Top athletes making far more today than in ’91
Floyd Mayweather knocked out Victor Ortiz Saturday night in controversial fashion to improve his record to 42-0 as a professional boxer. It marked another mega payday for “Money” Mayweather, who is expected to bank at least $40 million after all of the pay-per-view receipts are tallied.
Mayweather, along with Manny Pacquiao, are the last bankable stars in boxing. They are the only fighters that command incomes on par with today’s top athletes. Pacquiao was the one fighter to crack our look at the world’s 50 highest-paid athletes this summer (Mayweather didn’t make the cut due to his 16 month sabbatical from the ring). It is a far cry from the 1980s and early 1990s when boxers earned the biggest checks year after year.
|In Pictures: Highest-paid athletes of 1991|
Forbes has been tracking the earnings of athletes for more than 20 years. The dynamics of the top-earners has changed dramatically over two decades (the top 20 is here with as many circa 1991 images I could find including the Andre Agassi mullet later revealed as a fake).
Boxing was king in 1991 with four of the top 10 earners including Evander Holyfield and Mike Tyson in the top two spots, as well as George Foreman (No. 4) and Razor Ruddock (No. 7). The top 20 is littered with tennis players (five), golfers (three) and F1 drivers (four).
Athletes in individual sports ruled the money game 20 years ago. Only four athletes in team sports made the top 20 and it was the holy quartet of Michael Jordan (No. 3), Larry Bird (No. 11), Joe Montana (No. 13) and Wayne Gretzky (No. 19). Baseball, soccer and NASCAR all failed to land an athlete anywhere near the top.
The explosion in TV money in team sports has changed the financial equation for athletes. ESPN just re-upped its Monday Night Football package for $1.9 billion annually. When the other networks redo their NFL deals, each of the league’s 32 teams should receive more than $200 million annually in TV money. The new collective bargaining agreement calls for 55 percent of that money to go toward player costs.
New venues and the revenues that come with them have also caused the paychecks of athletes in team sports to soar. There have been 85 new (or largely renovated) stadiums and arenas open in the past 20 years among the four major U.S. sports.
Patrick Ewing had the NBA’s highest salary during the 1990-91 season at $4.3 million. Kobe Bryant earned $24.8 million last season from the Los Angeles Lakers plus $28 million from his myriad of global sponsors. It is the same story in baseball where the top salary has gone from $3.8 million (Darryl Strawberry) to $32 million (Alex Rodriguez). Athletes in team sports represent 55 percent of the 20 highest-paid today versus 20 percent in 1991.
NBA players have seen the biggest change with five players making this year’s top 20 compared to just MJ in 1991. In addition to their eight-figure player salaries, the NBA’s most marketable players (Bryant, LeBron James, Dwyane Wade and Dwight Howard) each pull in more than $10 million annually from sponsors like Nike, Adidas, Coca-Cola, Gatorade and McDonald’s &ndash although NBA owners are doing their best to knock their stars down a couple of pegs with the current lockout.
The cut-off to make the top 20 has jumped from $7 million to $26 million. The lead spot though hasn’t budged much with Evander Holyfield having earned $60 million in 1991 compared to Tiger Woods at $75 million in our latest look at athletes. Tennis stars Monica Seles (No. 12) and Steffi Graf (No. 16) ranked high in 1991, but no female athletes made the top 20 this year as the WTA Tour searches for its next breakout star.
Some gems further down the list like Rocket Ismail who pocketed $5 million and ranked No. 27 and John “Hot Rod” Williams at No. 29 with earnings of $4.9 million. Baseball’s Kevin Mitchell parlayed his MVP season with the San Francisco Giants into a deal that paid him $4.1 million (including endorsements), good for No. 38.
• Today’s highest-paid athletes:
1. Tiger Woods ($75 million)
2. Kobe Bryant ($53 million)
3. LeBron James ($48 million)
4. Roger Federer ($47 million)
5. Phil Mickelson ($46.5 million)
• Top-paid in 1991:
1. Evander Holyfield ($60.5 million)
2. Mike Tyson ($31.5 million)
3. Michael Jordan ($16 million)
4. George Foreman ($14.5 million)
5. Ayrton Senna ($13 million)