as well as becoming a new trainer for season 12 of the television show The Biggest Loser, she is one of the richest athletes in the world.
Danica Patrick – $60 Million
Danica Patrick is the most famous female race car driver of all time. This definitely helped her become one of the highest paid in the sport, regardless of gender. When it comes to American open-wheel racing, no woman is more successful than her. She was able to turn her talent on the track into a super solid source of income.
She was named the Rookie of the Year for both the 2005 Indianapolis 500 and the 2005 IndyCar Series. She improved over the next two years with Rahal Letterman Racing in 2006 and later Andretti Green Racing in 2007. Her victory in the 2008 Indy Japan 300 is the only win by a woman in an IndyCar Series race. And off the track…
Patrick announced her intention to step away from full-time racing after the 2017 season, but competed at the 2018 Daytona 500 and the 2018 Indianapolis 500 before officially retiring. She has appeared in advertising campaigns for Secret, Nationwide Insurance, Tissot, Chevrolet, Coca-Cola, Peak Antifreeze, William Rast, Hot Wheels, GoDaddy.com, Nature’s Bakery and Lyft. She also owns her own brand of wine, called Somnium, which means “dream” in Latin.
Conor McGregor – $99 Million
Conor McGregor is not only one of the highest paid athletes in the world, but he’s also incredibly controversial. He’s the biggest star in the UFC, and his fame outside of the octagon has helped him sign a number of deals with brands like Burger King, Beats by Dre, Monster Energy, David August, BSN, Anheuser-Busch, HiSmile and Betsafe.
Aside from his record-breaking UFC fights, he was also part of a legendary boxing match with Floyd Mayweather that earned him an estimated $85 million, which was more than five times his previous top paycheck. The fight had 4.3 million PPV buys and generated more than $550 million in revenue. And he didn’t stop there…
McGregor is the biggest pay-per-view draw in MMA history, having headlined four out of the six highest-selling UFC pay-per-view events. His headline bout with Nate Diaz at UFC 202 drew 1.65 million PPV buys, the most ever for an MMA event. He also participates in numerous digital properties, like Conor McGregor FAST Program, MacMoji App, MacTalk App and the Mac Life, and has a residency deal with the Wynn Las Vegas for all of his afterparties.
Alexis DeJoria – $100 million
Alexis DeJoria is another top female driver, but unlike the previous entry, she is a retired American drag racer who competed in the National Hot Rod Association. She drove a Toyota Camry for Kalitta Motorsports, which was owned by Connie Kalitta and sponsored by Patrón Spirits Company. She won seven races during her career, but her dad’s business interests have had more of an impact on her income than racing…
Her dad, John Paul Jones DeJoria, is an American entrepreneur, a self-made billionaire and philanthropist best known as a co-founder of the Paul Mitchell line of hair products and The Patrón Spirits Company, which not coincidentally sponsored Alexis. Beyond her father’s financial influence, she also owns her own racing team, Stealth Motorsports.
In late 2012, DeJoria became engaged to American television personality and motorcycle customizer Jesse James. They married on March 24, 2013 at her father’s estate. But she doesn’t take these external financial benefits from her father and husband for granted. DeJoria, along with her mother Jamie Briggs, joined Sallie Latimer’s efforts to raise money to repair the Earles Court water tower.
Maria Sharapova – $135 million
Maria Sharapova is a tennis legend, with 36 singles wins and more than $38 million in prize money. She has been ranked world No. 1 in singles by the WTA on five separate occasions, for a total of 21 weeks. She is one of ten women, and the only Russian, to hold the career Grand Slam. She is also an Olympic medalist, having won silver in women’s singles at the 2012 Summer Olympics in London.
Off the court, Sharapova has been featured in a number of modeling assignments, including a feature in the Sports Illustrated Swimsuit Issue. She has appeared in advertisements for Nike, Land Rover, Tag Heuer, Tiffany, Prince, and Canon, and has been the face of several fashion houses, most notably Cole Haan. And that’s not all…
Sharapova also has endorsements with Head, Porsche and UBS. According to Forbes, she has been named highest-paid female athlete in the world for 11 consecutive years since she turned pro in 2001. Following in the footsteps of tennis players who started clothing lines, Sharapova launched her own tennis apparel line, the “Nike Maria Sharapova Collection”, in 2010.
Serena and Venus Williams – $180 Million/$95 Million
A list of the highest paid athletes, female or otherwise, wouldn’t be complete without the Williams sister, Venus and Serena. While Serena has certainly earned more than Venus, they both deserve to be recognized together. As a combo, they blow every other woman out of the water, but let’s look at each of them separately to see where their fortunes come from…
Serena would make this list without anything other than her tennis earnings, but her fashion brand and Nike endorsement make her the richest female athlete ever. She’s won 72 singles titles, as well as 23 grand slam titles, with $86 million in prize money. Last year, she was the only woman to make Forbes’ richest 100 athletes list at No. 51.
