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Football, Beer And Selfies With Thierry Henry

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French football legend Thierry Henry was in South Africa to watch the 2019 UEFA Champions League final on television screens with dizzy fans. 


A teaser campaign on Heineken South Africa’s Twitter page unveiling the identity of a legendary footballer kicks off the 2019 season of the UEFA Champions League.

It certainly piques the attention of South African fans on social media who tentatively await the unmasking of this legend – French footballer Thierry Henry. 

Even as fans attempt to piece the mysterious mosaic, the Champions League 100 club member is already making his way from Europe to watch the much-anticipated UEFA Champions League tournament final on June 1, on a giant television screen with his South African fans, at the Kyalami Grand Prix Circuit race track in Johannesburg.

South Africa’s vibrant football culture finds expression in all venues, from the dusty make-shift fields that continue to play a crucial role in community life in townships, to the manicured green pitches of gargantuan stadiums.

As Tottenham Hotspur FC and Liverpool FC take to the field for the final leg in Spain, here in Johannesburg, all eyes are on Henry, who can barely focus with all the attention on him. But these are interactions the former FC Barcelona and Arsenal FC striker would not trade for anything else – even watching the match in the comfort of his own home.

“It is always nice to have these moments with South African fans. Usually, I would be at home watching the game, but now, I am in South Africa. It is a bit surreal to watch the Champions League that happens in Europe, in Africa,” he tells FORBES AFRICA. 

Watching the all-English final on South African soil evoked nostalgia, and Henry reminisces the beginning of an illustrious career in football. 

“I went to Monaco [to play] as a youngster; that was the choice. I didn’t know we were going to make the Champions League. I was just trying to be a football player,” he says.

 Henry then moved to Arsenal, and then Barcelona where he ended up winning the Champions League.

The bulk of the retired footballer’s career as a player was in the English Premier League for Arsenal FC that saw him as Arsenal’s all-time top scorer, with 228 goals, for the club.

“The moves were based on competing, trying to get the best out of myself and get the best out of my teammates,” he says.

Despite a two-nil loss on Henry’s first professional appearance for Monaco in 1994, first impressions should make a lasting impact, he says. 

“For me, it is always the first game, it is very important because you are now on the scene and you need to make sure that everybody can see what you are about in that particular moment. I remember losing the first game but I had an impact and the rest is history.”

On June 1, Liverpool FC was crowned champions in the 64th season of the premier football tournament.

The win for the English team meant more beer, selfies and snapshots with Henry for the few lucky South African soccer fans, and again, the rest is history. 

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Grass Gets Greener For Young South African Golfing Wonder

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Seven-year-old Simthandile ‘Sim Tiger’ Tshabalala already has the golfing world at his feet.


South African golf legend Gary Player believes the country has the potential to produce the next Tiger Woods, a superstar with charisma and global appeal that will win major titles and become a role model to millions around the world.

Player told FORBES AFRICA late last year he was “convinced there is a black girl or boy in South Africa today with tremendous athletic prowess, and with the talent to be a champion”.

Player’s prophecy could come true sooner than, perhaps even, he expects, with the emergence of seven-year-old Simthandile ‘Sim Tiger’ Tshabalala, a youngster that has shown such outstanding talent on the golf course that the world has sat up to take notice.

READ MORE | Grass Is Greener In Soweto For Golf Legend Gary Player

Tshabalala, who learned the game from YouTube videos and has only been professionally coached for the last few years, has already played at the Australian Open, where he came fourth, has played in Malaysia and Scotland, and won the local US Kids Tour this year.

He will soon be jetting off to the United States, England and Canada for more events in the coming month, fueling his passion to one day emulate, and then surpass, his hero.

“It’s going very well, it’s very exciting for me,” Tshabalala tells FORBES AFRICA. “I really look up to Tiger Woods, he was number one in the world for so long.

Seven-year-old Simthandile ‘Sim Tiger’ Tshabalala. Picture Supplied

“He won so many tournaments and, just like me, he started playing at such a young age. He carried that through to his adult life and became a legend.”

The way Tshabalala talks; he is seven going on 17, such is the maturity with which he answers questions.

Clearly, an exceptionally talented, and level-headed child, he has the golfing world at his feet.

His father, Bonginkosi Tshabalala, admits his son’s success has taken him rather by surprise, but he is determined to make sure all avenues are open for the youngster.

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

“I grew up with an absent father, with no male guidance or exposure to many things, so it’s very important for me to be able to provide this platform for Sim. I want him to have a better life than me,” Tshabalala senior says.

