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No Play Like E-Play For Former Springbok Rugby Player

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Interest in eSports is rapidly picking up in South Africa, and Springbok player Ryan Kankowski is now fully into it, training and mentoring youngsters.

Former South African Springbok player Ryan Kankowski has displayed his prowess in the open on rugby fields around the world.

Now, inside a closed room, the October-born 32-year-old is playing a different game – and winning.

Kankowski welcomes FORBES AFRICA to the digital world of gaming at Nexus, a gaming hub situated in Randburg, northwest of Johannesburg, South Africa. It’s the rugby union player’s home from home surrounded by posters and the latest gaming memorabilia. This is where he really lets loose.

The square-shaped building we are in resembles a Tetris block, and in the center is the Nexus café.

Enthusiastic gamers rush in and out of the retail store to either purchase the latest games or just catch up on the latest gaming trends.

Kankowski, dressed comfortably in a red sweater and grey pants, orders coffee.

“Getting on the field, you feel the atmosphere. But once you are there, you don’t see what is around you. You focus on what is happening in front of you. It’s the same with eSports. You are watching on a big screen, when you do something right, the people cheer for you. You can see and feel the excitement. It makes you want to get bigger and better every year,” he says, as he sips the hot beverage.

“I once played for 20 hours non-stop. You don’t do anything in between. Once you start playing, you just don’t stop.”

Coming from a competitive contact sport such as rugby, Kankowski uses the skills he learned on the field when he is in front of a computer screen. Balance and discipline is what he takes pride in.

Kankowski, who says he is currently on a break from professional rugby, now spends his time offering mentorship to school children interested in eSports. He also trains with the Energy gaming team.

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Aware of the importance of maintaining a professional attitude, both on and off the field, Kankowski advises professional eSport players on representing their respective brands at gaming events.

eSports is a competitive online, electronic or video game played against teams or individual players. These competitions commonly take the form of organized, multi-player video games.

“Rugby had been my entire life. I played professionally for 15 years, I always loved gaming. If I wasn’t on the field, I’d probably be at home playing games. It seemed like a logical choice for me; it is a part of my life so why not go into something that is growing rapidly in South Africa,” says Kankowski.

Kankowski started his rugby career at the age of 17. He played for major teams like the Golden Lions, Cell C Sharks, and the South African national team. He traveled the world for rugby tournaments but always made time for e-gaming with teammates whenever they needed a break from the adrenaline rush on the field.

“Sports guys do play. A lot of them travel with Xboxes, PlayStations and laptops. It is a nice thing to switch off to forget about life. I have traveled for many years with my laptop. In my first year, I ended up traveling to Japan with my entire desktop. I carried it overseas with me.”

“The atmosphere is really different. In rugby, you have like over 60,000 people watching you. In South Africa, the eSports meets are not as big as it is in the rest of the world. There are close to a 1,000 people. Most of the guys you meet there are guys you’ve played against or even played with them at some stage,” he says.

He recognizes the importance of management and professionalism in all aspects of life. eSports and rugby, the two are worlds apart, but are heavily dependent on the character of the individual players.

Kankowski uses his experience as a benchmark when coaching youngsters.

Ryan Kankowski at his first virtual reality gaming experience at the Nexus gaming hub in Johannesburg. Photo by Gypseenia Lion.

“You have kids who are brilliant in sport but do not understand life. You can’t get on the stage and swear at somebody. You are representing a company. We get taught that in sports – how to handle the media, how to speak and how to navigate different spaces. There are a lot of them stuck in a room playing games, they don’t get the interaction between people. But that is changing now. The more professional the teams get, the more professional the players become. If I can bring a little bit of the rugby professionalism into eSports by showing them how the professional set up actually runs…If you are part of a team you represent something. There is a bit of professional etiquette that comes with it,” he says.

Reflecting on how much he misses his former rugby teammates, he adds: “If you don’t respect your team, they will not work with you. It doesn’t matter how good you are.

You may be the best scorer, but you will lose. You will eventually get kicked out of the team because you are just not a good player. It is about the team. They are like a family; they know everything about each other.”

