LeBron James entered the NBA in 2003 out of high school and within three years established himself as the most dominant force in the game. He’s racked up four MVP awards and 11 first-time All-NBA selections. But it was not until the 2016-17 season that James had the NBA’s top salary.
James signed a three-year, $100 million contract extension with the Cleveland Cavaliers in July after leading the club to their first NBA title in franchise history a month earlier. His $31 million salary this season made him just the third NBA player after Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant to earn $30 million. The salary bump pushed his total earnings, including endorsements and playoff bonuses, to $86.2 million.
James has become a global icon in a sport with massive worldwide appeal, but he still can’t quite match the earnings of the biggest star in the most popular sport on the planet. Real Madrid’s Cristiano Ronaldo banked $93 million over the past 12 months to retain the crown of the world’s highest-paid athlete for the second straight year. James moves up one spot to second this year with his career-high haul.
Ronaldo has had 12 months for the ages. He was named FIFA’s best player in the world for the fourth time, scored his 600th career goal and secured a contract extension with Real that will pay more than $50 million annually for the next four years. Ronaldo inked a lifetime deal with Nike worth upward of $1 billion, and on Sunday he led Real to a second straight Champions League title. Real is the first team to win back-to-back Champions League titles.
Ronaldo earned $58 million from Real in salary and bonuses, while sponsors kicked in another $35 million. The Portuguese forward has endorsements deals with Nike, Tag Heuer, Herbalife, Abbott Labs and others. Meanwhile, his growing line of CR7 branded products now include shoes, underwear, fragrance, jeans and a line of hotels.
Sponsors get a good bang for their buck from Ronaldo thanks to his 277 million followers across Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. His 121 million Facebook fans are more than any other person in the world. Ronaldo posts actively with mentions or logos of his sponsors displayed. His posts highlighting Nike generated $500 million in media value alone for the sportswear giant during 2016, according to Hookit, which tracks the social engagement of athletes.
James’ salary jumped $8 million this year and his off-court income is up slightly to $55 million. He replaced Samsung and Tencent in his endorsement portfolio with Intel and Verizon. Other sponsors include Nike, Coca-Cola, Beats by Dre and Kia Motor. His business empire is growing through his production company, SpringHill Entertainment. He is also part of an investment group in the fast-growing Blaze Pizza chain with 17 franchises in Chicago and South Florida. James has made $680 million during his 14-year NBA career, with only 29% from his playing salary.
Rounding out the top five highest-paid athletes are Lionel Messi ($80 million), Roger Federer ($64 million) and Kevin Durant ($60.6 million). The top five is the same as last year with only James and Messi swapping places.
The 100 highest-paid sports stars earned a cumulative $3.11 billion over the past 12 months, down 1% from last year. But the threshold to make the list rose $600,000 to $21.4 million.
Our earnings figures include salaries, prize money and bonuses earned between June 1, 2016, and June 1, 2017. Endorsement incomes are an estimate of sponsorships, appearance fees and licensing incomes for the same 12-month period based on conversations with dozens of industry insiders. We do not deduct for taxes or agents’ fees, and we don’t include investment income (click here for a more detailed methodology and the numbers behind the top 100).
Athletes from 21 countries are represented among the top 100, but Americans dominate the list with 63 entries thanks to soaring salaries in the NBA, NFL and MLB. A record 32 NBA players made the cut, up from 18 in 2016. Credit the league’s new $24 billion TV contract, which pushed the salary cap up 34% this season. Twenty-nine NBA players made at least $20 million in salary during the 2016-17 season.
Endorsements and appearance fees make up 29% of the total pie for the top 100 athletes with Nike the more prolific with 48 athletes under contract. The Swoosh has committed $9.4 billion in future endorsement contracts to athletes, teams and leagues per its 2016 financial filings.
The makeup of athletes’ earnings run the gamut. Take golfer Tigers Woods (No. 17, $37.1 million). He generated 99.7% of his earnings from sponsors with only $107,000 in prize money as the 14-time Majors winner was sidelined by injuries. Similarly, track star Usain Bolt (No. 23, $34.2 million) earns $32 million from sponsors, accounting for 94% of his income. On the other end of the spectrum is pitcher Zack Greinke (No. 67, $24.1 million), who makes only $50,000 off the field or 0.2% of his income.
The top 100 athletes are a boys’ club more than ever. Two or three female tennis players qualified each year since Forbes expanded its athlete ranking to 100 names in 2012, but Serena Williams (No. 51, $27 million) is the lone female athlete to make the cut this year. Mainstay Maria Sharapova failed to make the grade after reductions in her endorsement contracts due to her 15-month suspension for a failed drug test.
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