The young Sim tried just about every sport going, but none stuck until he picked up a golf club.

“From the age of two, we have tried all sports – tennis, swimming, cricket, soccer and finally golf,” his father says.

“I must admit I did not even know what a golf course looked like.

Seven-year-old Simthandile ‘Sim Tiger’ Tshabalala holds the South African flag up high. Picture: Supplied

“I had no clue about the rules of the game, but I thought I had to teach myself first, then I could pass that on to Sim.

“So I bought some clubs, and the two of us would sit and watch YouTube videos with coaching tips and the like, trying to learn the game.

“We had been going to the driving range together and he was really enjoying it, so I decided to get him formal coaching.”

But Tshabalala senior, who is also his son’s caddy, says it is not enough and they put in hours and hours of practice together each week.

“If you give him a fork to eat with, he will use it to practise his swing. The first thing he does in the morning when he gets out of bed is practice his swing. He is amazingly committed to the game.”

Seven-year-old Simthandile ‘Sim Tiger’ Tshabalala on the gold course. Picture: Supplied

Such is his promise that ‘Sim Tiger’ has already secured a sponsorship from top global golf equipment manufacturer, TaylorMade, but for the rest, his increasingly expensive career is being funded by his father.

“We will be at the World Championships in North Carolina from August 1 to 3. Then we travel to England for the British Kids Championship on August 8 and 9, and from there, we play the 2019 Canadian Invitational on August 12 to 13.

“It is obviously very expensive, and we are looking for sponsorship, but at the same time, it is an amazing experience.

“When we went to Malaysia, it was the first time, I had never been outside of South Africa, so we have grown together as a family.”

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

For Tshabalala senior, this journey is much more than golf and travel, it is a chance for him to spend time with his son, perhaps healing some of those old wounds that linger from his father not providing him with the same support.

“Whatever happens in the future, it has brought us closer, and hopefully, he has learned some life lessons along the way,” he says.

Seven-year-old Simthandile ‘Sim Tiger’ Tshabalala. Picture: Supplied

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The World’s 50 Most Valuable Sports Teams 2019

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The Dallas Cowboys kick off training camp this weekend as the defending NFC East champions. Last season ended with a playoff loss to the Los Angeles Rams, which marked 23 straight years the Cowboys were shut out of the NFC Championship game. Only the Washington Redskins and Detroit Lions have longer title-game droughts.

But America’s Team remains the biggest must-see show in sports. Nine of the 50 highest-rated sports TV broadcasts in 2018 were regular season Cowboys games, helping goose ratings for CBS, NBC and Fox (the Patriots were the only other team with more than four games among the top 50).

Cowboys fever helps owner Jerry Jones generate an estimated $340 million in sponsorship and premium seating revenue at AT&T Stadium, twice as much as any other team.

While Jones’ team has come up short on the field the past 20-plus years, the Cowboys are the world’s most valuable sports franchise for the fourth-straight year at $5 billion. Jones has capitalized on the insatiable appetite for all things Cowboys.

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

“On and off the field, in season and out of season, there is a small soap opera going on every day,” Jones told my colleague Mike Ozanian last fall during a taping of ForbesSportsMoney on the YES Network. “Everyone knows that marketing, especially in this day and time, is just another way to promote the circus, so to speak.”

Jones has always been a visionary since he bought the Cowboys for $150 million 30 years ago. He revolutionized stadium sponsorships; broke away from the NFL’s shared merchandise revenue system; launched a stadium-management firm, Legends Hospitality, with the New York Yankees; and opened a $1.5 billion practice facility in 2017.

The New England Patriots' Tom Brady
The New England Patriots’ Tom Brady MADDIE MEYER/GETTY IMAGES

The result: Dallas sits atop the globe’s richest sports league with profits, in the sense of earnings before interest, taxes, depreciation and amortization, of $365 million in 2017, a record for any sports team.

The cutoff to rank among the world’s 50 most valuable sports teams is $2.075 billion, up $125 million from last year and $1.2 billion from five years ago. The values of sports teams have skyrocketed on the backs of ballooning media rights deals and more owner-friendly collective bargaining agreements that restrain player costs. There are 52 teams across all sports worth at least $2 billion, up from one, Manchester United, in 2012.

The NFL is still the most dominant sports league when it comes to the worth of its franchises. More than half of the top 50 are football squads. Credit the monster media-rights deals with the likes of CBS, NBC, Fox, ESPN and DirecTV that paid out more than $260 million per team last year. The TV haul is a nice cushion to easily cover teams’ biggest expense item, player costs, before any tickets, sponsorships, beer or replica jerseys are sold. The cap on player salaries was $177 million last season (each team is also on the hook for $40 million annually in player benefit costs).

