Kobe, LeBron top list of NBA’s biggest earners

While the NBA lockout angered fans and threatened the 2011-12 season this fall, Kobe Bryant toured Europe to promote Nike and the game that made him a global icon. There were stops in Athens, Istanbul, Milan and Rome where he took part in Nike store openings and basketball clinics amid adoring fans.

The story is the same in Asia. Bryant is the most revered athlete in China as a five-time champion with the Los Angeles Lakers and the heir apparent to the high-flying Michael Jordan. He makes annual pilgrimages to China in support of Nike. Bryant received the loudest cheers at the 2008 Summer Olympics in Beijing and the country boasts 300 million basketball players according to the Chinese Basketball Association.

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In Pictures: The top-earning NBA players

Bryant’s following has allowed him to amass an endorsement portfolio of global brands including Nike, Smart Car, Panini and Turkish Airlines that pay him $28 million annually. Factor in his league leading $25.2 million salary from the Lakers and Bryant is the NBA’s top-earning athlete at $53.2 million.

Bryant’s Lakers salary is $3 million greater than any other NBA player thanks to the idiosyncrasies of the NBA’s maximum salary rules on individual players. Under the old collective bargaining agreement, 10-year veterans could sign deals for 35 percent of the salary cap which was $58 million last season. Yet players can sign deals worth 105 percent of their previous salary even if it exceeds the salary ceiling.

Bryant has 15 seasons under his belt, but is still just 33-years-old and has signed a series of maximum deals which is a rarity in the NBA as players typically slow down as they approach their mid-30s. Bryant can command escalating salaries from the wealthy Lakers who last year inked a deal with Time Warner Cable that will pay an average of $200 million annually over 20 years.

The shortened NBA season will crimp players’ salaries by 20 percent, but don’t cry for the NBAelite. The total earnings – salary plus endorsements – of the NBA’s top 10 surpass the 2010 profits of Sunoco or Alcoa (our earnings estimates do not factor in the reduced playing salaries).

There are 25 players that get paid more than $15 million from their teams. What differentiates the top earners is the ability to make money off the court through endorsements. Nine of the 10 top earners make at least $5 million annually from sponsors.

The NBA’s No. 2 earner is LeBron James of the Miami Heat at $49 million. James is the league’s top endorser making an estimated $33 million annually through partnerships with Nike, Coca-Cola, McDonald’s, State Farm and Upper Deck. The James empire expanded in April when he became a minority owner in soccer club Liverpool after a marketing agreement with Liverpool’s owner, Fenway Sports Group. FSG and LRMR, James’ own marketing company, will oversee future partnerships for the two-time NBA MVP.

James took less money than he could have gotten elsewhere to sign with the Miami Heat in 2010 when he inked a six-year, $110 million deal. The reduced contract allowed the Heat to sign Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh and stay under the salary cap. The Cleveland Cavaliers were willing to pay James $128 million to stay. The 66-game season will cut James $16 million 20 percent this season, but he’ll collect his entire endorsement income.

The NBA’s best big man, Dwight Howard, ranks No. 3 with earnings of $28.9 million. Howard is the league’s leading free-agent-to-be, fueling rampant speculation where he will end up. His salary with the Orlando Magic is $17.9 million this year and he pulls in $11 million annually from sponsors like Adidas and McDonald’s.

James’ teammate Wade also makes the cut with total earnings of $27.7 million. He was scheduled to receive $15.7 million from the Heat this year as part of the six-year, $107 million contract he signed in July, 2010 with Miami. Wade banks $12 million annually from his agreements with Nike’s Jordan Brand, T-Mobile, Gatorade and McDavid. And he added two lucrative new partners to his endorsement stable this year: watchmaker Hublot and Mission Skincare.

The top five:

1. Kobe Bryant, $53.2 million
2. LeBron James, $49 million
3. Dwight Howard, $28.9 million
4. Dwyane Wade, $27.7 million
5. Carmelo Anthony, $26.5 million
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Updated Wednesday, Jan 25, 2012