Advertisement

Highest-Paid Athletes of All Time 2024: Jordan, Tiger, Ronaldo Lead

Athletes have never earned more money, thanks to media deals driving salary caps higher, new entities such as LIV Golf and the cash-rich Saudi Pro League. But despite the newfound riches, it was a sports marketing deal inked 40 years ago that will likely never be matched and set the roadmap for the highest-paid athlete in the history of sports.

In 1984, Nike signed Michael Jordan, which dramatically transformed the fortunes of both the brand and the player over the next four decades. Soaring revenues for the Jordan Brand has MJ making multiple times annually versus when he played more than two decades ago.

More from Sportico.com

The six-time NBA champion has earned an estimated $2.7 billion—$3.75 billion adjusted for inflation—since he left North Carolina. He leads a star-studded field of athletes from nine sports and 17 countries who make up the Top 50 earners of all time. They’ve made a combined $50 billion when adjusted for inflation, $35.5 billion on a nominal basis from salaries, prize money, endorsements and other revenue streams tied to their celebrity.

Click here for a full list of the top 50 and detailed methodology.

Jordan was the NBA’s highest-paid player during only two of his 15 seasons and made a total of $94 million during his time with the Chicago Bulls and Washington Wizards. It was off the court where he scored, and he still maintains endorsement relationships with longtime partners Gatorade, 2K Games, Five Star Fragrances and Upper Deck—his Hanes deal lapsed in 2021 after 32 years. Yet it is Nike that accounts for the bulk of his earnings, conservatively estimated at $250 million last year and behind only Cristiano Ronaldo at $275 million among current and retired athletes in 2023.

Nike was barely profitable and had annual revenue of $920 million when it signed Jordan to a royalty-based deal in 1984. Last year, the Swoosh generated $51 billion in revenue, with the Jordan Brand alone accounting for $6.6 billion.

“Nike has had success with what they call their pull model, where basically they feed the product to you with an eyedropper, for all practical purposes,” Sam Poser, Williams Trading research analyst, said in a phone interview. “That way, there is a sense of urgency that if I don’t act now I won’t get it.”

The model has worked to a tee with Jordan revenue tripling over the last 10 years from $2.3 billion in 2015 to a projected $7 billion this year. As Jordan Brand revenue rose, MJ’s annual royalties skyrocketed.

Nike’s running business has taken it on the chin recently from competitors Hoka and On Holdings, and Lululemon is a growing apparel rival, but Jordan revenue rose 29% last year, compared to Men’s (10%), Women’s (4%) and Nike Kids (3%).

“Nike has a near monopoly on the global basketball business with no real competitors at scale, but there is a path to much higher revenue for the Jordan Brand,” John Kernan, TD Cowen managing director, said in an interview. “There is a lot of design talent dedicated to Jordan, and it is a business that if you look across the world, there is still a fair amount of real potential.”

Jordan leads a contingent of 12 basketball players among the top 50, with LeBron James (No. 5 overall, $1.7 billion adjusted for inflation), Shaquille O’Neal (No. 13, $1.21 billion) and the late Kobe Bryant (No. 14, $1.09 billion) up next. Basketball players benefit from soaring salaries—44 players make at least $30 million this season—and rich sneaker deals that dwarf what an NFL or MLB player can make.

James is the highest-paid NBA active player this year, including endorsements, and ranked fourth among all athlete for 2023 earnings at $126 million. His career playing salary will top $500 million next season, while his endorsement portfolio includes AT&T, Beats, Crypto.com, GMC, PepsiCo and Taco Bell, and he has his own lifetime deal with Nike that pays more than $30 million annually. Like Jordan, who cashed in with his ownership in the Charlotte Hornets, which is not included in our totals, James has built equity positions in a host of ventures, including stakes in SpringHill Company, Blaze Pizza, Lobos 1707 tequila and Fenway Sports Group.

Golfers represent the next biggest contingent with eight entries in the Top 50, including Tiger Woods (No. 2, $2.66 billion), Arnold Palmer (No. 4, $1.76 billion) and Phil Mickelson (No. 11, $1.43 billion). Like Jordan, their biggest paydays have been off the course; Woods has made $121 million in PGA Tour prize money, and Palmer made just $3.6 million on the PGA and Champions tours; Mickelson benefits from a nine-figure payout from LIV.

The key to golfers’ swollen bank accounts is threefold: the length of their careers, diverse revenue streams, and role as walking billboards for a fan base with high disposable incomes. Palmer was earning as much as $40 million a year up until his death at age 87, 43 years after his last PGA Tour victory. Woods, Palmer and Jack Nicklaus launched course design businesses to supplement their prize money, endorsements, royalties and appearance fees. Woods’ off-course earnings peaked at $100 million a year in the late 2000s.

The top names in other sports include soccer’s Ronaldo (No. 3, $1.92 billion), tennis’ Roger Federer (No. 9, $1.49 billion), boxing’s Floyd Mayweather (No. 10, $1.48 billion), auto racing’s Michael Schumacher (No. 12, $1.36 billion), baseball’s Alex Rodriguez (No. 20, $775 million), football’s Tom Brady (No. 23, $745 million), and MMA’s Conor McGregor (No. 50, $555 million).

The threshold to crack the Top 50 is $555 million, up from $510 million last year. Americans represent 31 of the 50 names, and active athletes make up 40% of the list. Serena Williams is the only woman to crack the top earners—Maria Sharapova fell just short. Williams hung up her racket in 2022, but had a bulging endorsement portfolio that expanded during the second half of her career and included Nike, AT&T, Beats, Ford Motor, Gatorade and Subway. She also earned $95 million in prize money, more than twice as much as any female athlete in any sport.

Best of Sportico.com