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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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