Venus is a five-time Wimbledon champion and seven-time grand slam champion on the World Tennis Association tour. She’s accumulated almost 50 tournament wins with over $40 million in prize money. Off the court, she has endorsement deals with Kraft, Ralph Lauren, Wilson and more. Even without her sister, she would still be on this list as one of the richest athletes of all time.
Ayrton Senna – $400 Million
Brazilian racing driver Ayrton Senna is widely regarded as one of the greatest Formula One competitors of all time. He won three Formula One world championships for McLaren in 1988, 1990 and 1991 before dying in a tragic accident while leading the 1994 San Marino Grand Prix for Williams. Before his premature passing, he amassed an impressive fortune…
Aside from his three world title wins, he also won 41 races and 65 pole positions. Senna began early, starting his career in karting before moving up to open-wheel racing in 1981 and then winning the 1983 British Formula Three Championship. He has often been voted as the best and most influential Formula One driver of all time in various motorsport polls.
Beyond his fortune and fame, Senna also courted controversy throughout his career, particularly during his turbulent rivalry with Prost. In the Japanese Grands Prix of 1989 and 1990, each of which decided the championship of that year, collisions between Senna and Prost determined the eventual winner. He was also the subject of an acclaimed 2010 British documentary film directed by Asif Kapadia that depicts his life and death.
Andre Agassi – $470 Million
Tennis players are all over this list, and Andre Agassi is easily one of the most memorable and talented athletes the sport has ever seen. He retired as a former world No. 1 who was one of the sport’s most dominant players from the early 1990s to the mid-2000s and is credited for helping to revive the popularity of tennis during the 1990s.
Thanks to his endorsement deal with Nike, which earned him $140 million over 10 years and appreciation of the company stock, he’s one of the highest paid tennis players ever. He signed a multimillion-dollar endorsement deal with Head and also endorses Penn tennis balls. In 2005 Agassi left Nike after 17 years and signed an endorsement deal with Adidas, but rejoined Nike in 2013.
He’s been sponsored by DuPont, Ebel, Mountain Dew, Mazda, Kia Motors, American Express, Deutsche Bank and more, and he also had a multimillion-dollar, multiyear endorsement deal with Schick. Agassi has been called the greatest service returner ever to play the game and was described by the BBC upon his retirement as “perhaps the biggest worldwide star in the sport’s history”.
Eddie Jordan – $475 Million
Eddie Jordan is another race car driver on this list who might not be a household name. The retired Irish-born athlete is now a team owner and entrepreneurial guru. Also known as EJ, he won the Irish Kart Championship in 1971 and moved to Formula Ford in 1974. He was the founder and owner of Jordan Grand Prix, a Formula One constructor which operated from 1991 to 2005.
Along with his participation in the sport, he’s become a businessman and television personality. He was the chief analyst for Formula One coverage on the BBC from 2009 to 2015 before joining Channel 4 after BBC pulled out in 2016. In February 2016, it was announced that Jordan would join Top Gear as a presenter. Interestingly enough…
Jordan worked at the Bank of Ireland as a clerk before a bank strike led him to move to Jersey where he discovered his love for racing. After several major accidents while driving with Marlboro, he retired and became a mentor for younger drivers including the aforementioned Ayrton Senna. Aside from his success in business, he also has two honorary doctorates and several prestigious awards.
Evander Holyfield – $475 Million
Over the course of his 27 year career as a professional boxer, Evander Holyfield earned enough to make him one of the highest paid fighters in history. He competed from 1984 to 2011, reigned as the undisputed champion at cruiserweight in the late 1980s and at heavyweight in the early 1990s, and remains the only boxer in history to win the undisputed championship in two weight classes.
Also known as “The Real Deal”, Holyfield is the only four-time world heavyweight champion. He’s known for endorsing multiple products on television, such as Coca-Cola and Diet Coke. He also had a video game released for the Sega Genesis called Evander Holyfield’s Real Deal Boxing. On top of this, he had his own cooking appliance, The Real Deal Grill.
Holyfield retired in 2014, and is ranked number 77 on The Ring’s list of 100 greatest punchers of all time and in 2002 was named the 22nd greatest fighter of the past 80 years. He currently ranks 9th in BoxRec’s ranking of the greatest pound for pound boxers of all time. BoxingScene also ranked him the greatest cruiserweight of all time.
Kevin Garnett – $480 Million
Kevin Garnett’s legendary six-year, $126 million contract at just 21 years old changed the way NBA owners operate. He earned a record $334 million salary over the course of his 22-year career playing for the Nets, the Timberwolves and, of course, the Celtics, and announced his retirement from professional basketball in September 2016.
