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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.)  

READ MORE | Masters Champion Tiger Woods: By The Numbers

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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The Springboks And The Cup Of Good Hope

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After their epic win beating England at the 2019 Rugby World Cup in Japan on November 2, the Springboks returned home to South Africa, undertaking a nation-wide tour, in an open-top bus, holding high the Webb Ellis Cup. In this image, in the township of Soweto, they pass the iconic Vilakazi Street with throngs of screaming, cheering residents and Springbok fans lining the street. The sport united the racially-divided country. For the third time in history, the South African national rugby team was crowned world champions.

Image by Motlabana Monnakgotla

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Déjà vu: South Africa Back to Winning

Our Publisher reflects on the recent Springbok victory in Yokohoma, Japan

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Rugby World Cup 2019, Final: England v South Africa Mtach viewing at Nelson Mandela Square

By Rakesh Wahi, Publisher
FORBES AFRICA

Rugby is as foreign to me as cricket is to the average American. However, having lived in South Africa for 15 years, there is no way to avoid being pulled into the sport. November 2, 2019, is therefore a date that will be celebrated in South Africa’s sporting posterity. In many ways, it’s déjà vu for South Africans; at a pivotal time in history, on June 24, 1995, the Springboks beat the All Blacks (the national rugby team of New Zealand) in the final of the World Cup. The game united a racially-divided country coming out of apartheid and at the forefront of this victory was none other than President Nelson Mandela or our beloved Madiba. In a very symbolic coincidence, 24 years later, history repeated itself.

South Africans watched with pride as Siya Kolisi lifted the gold trophy in Yokohama, Japan, as had Francois Pienaar done so 24 years ago in Johannesburg. My mind immediately reflected on this extremely opportune event in South Africa’s history.

The last decade has not been easy; the country has slipped into economic doldrums from which there seems to be no clear path ahead. The political transition from the previously corrupt regime has not been easy and it has been disheartening to see a rapid deterioration in the economic condition of the country. The sad reality is that there literally seems to be no apparent light at the end of the tunnel; with blackouts and load-shedding, a currency that is amongst the most volatile in the world, rising unemployment and rising crime amongst many other issues facing the country.

Rakesh Wahi, Publisher Forbes Africa

Something needed to change. There was a need for an event to change this despondent state of mind and the South African rugby team seems to have given a glimmer of hope that could not have come at a more opportune time. As South African flags were flying all over the world on November 2, something clicked to say that there is hope ahead and if people come together under a common mission, they can be the change that they want to see.

Isn’t life all about hope? Nothing defies gravity and just goes up; Newton taught us that everything that goes up will come down. Vicissitudes are a part of life and the true character of people, society or a nation is tested on how they navigate past these curve balls that make us despair. As we head into 2020, it is my sincere prayer that we see a new dawn and a better future in South Africa with renewed vigor and vitality.

Talking about sports and sportsmen, there is another important lesson that we need to take away. Having been a sportsman all my life, I have had a belief that people who have played team sports like cricket, rugby, soccer, hockey etc make great team players and leaders. However, other sports like golf, diving and squash teach you focus. In all cases, the greatest attribute of all is how to reset your mind after adversity. While most of us moved on after amateur sports to find our place in the world, the real sportspeople to watch and learn from are professionals. It is their grit and determination.

My own belief is that one must learn how to detach from a rear view mirror. You cannot ignore what is behind you because that is your history; you must learn from it. Our experiences are unique and so is our history. It must be our greatest teacher. However, that’s where it must end. As humans, we must learn to break the proverbial rear view mirror and stop worrying about the past. You cannot change what is behind you but you can influence and change what is yet to come.

I had the good fortune of playing golf with Chester Williams (former rugby player who was the first person of color to play for the Springboks in the historic win in 1995 and sadly passed away in September 2019) more than once at the SuperSport Celebrity Golf Shootout.

