Blockbuster TV contracts are producing record hauls for the top-earning athletes around the globe. Nowhere is it more evident than the NBA, where players benefitted from the jump in the salary cap in 2016 as a result of the start of the league’s $24 billion TV contract, triple the previous annual rate. The result: 40 NBA players made the cut in Forbes’ annual look at the world’s 100 highest-paid athletes, breaking the record of 32 set last year by hoopsters (18 made the 2016 list).
But for all of the success on and off the court of the NBA’s biggest stars, they can’t touch a trio of global soccer icons and a pair of fighters who hooked up for a historic night last August. The NBA’s top earner, LeBron James, banked $85.5 million, including endorsements, over the last 12 months to rank sixth among the highest-paid athletes.
The man they call Money is back on top. Floyd Mayweather heads the world’s highest-paid athletes for the fourth time in seven years, thanks to a $275 million payday for his August boxing match against UFC star Conor McGregor. The two fighters defied naysayers who said the match would never take place and laughed all the way to the bank, with career-high paydays. McGregor’s take: an estimated $85 million, more than five times his previous biggest check.
Fans couldn’t resist tuning in to see if the brash McGregor could take away Mayweather’s beloved ‘0.’ The two fighters produced an entertaining 10-round battle, and viewers around the globe watched Mayweather improve to a record of 50-0 for his career. The 4.3 million pay-per-view buyers helped the fight generate more than $550 million in total revenue.
Mayweather generated another $10 million outside the ring from appearances, memorabilia and endorsements with Hublot and Tequila Avion to bring his total earnings for the year to $285 million. He joins Michael Jordan and Tiger Woods as the only athletes to earn $1 billion since turning pro (see How Floyd Mayweather Made $275 Million For One Night Of Work).
McGregor’s endorsement portfolio earned the Irishman $14 million by Forbes’ count from partners Burger King, Beats by Dre, Monster Energy and Anheuser-Busch. His $99 million in total earnings ranks fourth among all athletes.
Cristiano Ronaldo was the world’s best-paid athlete the past two years, and the Real Madrid star edged Lionel Messi both years for FIFA’s Player of the Year award. But Messi tops his rival this year for earnings, after a contract extension with Barcelona that will keep him with the club through 2020-2021. Messi’s annual salary and bonus exceeded $80 million before taxes, making him the highest-paid player on the pitch this year. He ranks second overall with $111 million, including $27 million through endorsement deals with Adidas, Gatorade, Pepsi and Huawei.
Ronaldo ranks among the three top-earning athletes for the sixth straight year. His $108 million haul over the past 12 months trails only Mayweather and Messi. The Portuguese forward is soccer’s most marketable player. His lifetime Nike contract is worth upwards of $1 billion. He has an array of other deals, including Herbalife, EA Sports and American Tourister, along with a growing line of CR7 branded products for shoes, underwear, fragrance, jeans, children’s clothing, hotels and soon-to-open restaurants in Brazil. He remains the most popular athlete in the world on social media, with 322 million followers combined on Facebook, Twitter and Instagram.
Neymar is the third soccer star in the top five. He jumps 13 spots to fifth with an income of $90 million, including $19 million from endorsement partners. Last August, the Brazilian forward signed a five-year contract with Paris Saint-Germain worth $350 million (PSG was also on the for an another $250 million to Barcelona to release Neymar from his contract there).
Our earnings include prize money, salaries and bonuses earned between June 1, 2017, and June 1, 2018. 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.
It is harder than ever to qualify for the 100 highest-paid athletes, with the cutoff up $1.5 million to $22.9 million. The top 100 earned $3.8 billion, a 23% jump over last year. Salaries and prize money are up significantly, but endorsement earnings fell for the second straight year to $877 million as companies watch their sports marketing budgets.
The top 100 has an international flavor with athletes from 23 countries, but Americans dominate the action with 65 making the cut thanks to sky-high salaries in baseball, basketball and football. Those three sports had a combined 72 entries.
Forbes’ highest-paid athletes is an all-male affair for the first time since we expanded it to at least 50 people in 2010. Li Na, Maria Sharapova and Serena Williams were list regulars, but Li retired in 2014 and Sharapova is still dealing with the aftermath of a 15-month suspension for using a banned substance.
Williams was the only women to make the top 100 last year, but her prize money dropped from $8 million to $62,000 this year after she gave birth to her daughter, Alexis, in September. Williams still cashed in off the court, with more than a dozen current endorsement partners like Nike, Intel, Audemars Piguet, JPMorgan Chase, Lincoln, Gatorade and Beats. The 23-time Grand Slam champ earned $18 million over the last 12 months.