READ MORE | Simidele Adeagbo: What I Learned From The Most Terrifying Winter Olympics Sport

The New York Yankees moved up three spots to just behind the Cowboys with a value of $4.6 billion, up 15%. The Bronx Bombers head seven MLB teams that made the top 50. The Yankees are surging on and off the field. They own the best record in the American League this season, after posting 100 wins last year. Attendance at Yankee Stadium jumped 10% last year to 3.5 million fans, the highest for the club since 2012. Viewership of Yankees games on the YES Network was 57% higher than any other baseball franchise in 2018.

Real Madrid ranks third at $4.2 billion and highest among the eight soccer clubs in the top 50. The La Liga club was the last sports team deemed the world’s most valuable before the Cowboys secured the title starting in 2016. Real banked more than $100 million for winning its second-straight Champions League crown last year.

Don’t look for Real Madrid to set any records with regard to the richest sports team sale, currently $2.3 billion for the sales of the Carolina Panthers in 2018 and the Brooklyn Nets in 2019. Real is owned by its more than 90,000 members, who elect a club president. It’s a similar structure at rival Barcelona, which ranks fourth overall with a value of $4.02 billion.

The Golden State Warriors' Stephen Curry
The Golden State Warriors’ Stephen CurryGREGORY SHAMUS/GETTY IMAGES

NBA teams have made the most dramatic moves this decade. The New York Knicks headline nine hoops teams in the top 50 this year. Their $4 billion value, up 11%, ranks fifth among all sports teams. The Los Angeles Lakers ($3.7 billion) and Golden State Warriors ($3.5 billion) also cracked the top 10. In 2012, the Lakers were the most valuable NBA team at $900 million and ranked 35th out of all sports franchises. The Knicks were the only other NBA team in the top 50 in 2012.

Three NBA franchises have been sold for at least $2 billion since 2014 (Nets, Houston Rockets and Los Angeles Clippers). The prior NBA-record sale price was $550 million for the Milwaukee Bucks, which closed three months before Steve Ballmer’s $2 billion blockbuster purchase of the Clippers.

READ MORE | The 10 Most Notable New Billionaires Of 2019

Investors salivate at the NBA’s international prospects, with 300 million basketball players in China and annual revenue growing outside the U.S. at a rate in the high teens. The 2016 CBA locked in player costs at 50% of the league’s surging revenue, and league-wide profits are up tenfold over the past seven years by Forbes’ count.

The world’s richest sports teams are almost all swimming in cash these days. Barcelona, which lost $37 million due to excessive player costs, was the only top-50 team to post a loss on an operating basis, and every other team turned a profit of at least $25 million. More than half of the teams made more than $100 million, led by the Cowboys at $365 million.

The franchise values below are based on Forbes’ published valuations over the past 12 months. Team values reflect enterprise values (equity plus debt). No teams from the NHL, Nascar, MLS or Formula One made the top 50. The highest-ranking franchise outside of the NBA, NFL, MLB and European soccer was the New York Rangers at 72nd with a value of $1.55 billion.

Gridiron Rules

The NFL remains the most dominant sports leagues with more than half of the 50 most valuable sports franchises, but the other major sports chipped away at its dominance during the past year.

More Than a Game

The discount bin is empty when shopping for teams in the major sports leagues. Every NFL, NBA and MLB franchise is now worth at least $1 billion.

Candlestick Chart
Trophy Assets

Manchester United was the world’s only pro sports team worth more than $2 billion in 2012. Now there are at least 50, including almost every NFL team.

Pictograph 1
The World's 50 Most Valuable Sports Teams
RICH SCHULTZ/GETTY IMAGES, ADAM GLANZMAN/MLB VIA GETTY IMAGES, BOB LEVEY/GETTY IMAGES

50 New Orleans Saints (NFL)

  • Value: $2.08 billion
  • 1-Year % Change: 4%
  • Owner: Gayle Benson
  • Operating Income*: $115 million

49 | Jacksonville Jaguars (NFL)

  • Value: $2.08 billion
  • 1-Year % Change: 0%
  • Owner: Shahid Khan
  • Operating Income: $63 million

47 (tie) | Kansas City Chiefs (NFL)

  • Value: $2.1 billion
  • 1-Year % Change: 0%
  • Owners: Lamar Hunt Family
  • Operating Income: $60 million