In high school, Garnett was a 1995 McDonald’s All-American at Farragut Career Academy and won a national player of the year award before he became the first NBA player drafted directly out of high school in 20 years. Also known as “The Big Ticket”, “KG”, “The Kid” and formerly “The Franchise”, he agreed to become a limited shareholder of American-owned Italian Serie A football team A.S. Roma.
Garnett has been named to 15 All-Star Games, winning the All-Star MVP award in 2003, and is currently tied for third-most All-Star selections in NBA history. He was named the NBA Defensive Player of the Year in 2007–08, and has been selected nine times for All-NBA Teams and 12 times for All-Defensive Teams. Garnett also holds several Timberwolves franchise records.
Peyton Manning – $480 Million
Peyton Manning once held the NFL record for earnings on and off the field, thanks in large part to his deals with Nationwide, DirecTV, Gatorade, Papa John’s and Otterbox. Aside from being a popular spokesman, he also hosted the ESPYs in 2017. Beyond his impressive financial standing, he’s one of the most decorated football players ever.
Manning holds the record for touchdown passes, AP MVP awards, Pro Bowl appearances, single-season passing yards, single-season passing touchdowns, and is second in career passing yards. A two-time Super Bowl winner and the most valuable player of Super Bowl XLI, Manning was the oldest quarterback to start in and win a Super Bowl. During a 2009 Monday Night Football game, Manning received the nickname “The Sheriff” from commentator Jon Gruden.
After undergoing neck surgery that forced him to miss the entire 2011 season, Manning was released by the Colts and signed with the Broncos. Serving as the team’s starting quarterback from 2012 to 2015, he contributed to the Broncos reaching the top of their division each year and his playing career concluded with a victory in Super Bowl 50.
Derek Jeter – $490 Million
Another sports legend with record setting earnings is five-time World Series champion Derek Jeter, one of the most heavily marketed athletes of his generation. Beyond his countless awards and records, he’s been involved in several product endorsements and appeared in national ad campaigns for brands like Nike, Gatorade, Fleet Bank, Ford, VISA, Discover Card, Florsheim, Gillette, Skippy, and XM Satellite Radio.
Jeter also endorses a cologne named Driven, designed in collaboration with and distributed by Avon. Aside from giving Jeter his own Jumpman shoe, to commemorate his final year, the Jordan brand made a tribute commercial titled “#RE2PECT”, which had many baseball players, such as Jon Lester, and celebrities, even rival Boston Red Sox fans tip their caps. He is currently the CEO and part owner of the Miami Marlins.
In 2006, Jeter was the second-highest paid endorser in baseball. He was ranked as the most marketable player in baseball according to the 2003, 2005, and 2010 Sports Business Surveys. A 2011 list by the marketing firm Nielsen ranked Jeter as the most marketable player in baseball, accounting for personal attributes such as sincerity, approachability, experience, and influence.
Manny Pacquiao – $510 Million
While he is famous for being one of the best boxers of all time, many don’t know that Manny Pacquiao is also a politician, currently serving as a Senator of the Philippines. He has generated approximately 19.2 million in pay-per-view buys and $1.2 billion in revenue from his 23 pay-per-view bouts. According to Forbes, he was the second highest paid athlete in the world as of 2015.
The biggest payday of his career came in 2015 when he made $125 million for his fight with Floyd Mayweather, who will be seen later on this list. Pacquiao is the only eight-division world champion in the history of boxing, having won eleven major world titles. He is also the first boxer in history to win major world titles in four of the original eight weight classes of boxing: flyweight, featherweight, lightweight, and welterweight.
Beyond boxing, Pacquiao has participated in basketball, business, TV hosting, acting, music recording, and politics. He was elected to the House of Representatives in the 15th and 16th Congress of the Philippines before becoming a senator. Pacquiao has been considered a top contender for Philippine presidential election of 2022.
Oscar De La Hoya – $520 Million
Before the aforementioned Pacquiao fight, Oscar De La Hoya’s 2007 bout with Floyd Mayweather was the biggest in pay-per-view history, with 2.5 million buys. He appears on the front covers of the PS3, Xbox 360 and PSP versions of EASports’ Fight Night Round 3. Beyond his earnings, De La Hoya started a charitable foundation to help educate underprivileged youth and, in 2008, donated $3.5 million to the De La Hoya Animo Charter High School.
In boxing, he competed from 1992 to 2008, winning multiple world titles in six different weight classes, including the lineal championship in three weight classes. He generated approximately $700 million in pay-per-view income, making him the top pay-per-view earner before being surpassed by Floyd Mayweather Jr. and Manny Pacquiao.
De La Hoya was nicknamed “The Golden Boy of boxing” by the media when he represented the United States at the 1992 Summer Olympics where, shortly after having graduated from James A. Garfield High School, he won a gold medal in the lightweight division, and reportedly “set a sport back on its feet.”