Kankowski, who like his father spends most of his time gaming, enjoys playing mystery and adventure games. Amongst his favorites are PlayerUnknown’s Battlegrounds, an online multi-player battle game and Dishonored: Death of the Outsider, an action-adventure stealth video game.

So whether you are spending endless hours in front of the computer or sweating it off in the sun, the principles of sportsmanship remains the same.

Take this from a national rugby player who keeps it professional on and off the field.

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The World’s Highest-Paid Soccer Players 2019: Messi, Ronaldo And Neymar Dominate The Sporting World

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This past season marked the end of an era in soccer, or football to those outside of the United States whose eyes were about to bleed.

For the first time in a decade, not a single matchup took place between the two greatest players in the world, Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo. Their epic 30-match run of El Clásico clashes, the name for the fixtures between Barcelona and Real Madrid, bitter rivals and the world’s most valuable soccer clubs, came to an end last summer when Ronaldo left Spain’s La Liga to join Juventus in Italy’s Serie A.

Also for the first time in over a decade, neither Messi nor Ronaldo won FIFA’s coveted Player of the Year Award, voted on by the international media, national team coaches and national team captains. Luka Modric, Ronaldo’s former Real Madrid teammate and captain of the Croatian national team, took that trophy home.

But as sad as the loss of this rivalry was for fans—including Messi, who admitted to missing competing against Ronaldo—it seemingly had little effect on either superstar’s performance or purse.

READ MORE | Lionel Messi Claims Top Spot on Forbes’ 2019 List Of The World’s 100 Highest-Paid Athletes

For the second year in a row, Messi takes the top spot among the World’s Highest-Paid Soccer Players, with earnings of $127 million. Thanks to the contract extension he signed in November 2017 that commits him to Camp Nou through June 2021, he hauled in $92 million in salary and bonuses before taxes, a 9.5% bump over what he made on the pitch last year.

Part of that increase came by way of performance-incentive pay. The 32-year-old striker topped La Liga’s charts for both goals (36) and assists, marking his fifth season of 35 or more goals. It was also his sixth season in which he scored 50 or more goals across all club competitions.

He shone brightly in the club’s run-up to quarterfinals of the UEFA Champions League, with the Argentine the top goal scorer of that competition, hitting the back of the net 12 times in 10 appearances.

To an already-rich list of sponsors off the pitch, including lifetime partner Adidas, Mastercard and PepsiCo soft drink and snack brands, Messi added high-end watchmaker Jacob & Co. to his portfolio this year. His first signature timepiece is a limited edition of 180 starting at $28,000.

More recently, he partnered with MGO—a brand portfolio company whose chief creative officer is Tommy Hilfiger’s sister, Ginny Hilfiger—to create a signature line of clothing. It is expected to launch in July on the Messi Store, a global e-commerce site.

READ MORE | World’s Highest-Paid Athletes 2019: What Messi, LeBron And Tiger Make

Ronaldo earned $109 million to come in at No. 2 among the sport’s top earners. It is a negligible increase over his tally last year, a result of taking what amounted to a pay cut to join Juventus after nine years with Real Madrid. His current four-year playing contract pays him a gross annual salary of $64 million and contains no bonus or incentives, per sources close to the deal. But hold back your tears for him.

After nine years with La Liga’s Real Madrid, Cristiano Ronaldo surprised the world on July 16, 2018, with news of his move to Juventus in Italy’s Serie A. (Photo credit: Miguel Medina/AFP/Getty Images) GETTY

Under the Italian tax code, Italian-sourced income, like the salary Ronaldo earns playing for Juve, is taxed at an ordinary top rate of 43%. Outside earnings are treated differently, though, and are subject only to a single, flat tax of about $115,000.

This structure bodes well for Ronaldo, a walking billboard who pitches products head to toe and earned $44 million last year doing so, almost entirely outside of Italy. It also softens the blow he was dealt this past January when he pleaded guilty to tax fraud in Spain for concealing income from commercial image rights earned between 2010 and 2014 and was ordered to pay a $21.6 million fine.