Chester played his golf fearlessly; perhaps the way he led his life. He would drive the ball 300 meters and on occasion went into the woods or in deep rough. Psychologically, as golfers know, this sets you back just looking at a bad lie, an embedded or unplayable ball or a dropped shot in a hazard. For a seasoned golfer, it is not the shot that you have hit but the one that you are about to hit. Chester has a repertoire of recovery shots and always seemed to be in the game even after some wayward moments. There is a profound lesson in all of this. You have to blank your mind from the negativity or sometimes helplessness and bring a can do and positive frame of reference back into your game (and life). Hit that recovery shot well and get back in the game; that’s what champions do.

We need to now focus our attention on the next shot and try and change the future than stay in the past.

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The NBA’s Highest-Paid Players 2019-20: LeBron James Scores Record $92 Million

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NBA salaries have skyrocketed in recent years, but the biggest stars have earned more off the court than on it to this point in their careers. LeBron James, who tops the ranking for the 2019-2020 season, has made more than twice as much from endorsements than his $270 million in playing salary over his first 16 years. Kevin Durant’s on-court earnings of $187 million in 12 seasons is dwarfed by his current ten-year, $275 million Nike deal.

At $92 million, including salary and endorsements, James is the NBA’s highest-paid player for the sixth straight year. It is a record haul for an active basketball player. Nike is his biggest backer, and the company is naming a new research lab at its Beaverton, Oregon, corporate campus after James. Last month, the 17th iteration of his Nike signature shoe, the LeBron XVII, hit stores.

The four-time NBA MVP added a pair of endorsement deals in 2019 with Rimowa luggage and Walmart, which joined Coca-Cola, Beats By Dre, Blaze Pizza and NBA 2K in his sponsorship stable.

He also has a budding digital media company, Uninterrupted, and a production firm, SpringHill Entertainment, which will release a sequel to the 1996 Michael Jordan vehicle Space Jam in conjunction with Warner Bros. in 2021. All of the off-court work is worth an estimated $55 million for James this season.

The Los Angeles Lakers star’s comments about the NBA’s geopolitical mess in China also reveal the precarious position everyone in the league is in as political unrest in Hong Kong shows no signs of abating.

As the league’s 74th regular season tipped off Tuesday night, the NBA was still reeling from the crisis set off by a tweet from Houston Rockets GM Daryl Morey in support of Hong Kong’s pro-democracy protesters.

Commissioner Adam Silver backed Morey’s right to free speech, but some players didn’t, including James, who called Morey “misinformed or not really educated” on the situation. “We love China,” said Rockets point guard James Harden.

It was a rare misstep for two of the league’s more media-savvy stars, both of whom have close ties to China. Adidas, which has Harden as the face of its basketball business, generated more revenue in China last year than in North America, and the Rockets are China’s most popular team after drafting native son Yao Ming in 2002.

Nike’s China revenue topped $6 billion during the last fiscal year, and the country is a growth leader for the brand. James has represented Nike on 15 off-season trips to China. The sports giant pays James more than $30 million annually to pitch its products around the globe.

And the threat of losing its growth trajectory in China could have far-reaching consequences for team valuations.

But back at home, the financials of NBA franchises remain solid, which is good for player salaries. The league’s salary cap is soaring, fueled largely by the nine-year, $24 billion TV deal with ESPN and TNT signed in 2014.

NBA players are entitled to 51% of the league’s “basketball-related income” as laid out in the collective bargaining agreement. The rich TV deal and budding international business means 46 players will earn a playing salary of at least $25 million this season, according to Spotrac. The $25 million club had zero members five years ago. And unlike in the NFL, every dollar is guaranteed upon signing.

The NBA's Highest-Paid Players
The Highest-Paid NBA Players - Dataviz

On-court salaries in the NBA are capped based on a player’s number of years in the league and accolades earned in cases in which an award like MVP entitles them to a bigger percentage of a team’s salary cap.

So the pecking order for the elite stars is ultimately determined by their off-court income, with the shoe deal the biggest component of those earnings. There are ten active NBA players who will make at least $10 million from their shoe contracts this year, by Forbes’ count.

Stephen Curry comes in at No. 2 on the earnings list this year and is expected to generate $85 million this season, including $45 million off the court. Under Armour represents nearly half of his off-court income.