Jeff Gordon – $525 Million
Jeff Gordon is one of the most high profile American drivers in the world. He’s earned hundreds of millions of dollars between his race earnings and endorsements. After winning 93 races over the course of his career, during which he had deals with companies like Pepsico, Kellogg Company, Frito-Lay, and Ray-Ban, he’s kept his brand going as a television announcer.
In 1998, NASCAR named Gordon to its 50 Greatest Drivers list. In 2008, ten years later, ESPN’s Terry Blount ranked him 10th in the 25 Greatest Drivers of All-Time. Gordon co-owns the No. 48 Chevrolet driven by Jimmie Johnson, has an equity stake in the No. 24 team, and also owned a Busch Series team between 1999 and 2000, Gordon/Evernham Motorsports.
Prior to his sponsorship with Pepsi, Gordon had been sponsored by Coca-Cola, but eventually chose Pepsi due to more visibility. Since 2012, he has been sponsored by DVX Sun and Safety Sunglass, which are constructed with elastomer from DuPont. His many business ventures include a car dealership, real estate company, a casual clothing line and multiple beverage deals.
Alex Rodriguez – $575 Million
Also known as A-Rod, Alex Rodriguez played 22 seasons in Major League Baseball for the Seattle Mariners, Texas Rangers, and New York Yankees. He signed two of the most lucrative sports contracts ever over the course of his career, during which he had endorsement deals with Louisville Slugger, Rawlings, and PepsiCo. The 10-year, $252 million contract he signed was the richest in baseball history.
After opting out of his contract following the 2007 season, Rodriguez signed a new 10-year, $275 million deal with the Yankees, extending his record for the sport’s most lucrative contract. He has since become a media personality, serving as a broadcaster for Fox Sports 1, a cast member of Shark Tank, a member of the ABC News network, and is part of the broadcast team of Sunday Night Baseball.
Rodriguez began his professional career as one of the sport’s most highly touted prospects and is considered one of the greatest baseball players of all time. He is a 14-time All-Star, won three American League MVP Awards, ten Silver Slugger Awards, two Gold Glove Awards, and is the career record holder for grand slams with 25.
Roger Staubach – $600 Million
Another unexpected entry on this list is former NFL quarterback Roger Staubach. Also known as “Roger the Dodger”, “Captain America” and “Captain Comeback” he played for the Dallas Cowboys for his entire 11-season career. Staubach led the team to the Super Bowl five times, four as the starting quarterback, and was named Most Valuable Player of Super Bowl VI, becoming the first of four players to win both the Heisman Trophy and Super Bowl MVP.
Staubach retired from football in March 1980 as the second-highest-rated passer of all time and was voted into the Pro Football Hall of Fame in 1985. In 1977, he started a commercial real estate business, The Staubach Company, which was sold to Jones Lang LaSalle for $613 million in 2008.
During his career he was a spokesperson for the men’s clothing retailer Anderson Little, appearing in both print and television spots. Later, he did television advertisements for Rolaids. He worked for a brief time as a color commentator for CBS Sports’ NFL telecasts, and jointly owned Hall of Fame Racing, a NASCAR Nextel Cup Series team.
Lionel Messi – $600 Million
The first soccer player on this list is Lionel Messi, who is a forward and captains both Spanish club Barcelona and the Argentina national team. Since 2008, he has been Barcelona’s highest-paid player, receiving a salary that increased incrementally. Signing a new Barcelona contract in 2017, he earns $667,000 per week in wages, and Barcelona also paid him $59.6 million as a signing on bonus. His buyout clause is set at $835 million.
According to France Football, Messi was the world’s highest-paid footballer for five years out of six between 2009 and 2014. With an income of $81.4 million from his salary and endorsements in 2015–16, he was second on Forbes list of the world’s highest-paid athletes, after Cristiano Ronaldo, who will be seen later in this article.
Messi is arguably the best player in the world and considered one of the greatest players of all time. He has won a record-tying five Ballon d’Or awards, four of which he won consecutively, and a record five European Golden Shoes. He’s been with Barcelona since he was 13 years old and has earned hundreds of millions of dollars between contracts and endorsements.
Magic Johnson – $600 Million
Earvin “Magic” Johnson is one of the greatest basketball players of all time. His career achievements include three NBA MVP Awards, nine NBA Finals appearances, twelve All-Star games, and ten All-NBA First and Second Team nominations. Magic was a member of the 1992 United States men’s Olympic basketball team, famously known as “The Dream Team”, which won the Olympic gold medal in 1992.
Magic was named by Ebony magazine as one of America’s most influential black businessmen. After he retired, he became an entrepreneur with Magic Johnson Enterprises, a $1 billion investing conglomerate. His company has partners like Starbucks, Sony Pictures and more. According to Business Insider, he’s also been behind the building of shopping centers and movie theaters in underserved urban areas.
He went from owning a record label, called Magic Johnson Music, to being a music promoter, through his company Magicworks. He has also worked as a motivational speaker, and was an NBA commentator for Turner Network Television for seven years, before becoming a studio analyst for ESPN’s NBA Countdown in 2008. At one point, he was even co-owner of his former team, the Los Angeles Lakers.
Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss – $600+ Million Each
This is a bit of an unorthodox entry, but considering the fact that Cameron and Tyler Winklevoss were Olympians who competed in the men’s pair rowing event for Team USA at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, they definitely qualify. While the twins, also referred to as the Winklevi, are world class athletes, they’re more well known for their part in creating Facebook, which the subject of the film, The Social Network.
The Harvard brothers have since become venture capitalists and were early investors in Bitcoin. In 2013, they reported having $11 million worth of cryptocurrency, which was nearly 1% of all bitcoin in existence at the time. A year later, they purchased seats on Richard Branson’s Virgin Galactic shuttle using their bitcoin profits.
They’ve started and been involved with bitcoin-related companies like Math-Based Asset Services LLC, Winklevoss Bitcoin Trust, BitInstant, and Winkdex, which uses data from seven exchanges, weighed based on the daily trading volume of each exchange. In October 2015, Gemini, the twins’ Bitcoin exchange, received approval to launch from the New York State Department of Financial Services. The exchange is targeted at both first-time users and professional traders.
Roger Federer – $675 Million
Roger Federer is currently ranked world No. 3 in men’s singles tennis by the Association of Tennis Professionals. The Swiss player has won 20 Grand Slam singles titles, which is the most in history for a male player, and has held the world No. 1 spot in the ATP rankings for a record total of 310 weeks, including a record 237 consecutive weeks.
He recently reclaimed the title of highest career prize money on the ATP Tour with $111.9 million. Aside from making millions in winnings, Federer has numerous endorsements with companies like Credit Suisse, Nike, Mercedes and Rolex. He is widely considered to be the highest paid tennis star of all time, but one former player ranked higher on this list. Read ahead to find out who…
He is also endorsed by Japanese clothing company Uniqlo, as well as Swiss companies Nationale Suisse, Lindt, Sunrise, and Jura Elektroapparate. In 2010, his endorsement by Mercedes-Benz China was extended into a global partnership deal. His was a previous ambassador for NetJets, Emmi AG, and Maurice Lacroix, and his other sponsors include Gillette, Wilson, Barilla, and Moët & Chandon.
Mike Tyson – $700 Million
Mike Tyson is absolutely infamous, and it’s no surprise that he would end up on this list, but his inclusion is a bit complicated. While he’s made hundreds of millions of dollars over the course of his career, he’s also had a lot of financial problems. At one point, in 2003, he even had to file for bankruptcy. But…
At his peak, Tyson was earning up to $30 million per fight, and had endorsement deals with big brads like Pepsi, Eastman Kodak and Nintendo, who put out his legendary video game Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out. All of this fell apart when his former wife accused him of abuse and he was later found guilty of rape, which sent him to prison for three years.
According to GO Banking Rates, Tyson ended up “with $23 million in debts that included a $9 million divorce settlement with his second wife, Monica Turner, $13.4 million in unpaid U.S. taxes, and $4 million in unpaid British taxes.” Since then, he’s fought his way back to stardom as an actor and performer, with appearances in multiple movies and television programs, as well as his own one-man show, animated tv show, and tell-all memoir.
Greg Norman – $705 Million
Since his retirement, golf legend Greg Norman has become a successful entrepreneur. At one point, he spent 331 weeks as the world’s Number 1 Official World Golf Rankings ranked golfer in the 1980s and 1990s. He has won 91 international tournaments, including 20 PGA Tour tournaments and two majors.
Also referred to as “The Great White Shark”, Norman currently serves as the chairman and CEO of the Greg Norman Company, originally known as Great White Shark Enterprises, a global corporation with a portfolio of companies in fields like apparel, interior design, real estate, private equity, golf course design, and more. The now multinational corporation is headquartered in West Palm Beach, Florida.
The company, which initially used the Reebok-licensed shark logo for his line of apparel, now represents over a dozen different businesses with hundreds of millions of dollars in annual revenue. He’s made a fortune as a golfer and beyond, but has also been a dedicated philanthropist with numerous events, foundations, and environmental institutes. Norman has also donated to and established numerous charities, even receiving the Golf Writers Association of America’s Bartlett Award in 2008 for his philanthropic endeavors.
Cristiano Ronaldo – $725 Million
Over the last couple years, soccer star Cristiano Ronaldo has continued to rank higher and higher as one of the highest paid athletes in the world. Aside from his incredible financial earnings, he has a record-tying five Ballon d’Or awards, the most for a European player, and is the first player to win four European Golden Shoes. He has won 26 trophies in his career, including five league titles, five UEFA Champions League titles and one UEFA European Championship.
Back in 2009, he was the subject of the most expensive association football transfer when he moved from Manchester United to Real Madrid in a transfer worth over $100 million. In 2018, he signed for Juventus in a transfer worth almost $115 million, the highest fee ever paid for a player over 30 years old, and the highest ever paid by an Italian club.
