Major League Baseball had a staggering run this year when, over a four-week period, a quartet of its biggest stars—Nolan Arenado, Bryce Harper, Manny Machado and Mike Trout—signed blockbuster, long-term deals worth a combined $1.3 billion. They ranked as four of the biggest playing contracts in the history of sports.
The deals will create generational wealth for their families, but only Trout, ranked 17th with $50.6 million, cracks the top 20 of the world’s highest-paid athletes.
The difference: Those four baseball stars generate barely $10 million in combined endorsement income while the top earners in basketball, soccer, tennis and golf all individually bank at least $30 million from sponsors annually; eight of the 11 best-paid athletes come from those four sports.
Most of the athletes ranked above Trout follow a similar path: Reach the highest levels of a global sport, and marketers swarm with endorsement deals to pitch their wares around the world.
Barcelona soccer legend Lionel Messi leads the way on this year’s list with $127 million, including $35 million off the pitch from partners Adidas, MasterCard, PepsiCo and more. Messi translates into every language.
Messi is only the fourth athlete to land in the No. 1 spot over the past 19 years, joining Tiger Woods (12 times), Floyd Mayweather (4) and Cristiano Ronaldo (2).
Messi succeeds Mayweather, who failed to get in the ring for a pro bout over the past 12 months but is likely still counting last year’s $285 million haul, which he earned largely from his 2017 bout against UFC star Conor McGregor.
READ MORE | The World’s Highest-Paid Athletes
Messi is joined by fellow global soccer icons Cristiano Ronaldo ($109 million) and Neymar ($105 million) at the top this year. It is the first time that soccer players have ranked as the top three earners in sports since Forbes began tracking athlete earnings in 1990.
Elite stars in other global sports are also extremely marketable on any continent. Roger Federer ranks fifth with $93.4 million, including $86 million off the court.
Federer will turn 38 in August and is a dinosaur in tennis years. Yet Japanese apparel brand Uniqlo signed the 20-time Grand Slam winner in 2018 to a 10-year contract worth $300 million. Federer has a dozen sponsors looking to tap the cash-rich tennis fan demographic.
Basketball’s leading trio of LeBron James ($89 million), Stephen Curry ($79.8 million) and Kevin Durant ($65.4 million) rank seventh through ninth, having earned a combined $130 million beyond their respective playing salaries.
Their shoe deals, with Nike (James, Durant) and Under Armour (Curry), are by far the biggest endorsement for each player and dwarf what an MLB player can earn pitching baseball cleats and gear.
Sportswear brands, including Adidas, have used NBA stars in China for more than a decade to help establish a foothold in the world’s biggest market, sending big names like James and Durant there every summer on promotional tours. The NBA estimates 640 million people in China watched some kind of NBA programming during the 2017-18 season—that’s nearly twice the population of the U.S.
Golf is another sport that reaches almost every corner of the globe, and no golfer has benefited more than Tiger Woods: He has made $1.4 billion during his career from endorsements and appearance fees, more than 10 times his prize money, and his net worth is a staggering $800 million. Woods ranks 11th on this year’s athletes list with earnings of $63.9 million, including $54 million off the course.
Tiger roared back over the past 12 months with his first win in five years (Tour Championship) and his first major title in 11 years (The Masters). Last year, he signed an exclusive multi-year global content partnership with Discovery’s GolfTV. Head-to-head matches are part of the deal, and most will take place outside the U.S.
The 100 highest-paid athletes earned a combined $4 billion over the past 12 months, up 5% over the previous year. The increase jumps to 16% if you strip out the one-time stimulus of the 2017 Mayweather-McGregor fight. Endorsements fueled much of the gains, with sponsor-driven income at $987 million, up 12% from the previous year.
Overall, athletes from 10 sports and 25 countries made the top 100. Basketball (35 athletes) is the most dominant sport, and Americans (62) are the most dominant nationality.
Tennis ace Serena Williams ranked 63rd with $29.2 million, including $25 million off the court. She is the only woman to crack the top 100 for the second time in three years.
No female athletes qualified last year, when Williams was just returning to tennis after a 12-month layoff for her pregnancy and the birth of her daughter, Olympia. Williams is lining up her next act with a new clothing line and a venture capital fundfocused on investing in female and minority founders.
Our earnings include prize money, salaries and bonuses earned between June 1, 2018, and June 1, 2019. Endorsement incomes are an estimate of sponsorships, appearance fees and licensing incomes for the same 12-month period (click here for a more detailed methodology and the numbers behind the top 100).
-Kurt Badenhausen; Forbes Staff
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