The 12 highest paid athletes of all time

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Even the most fringe professional athletes have the potential to make a lot of money – a golfer or tennis player could catch fire in a tournament and win the grand prize worth millions or a basketball or football player could play well enough for a stretch and score a huge contract.

However, to truly make it to the elite, an athlete needs a perfect storm of top talent, longevity, business acumen, and the right opportunities.

These 12 athletes have all reached this peak of elite earnings, each amassing over $1 billion in total earnings. Note: All of these athlete earnings are adjusted for inflation, by Sportico’s Lev Akabas.

Michael Jordan — $2.62 billion

Michael Jordan gets top marks, thanks in large part to his Jordan Brand apparel line and massive endorsement deals with the likes of Nike, Hanes, and Wheaties. In fact, Jordan is near the bottom of this list in terms of actual salary. During his NBA career, he earned approximately $93.285 million in salary. For comparison, 54 active NBA players currently have contracts is worth more than Jordan has earned in his entire career. Yet even if you don’t adjust for inflation, Jordan earned over $2 billion.

Tiger Woods — $2.1 billion

Tiger Woods has had a tough few years, but he remains perhaps the most popular golfer in the world. He has won 82 PGA Tour events (tied for first), 15 men’s major championships (second all-time) and set several golf records. Most recently, he was in a car accident in February 2021 and hasn’t competed in an event for the rest of the year. But he’s still looking to go for the major championship record, held by another player on this list. In the meantime, Woods continues to have major endorsement partnerships with companies like Nike and EA Sports.

Arnold Palmer — $1.5 billion

As far as we know, Arnold Palmer is the only person on this list who is also known as a refreshing drink. While Palmer enjoyed sipping lemonade and iced tea, he was also a damn good golfer in his prime. He won 62 PGA Tour victories and seven major men’s championships in a career that spanned more than 50 years, from 1954 to 2006. Palmer passed away in 2016, but his legacy lives on.

Jack Nicklaus — $1.38 billion

Jack Nicklaus is the guy Tiger Woods is trying to catch – Nicklaus’ 18 major championships are the most of any golfer in history. He has also racked up 117 career pro wins (73 on the PGA Tour) and is still an active participant on the senior tour. Born in 1940 and beginning his career in 1961, Palmer has spent 75% of his life as a professional golfer.

Cristiano Ronaldo — $1.24 billion

When both players were at their peak, the question ‘who is better: Cristiano Ronaldo or Lionel Messi’ was one of the most debated arguments you could find. At least financially, Ronaldo is the winner, both in terms of real career earnings and inflation-adjusted earnings. He’s had an incredible career as a spokesperson, from his own mobile game and social networking app to deals with clothing and fragrance companies. He was also excellent on the pitch, winning five Ballon d’Or awards and holding records for most Champions League appearances, goals and assists.

Floyd Mayweather, Jr. — $1.2 billion

Floyd Mayweather and Cristiano Ronaldo were the two highest earning athletes of the 2010s. Mayweather has retired from boxing several times, currently sporting a 50-0 record, with 27 wins by knockout. However, he still comes out to participate in the occasional event, especially if the prize is right. His last fight dates back to 2017 against Conor McGregor; Mayweather reportedly earned over $300 million for that fight alone.

LeBron James — $1.17 billion

If you ask any (unbiased) basketball fan who the greatest NBA player of all time is, you’ll likely come across a heated discussion between Michael Jordan and LeBron James. Jordan has won more MVP titles and awards; James reached finals more frequently and scored more career points. The two starred in space jam movies, which is the real winning move. And both have built massive business empires. For James, that includes a lifetime endorsement deal with Nike, his own media company, and investments in several companies and even professional sports teams like Manchester United.

Lionel Messi – $1.14 billion

Although Ronaldo has earned quite a bit more during his career, Messi’s earnings are also not to be overlooked. Messi is also two years younger and has already won another Ballon d’Or award, plus he has signed some interesting sponsorship deals himself. He is the face of EA Sports Fifa franchise (appearing on four covers of the video game) and had deals with Adidas and Pepsi for several years.

Michael Schumacher — $1.13 billion

Our first rider on the list, Michael Schumacher held the records for most wins (91), pole positions (68) and podiums (155) when he retired in 2012. Although those records have since been broken by Lewis Hamilton, Schumacher’s name is synonymous with Formula 1 racing. He helped develop the lightweight carbon helmet, has a film role Cars, and has donated more than $1.7 million to UNESCO. In December 2013, Schumacher had a serious skiing accident which left him paralyzed, unable to speak and with memory loss. Although he has made progress in his recovery, he still struggled to communicate, according to a source close to him.

Roger Federer — $1.12 billion

Roger Federer is certainly no slouch on the tennis court. He won 20 men’s singles titles and was the world No. 1 (according to the ATP rankings) for a total of 310 weeks, including 237 consecutive weeks, that’s more than four and a half years! But Federer’s business acumen put him on this list. The London School of Marketing named him the most marketable person in sports, and he has global partnerships or endorsement deals with Mercedes-Benz, Uniqlo, Credit Suisse, Gillette, and more.

Phil Mickelson – $1.08 billion

Nicknamed “Lefty”, Phil Mickelson spent more than 700 weeks in the top 10 of the Official World Golf Rankings. It has won 45 PGA Tour events and six majors and counts Callaway Golf, KPMG and ExxonMobil among its biggest sponsors. In May 2021, Mickelson won the PGA Championship to become the oldest major champion at 50.

David Beckham — $1.05 billion

We don’t know if “Bend it like Beckham” also has a double meaning of stretching your revenue to a billion dollars, but it applies here. Beckham has earned a lot of money on the pitch, despite signing a lifetime contract with Adidas in 2003 worth $160 million. He is co-owner of Inter Miami CF and Salford City, and is also a fashion icon alongside his wife, former Spice Girl Victoria Beckham. Together, the couple have partnered with clothing designers, fashion magazines and cosmetics companies.

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