Ronaldo has signed many sponsorship deals for consumer products, including sportswear, Nike soccer shoes, soft drinks, clothing, automotive lubricants, financial services, electronics and computer video games. In 2016, he became the first footballer to top the Forbes list of highest-earning athletes, and then topped it again in 2017.
LeBron James – $730 Million
LeBron James is arguably the best basketball player in the NBA, and has also become quite a celebrity outside of the game. He has an impressive endorsement portfolio that includes Intel, Verizon, Nike, Upper Deck, Coca-Cola, Beats by Dre and Kia Motor. He also owns a stake in 17 Blaze Pizzas, the fastest-growing food-service business of all-time.
While many of the athletes in this article are no longer making money directly from their sport, King James’ career is far from over. He recently signed a four-year, $153.3 million deal with the Los Angeles Lakers which took him to Hollywood, where he will have even more access to the entertainment industry. Before the move to LA, he signed a a three-year, $100 million contract with The Cleveland Cavaliers.
This has been a part of his life and career for a long time. Coming out of high school, he was the target of a three-way bidding war among Nike, Reebok, and Adidas. James eventually signed with Nike for approximately $90 million. He’s since appeared in movies and on television. It was just announced that James will star in the long-awaited sequel Space Jam 2.
Shaquille O’Neal – $735 Million
Before the previous entry took the NBA by storm, Shaquille O’Neal was basketball’s biggest star. Also known as Shaq, he went from a retired All-Star to a successful businessman. While he was still playing, back in 1996, he signed what was, at the time, the biggest contract in NBA history for seven years at $120 million with the Los Angeles Lakers.
Since he stopped playing, a lot of his money has come from endorsements and work in the entertainment business. Many remember Shaq’s films and music. O’Neal is also a television personality who is a member of TNT’s Inside the NBA. His transition after retirement has made him one of the highest paid former athletes in history.
During his career, he won Rookie of the Year, multiple MVPs, and was selected as an All Star 15 times. He is one of only three players to win NBA MVP, All-Star game MVP and Finals MVP awards in the same year. He ranks 8th all-time in points scored, 6th in field goals, 15th in rebounds, and 8th in blocks. Shaq has also made numerous appearances in television commercials, which doesn’t hurt.
Floyd Mayweather – $785 Million
Floyd Mayweather’s nickname is Money, which makes him a fitting entry on this list. He is known for carrying around duffle bags full of cash, sometimes as much as six or seven figures worth. He’s held multiple world titles in five weight classes and the lineal championship in four weight classes, twice at welterweight, and retired with an undefeated record.
Mayweather is one of the most lucrative pay-per-view attractions of all time, in any sport. He topped the Forbes and Sports Illustrated lists of the 50 highest-paid athletes of 2012 and 2013, and the Forbes list again in both 2014 and 2015, listing him as the highest paid athlete in the world. He has generated approximately 23.8 million PPV buys and $1.67 billion in revenue throughout his career.
In 2015 alone, he not only made $300 million in salary, but also brought in $15 million in endorsements. CelebrityNetWorth reports that the boxing champion’s salary was $100 million per fight. He allegedly made over $200 million for his recent bout with UFC champion Conor McGregor. While he’s listed here at a little under $800 million, some estimate his net worth at over $1 billion.
David Beckham – $800 Million
David Beckham has become such a celebrity, many forget that he started out as a great soccer player. Before he became one of the highest paid retired athletes ever, he played for Manchester United, Preston North End, Real Madrid, Milan, LA Galaxy, Paris Saint-Germain and the England national team. Beckham is the first English player to win league titles in four countries.
Beckham has consistently ranked among the highest earners in football, and in 2013 was listed as the highest-paid player in the world, having earned over $50 million in the previous 12 months. Interestingly enough, it wasn’t until after he retired that he really started earning. According to Forbes, Beckham made $75 million in 2014, the largest amount he’d ever received.
He has multiple royalty deals and endorsement contracts with brands like Adidas, Pepsi Co., and The Walt Disney Company, and others that produce fashion, clothing, athletic gear, and alcohol. Together with his wife Victoria, the couple have become lucrative spokespeople sought after by clothing designers, health and fitness specialists, fashion magazines, perfume and cosmetics manufacturers, hair stylists, exercise promoters, and spa and recreation companies.
Kobe Bryant – $800 Million
Kobe Bryant, also known as The Black Mamba, is an NBA legend who set all kinds of records as a player and an earner. Throughout his epic, 20-year career, he was one of the highest paid team athletes in the world, of any sport, and in his last six seasons, had the highest salary in the NBA.