Curry’s $40.2 million salary from the Golden State Warriors is the highest in the history of the NBA; he’s in the third season of the five-year, $201 million contract he signed in 2017. Curry’s production company, Unanimous Media, has a development deal with Sony Pictures.

Unanimous’ first movie, Breakthrough, was released in April, with Curry playing a role in marketing the Christian-oriented film, which grossed $50 million on a $14 million budget.

Durant has the NBA’s second-biggest annual shoe contract after James’ at an estimated $26 million this season. His total earnings from his playing salary and endorsements is $73 million. Nike sells more KD shoes in China than in North America, according to Durant’s business partner Rich Kleiman.

Like James and Curry, Durant has his own production company, which is co-producing a new basketball-themed drama, Swagger, that is inspired by Durant’s youth basketball experience and will air on the Apple TV+ streaming service.

The NBA’s ten highest-paid players are expected to earn a cumulative $600 million this year, including $250 million from endorsements, appearances, merchandise and media.

A Closer Look At The NBA's Highest-Paid Players
#10: Damian Lillard

Lillard signed a four-year, $196 million supermax extension in July with the Portland Trail Blazers that kicks in for the 2021-2022 season. The final year is worth $54.25 million for the 2013 NBA Rookie of the Year and four-time All-Star. Lillard’s Adidas shoe deal is worth roughly $10 million annually.

#9: Giannis Antetokounmpo

The “Greek Freak” is eligible for a five-year, $248 million contract extension next summer with the Milwaukee Bucks. It would be the richest deal in the history of the sport. In June, Nike unveiled the first signature shoe, Zoom Freak 1, for the 2019 NBA MVP.

#8: Chris Paul

Only Curry will earn more on the court this season than Paul, who was traded to the Oklahoma City Thunder in July. Paul was an early investor and ambassador for Beyond Meat, whose stock price has quadrupled since its initial public offering in May.

#7: Klay Thompson

Thompson’s coach, Steve Kerr, says the sharpshooter is likely to miss the entire season after tearing his ACL during the NBA Finals in June. But he’ll still collect his full $32.7 million salary—almost double last year’s—under the first season of the five-year, $190 million pact he signed in July. Thompson is the basketball face of Chinese shoe brand Anta.

#6: Kyrie Irving

Irving joins his third team in four years this season. His four-year deal with the Brooklyn Nets is worth $136 million and includes an additional $4.3 million in potential incentives. A viral Pepsi ad campaign featuring Irving as the elderly Uncle Drew eventually led to a 2018 feature film; Irving has partial ownership of the character. Irving is another Beyond Meat investor.

#5: James Harden

The 2018 NBA MVP purchased a minority stake in the Houston Dynamo of MLS this summer for $15 million. Harden also holds equity stakes in BodyArmor, Stance socks and Art of Sport. His salary with the Rockets jumps $8 million this season with the start of a contract extension he signed in 2017.

#4: Russell Westbrook

Westbrook’s five-year, $207 million contract is the largest deal in the NBA right now. The eight-time All Star extended his deal with Nike’s Jordan brand in 2017 for another ten years and in 2018 received his first signature shoe, the Why Not Zer0. Westbrook has averaged a triple-double for three straight seasons.

#3: Kevin Durant

Durant is likely to miss the entire season recovering from a torn Achilles tendon suffered in June during the NBA Finals. He’ll still pocket his full first-year salary from the Brooklyn Nets under the four-year, $164 million deal he signed in July. He’s invested in more than 30 startups, including Postmates and investing app Acorns.

#2: Stephen Curry

The two-time MVP used some of his hoops money in June to buy a $31 million home in Atherton, California, with his wife, Ayesha. He also made a seven-figure donation this summer to Howard University to help launch a golf program at the school and recently signed an endorsement partnership with Callaway Golf. Curry became the only player to win the NBA MVP unanimously when he won his second of back-to-back awards in 2016.

#1: LeBron James

James signed an endorsement in 2019 with Walmart that is rooted in community work. He worked with the retail giant on its Fight Hunger. Spark Change. initiative, as well as the company’s back-to-school campaign. James is part of an investment group that owns 19 Blaze Pizza franchises across Illinois and Florida.

-Forbes; Kurt Badenhausen

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