The 34-year-old Portuguese winger is making out well on the pitch, too. He scored 21 goals to lead Juventus to its eighth straight Serie A title and in the process became the first player to win league titles in Italy, Spain and England.

By Forbes’ estimates, assuming he keeps his playing contract and current sponsors and partners (amid an open sexual assault case filed against him in U.S. federal court), Ronaldo is on pace to become the third active athlete to crack the $1 billion mark in career earnings this upcoming season.

Golfer Tiger Woods was the first to do so in 2009, followed by Floyd Mayweather in 2017. (Michael Jordan joined the billionaire athlete club in retirement largely because of his deal with Nike and is now worth $1.9 billion because of his ownership of the Charlotte Hornets.)  

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Paris Saint-Germain’s Neymar Jr. made $105 million last year to round out the top three highest-earning soccer players. His transfer from Barcelona to the French capital stands as the most expensive in the world at $263 million, and his five-year, $350 million total in salary and bonuses will keep him near the top of this list through June 2022.

Neymar partnered with Diesel to launch a signature fragrance in May 2019. (photo credit: Julien Hekimian/Getty Images for Diesel) GETTY

If a report by state-owned public television station France 2 is to be believed and his contract contains a behavior clause bonus, the 27-year-old Brazilian striker may not see all of that money. In the past three months, he’s made international headlines for all the wrong reasons.

In April, UEFA handed him a three-match suspension for insulting match officials on Instagram after Paris Saint-Germain lost to Manchester United in the Champions League. He will miss half of the group-stage competition next season. The same week, he was caught on video getting into an altercation with a fan in the stands after PSG’s loss in the French Cup and was subsequently handed a three-game suspension by his own club.

Following that, his national team stripped him of his captaincy for this summer’s Copa America tournament. Then, in early June, a woman filed a rape claim against him in Brazilian court, stemming from an encounter she had with the soccer star in Paris in May. (Neymar has denied the allegations.)

This week, PSG’s chairman publicly warned Neymar through an interview with France Football that he only wants players “willing to give everything for the shirt” and that “players will have to be more responsible than before.”

Since Forbes began tracking athletes three decades ago, this is the first time the top three highest earners in soccer also sit on top of the list of The World’s Highest-Paid Athletes.

One reason is that they are the three most popular athletes in the world on social media and produce high-quality, commercially driven posts for their sponsors that garner them big bucks.

Ronaldo is the most popular and engaging among them. His 370 million followers across Facebook, Instagram and Twitter transcend sports and make him one of the most followed people in the world. For perspective, he gained 48 million new followers in the past year, an amount that exceeds the total follower count of Manchester United and the French World Cup champion Paul Pogba (ranked No. 4 among the World’s Highest-Paid Soccer Players, with total earnings of $33 million).

During his last season with Real Madrid, Ronaldo generated $474 million in value for his sponsors on social media—an amazing return on their $47 million investment in him—and another $274 million for then-club sponsor Adidas.

This past season also ushered in the dawn of a new era. While his social media following has a long way to go to reach the stratosphere of the three highest-paid, PSG forward Kylian Mbappé (No. 7, $30.6 million in earnings) is generating both the quantity and the quality of buzz that position him to join their ranks, and even jump them.

The 20-year-old newcomer, the youngest on our list, had his global introduction at last year’s World Cup, scoring four goals in seven matches to help lead his French side to a championship victory. At 19, he was the second-youngest player to score a goal in the tournament, behind Brazilian soccer legend Pelé.

After winning the 2018 World Cup’s Best Young Player Award, Mbappé returned to his club and won Ligue 1’s 2019 Player of the Year Award as its 2018-19 top goal scorer. In between, he picked up endorsements with Hublot, which made him its first active player ambassador, and French baby food maker Good Gout. He hobnobbed with David Beckham. He graced the cover of Time. And he donated the $500,000 World Cup bonus he earned to a French hospital that organizes sporting events for disabled children.

His largest sponsor, Nike, also a French national team sponsor, is already thinking ahead to the 2026 World Cup, which will be cohosted by the United States. Mbappé will be just 27 then, and may very well be the only one on our current list still playing for his national team. The time to start exposing him to the market is now. 