Retirement hasn’t slowed down his money making potential, especially since he launched a venture capital firm, Bryant Stibel, which focuses on different businesses including media, data, gaming, and technology, with $100 million in funding, as well as his own company, Kobe Inc. Before he stepped away from the game, CNN Money reports that Bryant made a total of $323 million over the course of his two decades with the Lakers alone, which means he averaged $16.1 million a year.
While this is more money than many on this list made in full, Kobe more than doubled his NBA earnings with numerous endorsement deals and sponsorships. According to CelebrityNetWorth, he made over $280 million from sponsorships deals, during his career alone, and made at least $26 million in endorsements from 2014 to 2015 alone.
Phil Mickelson – $815 Million
Phil Mickelson continues a trend on this list that sees golfers earning as much, if not more, than any other athletes. Also known as Lefty, Mickelson won 43 events on the PGA Tour, including five major championships. Mickelson has spent over 700 weeks in the top-10 of the Official World Golf Ranking, has reached a career-high world ranking of No. 2 several times and is a life member of the PGA Tour.
He’s become a pitchman for companies and brands like Amgen, ExxonMobil, KPMG, Rolex, Grayhawk and the Greenbrier, as well as Intrepid Financial Partners and Workday. Mickelson is ranked second on the PGA Tour’s all-time money list of tournament prize money won, and his golf winnings are nothing compared to what he’s made from endorsements.
At one point, Lefty was estimated to be the second-highest paid athlete in the United States, earning an income of over $62 million in 2011, $53 million of which came from endorsements. He’s been sponsored by Callaway Golf, Mizzen+Main, Titleist, Bearing Point, Barclays, and Ford. Read ahead to find out which, and how many, golfers made more and placed higher on this list…
Michael Schumacher – $1 Billion
Michael Schumacher is the first athlete in this article to make $1 billion. He is a retired German racing driver who raced in Formula One for Jordan Grand Prix, Benetton and Ferrari, where he spent the majority of his career, as well as for Mercedes upon his return to the sport. Schumacher is the only driver in history to win seven Formula One World Championships, five of which he won consecutively.
Since 1990, he is one of only six athletes to top the Forbes highest paid athletes list. In 2012 alone, he made $20 million from winnings and another $10 million from endorsements. A lot of his income came from advertising, like when Deutsche Vermögensberatung, which in English loosely translates as “German financial advisors”, paid him $8 million over three years to wear a small advertisement on his post-race cap.
In 2004, Forbes magazine listed him as the second highest paid athlete in the world with a salary of $80 million. In 2005, Eurobusiness magazine identified Schumacher as the World’s first billionaire athlete. He’s also incredibly generous, for example, he donated $10 million for aid after the 2004 Indian Ocean earthquake.
Jack Nicklaus – $1.2 Billion
Jack Nicklaus is the second golfer on this list’s top ten, and the first with over $1 billion. Also known as The Golden Bear, he is widely considered one of the greatest players the sport has ever seen. During a span of more than 25 years, he won a record 18 major championships while producing 19 second-place and 9 third-place finishes.
He made a fitting transition from professional golfer to course designer. His company has created 410 courses in 41 countries. Nicklaus also has a business empire that includes real estate, wine, ice cream, drinkware, golf academies, beverages and more. He’s also written a number of golf instruction books, an autobiography, and a book on his golf course design methods and philosophy.
Nicklaus owns Nicklaus Golf Equipment, which manufactures equipment in three brands: Golden Bear, Jack Nicklaus Signature, and Nicklaus Premium. He is a rare example of someone who’s made almost their entire fortune in and around their sport, an incredibly impressive achievement for any athlete. He also lends his name and likeness to a line of flavored lemonades from Arizona Beverage Company.
Vince McMahon – $1.22 Billion
Another unorthodox entry on this list in Vince McMahon, a former professional wrestler. While he once participated in the sport, he’s best known as the majority owner, chairman and CEO of World Wrestling Entertainment, or WWE, as well as founder of Alpha Entertainment, which is the holding company of the American football league known as the XFL.
Since taking over the company from his father in the 1980s, he has worked on the corporate level, behind and scenes, and occasionally continues to be an on-camera personality. He uses a gimmick known by the ring name Mr. McMahon, based on his real life persona. Even though the majority of his earnings come from the business side of the WWE, he’s also earned his stripes in the ring.
McMahon is a two-time world champion, was the 1999 Royal Rumble winner, and has headlined multiple pay-per-view events. He even participated in the main event of WrestleMania 2000 as a cornerman for The Rock. In singles competition, he holds victories over former champions Ric Flair, The Undertaker, Shawn Michaels and Triple H. Not too bad for the boss.
Ion Tiriac – $1.32 Billion
While Ion Tiriac isn’t a household name in America, he’s still one of the highest paid athletes of all time. Also known as the Brasov Bulldozer, Tiriac played professional tennis and hockey. He is a former top 10 tennis player who won a grand slam title, the 1970 French Open in men’s doubles. The highlight of his ice hockey career was participating as defenseman in the Romanian national team at the 1964 Winter Olympics.