47 (tie) | St. Louis Cardinals (MLB)

  • Value: $2.1 billion
  • 1-Year % Change: 11%
  • Owner: William DeWitt Jr.
  • Operating Income: $65 million

46 | Arizona Cardinals (NFL)

  • Value: $2.15 billion
  • 1-Year % Change: 0%
  • Owner: Wiliam Bidwill
  • Operating Income: $74 million

45 | Liverpool (Soccer)

  • Value: $2.18 billion
  • 1-Year % Change: 12%
  • Owners: John Henry, Tom Werner
  • Operating Income: $128 million

44 | Los Angeles Clippers (NBA)

  • Value: $2.2 billion
  • 1-Year % Change: 2%
  • Owner: Steve Ballmer
  • Operating Income: $40 million

43 | Dallas Mavericks (NBA)

  • Value: $2.25 billion
  • 1-Year % Change: 18%
  • Owner: Mark Cuban
  • Operating Income: $99 million

42 | Arsenal (Soccer)

  • Value: $2.27 billion
  • 1-Year % Change: 1%
  • Owner: Stanley Kroenke
  • Operating Income: $102 million

41 | Los Angeles Chargers (NFL)

  • Value: $2.28 billion
  • 1-Year % Change: 0%
  • Owners: Spanos Family
  • Operating Income: $48 million

38 (tie) | New York Mets (MLB)

  • Value: $2.3 billion
  • 1-Year % Change: 10%
  • Owners: Fred & Jeff Wilpon, Saul Katz
  • Operating Income: $30 million

38 (tie) | Carolina Panthers (NFL)

  • Value: $2.3 billion
  • 1-Year % Change: 0%
  • Owner: David Tepper
  • Operating Income: $62 million

38 (tie)| Houston Rockets (NBA)

  • Value: $2.3 billion
  • 1-Year % Change: 5%
  • Owner: Tilman Fertitta
  • Operating Income: $103 million

37 | Brooklyn Nets (NBA)

  • Value: $2.35 billion
  • 1-Year % Change: 2%
  • Owners: Mikhail Prokhorov, Joe Tsai
  • Operating Income: $53 million

36 | Indianapolis Colts (NFL)

  • Value: $2.38 billion
  • 1-Year % Change: 0%
  • Owner: James Irsay
  • Operating Income: $67 million

35 | Minnesota Vikings (NFL)

  • Value: $2.4 billion
  • 1-Year % Change: 0%
  • Owner: Zygmunt Wilf
  • Operating Income: $90 million

34 | Oakland Raiders (NFL)

  • Value: $2.42 billion
  • 1-Year % Change: 2%
  • Owner: Mark Davis
  • Operating Income: $25 million

33 | Miami Dolphins (NFL)

  • Value: $2.58 billion
  • 1-Year % Change: 0%
  • Owner: Stephen Ross
  • Operating Income: $56 million

32 | Chelsea (Soccer)

  • Value: $2.58 billion
  • 1-Year % Change: 25%
  • Owner: Roman Abramovich
  • Operating Income: $127 million

31 | Seattle Seahawks (NFL)

  • Value: $2.58 billion
  • 1-Year % Change: 6%
  • Owners: Pat Allen Trust
  • Operating Income: $71 million

30 | Pittsburgh Steelers (NFL)

  • Value: $2.59 billion
  • 1-Year % Change: 5%
  • Owners: Daniel Rooney Trust, Art Rooney II
  • Operating Income: $85 million

29 | Baltimore Ravens (NFL)

  • Value: $2.59 billion
  • 1-Year % Change: 4%
  • Owner: Stephen Bisciotti
  • Operating Income: $107 million

28 | Atlanta Falcons (NFL)

  • Value: $2.6 billion
  • 1-Year % Change: 5%
  • Owner: Arthur Blank
  • Operating Income: $113 million

27 | Green Bay Packers (NFL)

  • Value: $2.63 billion
  • 1-Year % Change: 3%
  • Owners: shareholder-owned
  • Operating Income: $62 million

26 | Denver Broncos (NFL)

  • Value: $2.65 billion
  • 1-Year % Change: 2%
  • Owners: Pat Bowlen Trust
  • Operating Income: $106 million

25 | Manchester City (Soccer)

  • Value: $2.69 billion
  • 1-Year % Change: 9%
  • Owner: Sheikh Mansour bin Zayed Al Nahyan
  • Operating Income: $168 million

24 | Philadelphia Eagles (NFL)