Nike invited Mbappé out to its headquarters and escorted him on a mini-West Coast tour last week, complete with meetings with sporting legends LeBron James, Steve Nash and Brandi Chastain, and arranged for his Hollywood debut—throwing out the ceremonial first pitch at Dodger Stadium.  

“We see Kylian as a global superstar, and certainly the U.S. is a key component of the global marketplace,” said Heidi Burgett, senior director of global communications at Nike. “We certainly think Kylian has a very bright future with his joyful and fast brand of football, as well as his strong sense of purpose on and off the pitch.”

Modric, the reigning FIFA player of the year, missed our list this year. But the Croatian national team captain agreed to a new contract with Real Madrid in February that ties him to the Bernabeu until June 2021 and could land him a spot here next year. His salary reportedly matches that of his teammate Sergio Ramos, who ranks No. 19 on our list with total earnings of $21.9 million, of which $19.9 is in salary and bonus.

Nike is Modric’s largest sponsor. In 2018, he admitted in Spanish court to tax evasion and agreed to pay a fine in excess of $1.3 million. He used the same lawyer as former teammate Ronaldo.

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World’s Highest-Paid Athletes 2019: What Messi, LeBron And Tiger Make

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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.

READ MORE | Lionel Messi Claims Top Spot on Forbes’ 2019 List Of The World’s 100 Highest-Paid Athletes

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.

READ MORE | The NBA’s Highest-Paid Players 2019: LeBron James Leads With $89 Million

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.

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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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Lionel Messi Claims Top Spot on Forbes’ 2019 List Of The World’s 100 Highest-Paid Athletes

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Forbes today released its annual ranking of the World’s 100 Highest-Paid athletes, who collectively earned $4 billion over the last 12 months, up 5% from last year’s earnings of $3.8 billion. 

Lionel Messi was named the world’s highest-paid athlete for the first time, up from second place last year, with $127 million in total earnings.

Messi unseats Floyd Mayweather, who held the crown last year, and was the leader four times in seven years. Behind Messi is longtime rival Cristiano Ronaldo (No. 2), who earned $109 million between his salary and endorsements. 

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Serena Williams (No. 63) returned to the ranking, after no women appeared in 2018. Cost of admission to the 2019 list is the highest ever at $25 million, up $2.1 million from the previous year. Endorsement income experienced an increase of 12.5% to $987 million this year.

“The global impact of soccer is clearly reflected in earnings in 2019, with the top three athletes on the list being Messi, Ronaldo, and Neymar,” said Kurt Badenhausen, senior editor, Forbes Media.

“But basketball players continue to dominate the top 100 overall with 35 athletes on the list earning a total of $1.29 billion, with 72% of that income coming from salaries rather than endorsement deals.”

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The list of elite athletes consists of players from ten different sports. NBA stars lead with 35 basketball players among the top 100, down from 40 in 2018, headed by LeBron James (No. 8 with $89 million).

Football was the next most-represented sport with 19 players, followed by baseball with 15, and soccer with 12.

There are 25 different countries represented on this year’s World’s Highest-Paid Athletes list, up from 22 in 2018. Americans dominate the action with 62 athletes thanks to the sky-high salaries in the major sports leagues.

The U.K. has five athletes, France and Spain have three, while Brazil, Canada, the Dominican Republic, Germany, Serbia and Venezuela all have two.

Methodology: 

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 based on conversations with dozens of industry insiders. We do not deduct for taxes or agents’ fees, and we don’t include investment income.

The World’s Top 10 Highest-Paid Athletes in 2019:

RankAthleteSportSalary/Winnings ($mil)Endorsements ($mil)Total Earnings ($mil)
1Lionel MessiSoccer9235127
2Cristiano RonaldoSoccer6544109
3NeymarSoccer7530105
4Canelo AlvarezBoxing92294
5Roger FedererTennis7.48693.4
6Russell WilsonFootball80.5989.5
7Aaron RodgersFootball80.3989.3
8LeBron JamesBasketball365389
9Stephen CurryBasketball37.84279.8
10Kevin DurantBasketball30.43565.4

-Forbes Corporate Communications; Forbes Staff

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