Since he stopped playing, he gained notoriety as an advisor-coach-manager for the likes of Ilie Năstase, Manuel Orantes, Adriano Panatta, Guillermo Vilas, Henri Leconte and Boris Becker. Țiriac is also the developer and owner of the Mutua Madrid Open masters tennis tournament. He is a very successful businessman who is not only a national hero in Romania, but also its richest person.
Beyond sports, Tiriac is a global entrepreneur, investor and car collector. Following the collapse of communism in Romania, he started numerous businesses and investments back home. In 1990, he founded Banca Țiriac, the first private bank in post-Communist Romania, and has participated in several other enterprises like retail, insurance, auto leasing, auto dealerships, airlines, and more.
Arnold Palmer – $1.4 Billion
After more than six decades as a professional golfer, Arnold Palmer is fifth on the PGA Tour’s all-time victory list. He won 62 PGA Tour titles, from 1955 to 1973. Beyond his game, Palmer had a diverse golf-related business career, including owning the Bay Hill Club and Lodge in Orlando, Florida, helping to found The Golf Channel, and negotiating the deal to build the first golf course in the People’s Republic of China.
He, like previous entry Jack Nicklaus, went from playing on courses to designing them. Palmer has created more than 300 golf courses in 37 states, 25 countries, and five continents. His company, Arnold Palmer Enterprises, manages all of his licensing, endorsements, spokesman associations and commercial partnerships. His apparel is sold in over 400 stores in Asia alone.
What’s even more impressive about his placement on this list is the fact the he was a world-class player well before the sport became the money-maker it is now. But thanks to golf apparel, endorsements, and the Arizona Arnold Palmer drink, which is his signature lemonade and iced tea mix, Palmer has brought in $1.35 billion in earnings.
Tiger Woods – $1.7 Billion
The final golfer on this list, and the highest paid athlete the sport has ever seen is, of course, Tiger Woods. When it comes to professional golf, Tiger Woods is the GOAT, and it’s no surprise that he’s made $1.7 billion over the course of his incredible career. The 14-time major winner has had some personal struggles over the last decade or so, but they haven’t overshadowed his accomplishments.
During his first decade with the sport as a pro, Woods was the world’s most marketable athlete. In 1996, he signed endorsement deals with General Motors, Titleist, General Mills, American Express, Accenture, Nike, Inc. and more. In 2000, he signed a 5-year, $105 million contract extension with Nike, which was the largest endorsement package signed by a professional athlete at that time.
Woods has made a fortune on the course, and also lent his name to Buick’s Rendezvous SUV, TAG Heuer’s first professional golf watch, the Tiger Woods PGA Tour series of video games, the “Gillette Champions” marketing campaign, a Gatorade drink, a heat backrub by Kowa Co. called the Vantelin Kowa rub, a sports nutrition firm called Fuse Science, Inc., and more.
Michael Jordan – $1.85 Billion
Speaking of the GOAT, if any athlete has earned that title outside of their own sport, it has to be Michael Jordan. His talent as a player has always defined his success, which is saying a lot considering how famous he is off the court. His name has helped sell products from brands like Gatorade, Hanes, Nike and Upper Deck.
Beyond all of his legendary endorsement deals and sponsorships, the investment that elevated him to billionaire status was when he turned the $175 million purchase of the Charlotte Hornets, then the Bobcats, into one that’s now worth $780 million, of which he owns 90% stake. Jordan is also behind arguably the most popular sneaker in the history of shoes.
Air Jordan is a 14-time All Star, a five-time MVP, and a six-time playoff MVP. He won six championships with the Chicago Bulls, with whom he played 13 of his 15 seasons. He also holds records for the most points scored in a single playoff game, the most seasons to lead the league in scoring, the most average points per game, and was inducted into the Basketball Hall of Fame.
Gaius Appuleius Diocles – $15 Billion
No one in modern sports has earned more or achieved as much success as Michael Jordan, but that doesn’t necessarily make him the highest paid athlete of all time. The final entry on this list is by far its most unorthodox. As crazy as this sounds, a Roman Charioteer, in today’s dollars, would be worth almost as much as every other athlete on this list combined.
Historian Peter Struck says that Gaius Appuleius Diocles, a chariot racer from Ancient Rome, earned a fortune of 35,863,120 sesterces, which would be worth $15 billion. Chariot racing was Ancient Rome’s most popular sport, taking place in front of 200,000 spectators at the Circus Maximus stadium.
According to professor Robert B. Kebric, Diocles was its most prolific athlete, having won 1,462 of 4,257 races. Struck wrote, “His total take home amounted to five times the earnings of the highest paid provincial governors over a similar period – enough to provide grain for the entire city of Rome for one year, or to pay all the ordinary soldiers of the Roman Army at the height of its imperial reach for a fifth of a year”.