  • Value: $2.75 billion
  • 1-Year % Change: 4%
  • Owners: Jeffrey Lurie
  • Operating Income: $114 million

22 (tie)| Boston Celtics (NBA)

  • Value: $2.8 billion
  • 1-Year % Change: 12%
  • Owners: Wycliffe & Irving Grousbeck, Robert Epstein, Stephen Pagliuca
  • Operating Income: $100 million

22 (tie)| Houston Texans (NFL)

  • Value: $2.8 billion
  • 1-Year % Change: 0%
  • Owner: Robert McNair
  • Operating Income: $161 million

21 | New York Jets (NFL)

  • Value: $2.85 billion
  • 1-Year % Change: 4%
  • Owner: Robert Wood Johnson IV
  • Operating Income: $130 million

19 (tie) | Chicago Bears (NFL)

  • Value: $2.9 billion
  • 1-Year % Change: 2%
  • Owners: McCaskey family
  • Operating Income: $100 million

19 (tie) | Chicago Bulls (NBA)

  • Value: $2.9 billion
  • 1-Year % Change: 12%
  • Owner: Jerry Reinsdorf
  • Operating Income: $115 million

18 | San Francisco Giants (MLB)

  • Value: $3 billion
  • 1-Year % Change: 5%
  • Owner: Charles Johnson
  • Operating Income: $84 million

17 | Bayern Munich (Soccer)

  • Value: $3.02 billion
  • 1-Year % Change: -1%
  • Owners: Club members
  • Operating Income: $129 million

16 | San Francisco 49ers (NFL)

  • Value: $3.05 billion
  • 1-Year % Change: 0%
  • Owners: Denise DeBartolo York, John York
  • Operating Income: $106 million

14 (tie) | Chicago Cubs (MLB)

  • Value: $3.1 billion
  • 1-Year % Change: 7%
  • Owners: Ricketts family
  • Operating Income: $87 million

14 (tie) | Washington Redskins (NFL)

  • Value: $3.1 billion
  • 1-Year % Change: 0%
  • Owner: Daniel Snyder
  • Operating Income: $122 million

12 (tie) | Los Angeles Rams (NFL)

  • Value: $3.2 billion
  • 1-Year % Change: 7%
  • Owner: Stanley Kroenke
  • Operating Income: $68 million

12 (tie) | Boston Red Sox (MLB)

  • Value: $3.2 billion
  • 1-Year % Change: 14%
  • Owners: John Henry, Thomas Werner
  • Operating Income: $84 million

10 (tie) | Los Angeles Dodgers (MLB)

  • Value: $3.3 billion
  • 1-Year % Change: 10%
  • Owners: Guggenheim Baseball Management
  • Operating Income: $95 million

10 (tie) | New York Giants (NFL)

  • Value: $3.3 billion
  • 1-Year % Change: 0%
  • Owners: John Mara, Steven Tisch
  • Operating Income: $149 million

9 | Golden State Warriors (NBA)

  • Value: $3.5 billion
  • 1-Year % Change: 13%
  • Owners: Joe Lacob, Peter Guber
  • Operating Income: $103 million

| Los Angeles Lakers (NBA)

  • Value: $3.7 billion
  • 1-Year % Change: 12%
  • Owners: Jerry Buss Family Trusts, Philip Anschutz
  • Operating Income: $147 million

7 | New England Patriots (NFL)

  • Value: $3.8 billion
  • 1-Year % Change: 3%
  • Owner: Robert Kraft
  • Operating Income: $235 million

| Manchester United (Soccer)

  • Value: $3.81 billion
  • 1-Year % Change: -8%
  • Owners: Glazer family
  • Operating Income: $238 million

5 | New York Knicks (NBA)

  • Value: $4 billion
  • 1-Year % Change: 11%
  • Owner: Madison Square Garden Company
  • Operating Income: $155 million

| Barcelona (Soccer)

  • Value: $4.02 billion
  • 1-Year % Change: -1%
  • Owners: Club members
  • Operating Income: –$37 million

| Real Madrid (Soccer)

  • Value: $4.24 billion
  • 1-Year % Change: 4%
  • Owners: Club members
  • Operating Income: $112 million

| New York Yankees (MLB)

  • Value: $4.6 billion
  • 1-Year % Change: 15%
  • Owners: Steinbrenner family
  • Operating Income: $30 million

| Dallas Cowboys (NFL)

  • Value: $5 billion
  • 1-Year % Change: 4%
  • Owner: Jerry Jones
  • Operating Income: $365 million

Forbes; Kurt Badenhausen

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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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