The World’s 100 Highest-Paid Athletes Score $4.2 Billion in 2021

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Conor McGregor returns to the Octagon in July for a trilogy fight against Dustin Poirier. It marks only the fourth UFC bout since November 2016 for the crossover MMA star, but the Irishman has been plenty busy outside the cage and just nabbed his biggest win to date.

McGregor has spent three years relentlessly promoting and building the Irish whiskey brand he launched in 2018, Proper No. Twelve. The sale of the company this year to Proximo Spirits netted McGregor $170 million and pushed his total earnings for the last 12 months to $208 million with his endorsements and UFC earnings. The tally tops Sportico’s ranking of the world’s 100 highest-paid athletes, besting a pair of global soccer stars, Lionel Messi ($126 million) and Cristiano Ronaldo ($120 million).

The top earners include athletes from 10 sports, 23 countries and $4.2 billion in total income, including $2.9 billion in salary and prize money, as well as $1.3 billion off the field or court from endorsements, licensing, memorabilia and appearances. The cutoff was $26 million. The gender pay gap remains massive, as just two female athletes cracked the top 100—Naomi Osaka at No. 15 ($55.2 million) and Serena Williams at No. 44 ($35.5 million). The Osaka payday is a record for a female athlete.

McGregor

“Proper Twelve is my baby for life, and I am just warming up the barrels here,” McGregor posted on Instagram when news of the Proximo deal broke. “What I have in store for you all will not only take Proper Twelve to the absolute pinnacle of Irish Whiskey! But of all spirits! Next stop – Worldwide domination!!!”

Proper No. Twelve has experienced explosive growth. It shipped 38,200 cases in 2018, 213,800 cases in 2019 and 345,000 last year. It is the fourth best-selling Irish whiskey on the market, albeit well behind Jameson, Tullamore Dew and Bushmills.

The sale to Proximo is worth up to $600 million for McGregor and partners, his longtime agent Audie Attar of Paradigm Sports Management and entrepreneur Ken Austin. The first tranche of payments are worth roughly $245 million and 70% of that landed in McGregor’s bank account. The group will tally another $350 million-plus if the brand stays on track in the coming years, giving Conor ample reasons to stay invested in Proper’s success. It is now in eight countries and plans to expand into new markets.

Sportico estimates McGregor pocketed $28 million for his January UFC fight against Poirier and another $8 million from brand partnerships outside of Proper, like Reebok and DraftKings.

Coronavirus Impact

The pandemic dented the earnings of athletes in most sports over the past year. Tennis prize money was reduced at Grand Slam tennis events, and Wimbledon was canceled for the first time since World War II, while rank-and-file players had their apparel deals slashed for failure to meet minimum play requirements. Baseball players received pro-rated salaries in 2020 during their abbreviated 60-game season, while NBA players likely won’t see a dime of the 20% of their 2020-21 salaries held in an escrow account, under terms of their collective bargaining agreement.

The endorsement climate has dried up for many athletes, with companies watching their spending following the uncertainty of the past year. But global stars like Osaka and LeBron James continue to be in high demand. Osaka landed a bevy of new partners, while James signed a long-term deal with PepsiCo this year to help the company launch its new Mtn Dew Rise Energy drink. The pact, plus his upcoming starring and producing role in the Space Jam: A New Legacy movie, pushed the King’s earnings to a career-high $101.8 million, fifth-best in sports.

“Brands and marketers are being more discretionary in where they’re spending their money and don’t necessarily want to run the risk on mid-level athletes,” said Bob Dorfman, a sports marketing expert at Baker Street Advertising. “The big names cost more, but they’re sure things.”

The boxing world has been bereft of big fights, due to restrictions on fan gatherings, challenging the economic model without gate revenue. Twelfth-ranked Canelo Alvarez ($63 million) is the exception and only boxer in the top 100. The undisputed current pay-per-view king fought three times since cutting ties with Golden Boy Promotions, ending his 11-fight, $365 million contract with DAZN.

The boxers should be back in force next year as Anthony Joshua, Deontay Wilder, Tyson Fury and Manny Pacquiao are all likely headed into the ring in the coming months. Nascent boxer and YouTuber Jake Paul is another name to watch after the controversial star signed with Showtime this month. Paul had two professional bouts over the last year and earned an estimated $20 million from his fights and partnerships outside the ring.

NFL Rules

The NFL is the richest sports league in the world, and 32 players cracked the top 100, more than any other sport. Team owners got crushed last year with attendance off 86%, but players retained their full salaries, and the 2021 salary cap was down only 8%, keeping the free-agent deals flowing in March.

Dak Prescott leads the way among NFL stars at $108.4 million—fourth overall—after landing a four-year, $160 million contract in March that included a $66 million signing bonus on top of his $31.4 million salary last fall. The Dallas Cowboys QB is also one of the most marketable players in the sport, with a deep roster of endorsement partners, including 7-Eleven, Adidas, Albertsons, Anheuser-Busch, AT&T, Pepsi and Sleep Number.

By the Numbers

Basketball (31 players) and soccer (16 players) have the next highest representation, and along with football, account for nearly 80% of the top 100. McGregor and Alvarez are the lone reps from mixed martial arts and boxing, respectively. Also making the cut as his sport’s only member is cricket legend Virat Kohli, who ranks No. 59 with $31.5 million.

Kohli has racked up 120 million Instagram followers, more than any athlete on the planet outside of Ronaldo, Messi and Neymar. He makes an estimated $28 million from his two dozen endorsement partners and has his own line with Puma, one8. The German sportswear giant highlighted its long-term partnership with Kohli in its 2020 annual report and credited him for its “market-leading position” in India.

The heavy dose of football and basketball players in the 100 highest earners means 67 Americans made the cut, although nearly half the top 20 was born outside the U.S. Spain, France, England, Japan, Brazil, Belgium and Argentina were the only other countries to land multiple athletes on the list.

Creative Artists Agency landed 12 clients in the top 100, fueled by its basketball and football business, while WME and its IMG subsidiary handle marketing or media deals for 11 athletes. Excel Sports Management (seven athletes), Athletes First (six) and Wasserman (four) are next in line.

The star-studded Brooklyn Nets were the only sports team with four players represented. Kevin Durant ($80.1 million), James Harden ($51.1 million) and Kyrie Irving ($43.2 million) all ranked in the top 25 and are joined by Blake Griffin ($30 million). Teams with a trio of high-priced stars were Barcelona, Paris Saint-German, Kansas City Chiefs, Tampa Bay Buccaneers and Philadelphia 76ers.

Methodology

Our estimates are based on money earned between June 2020 and May 2021. The salary and prize money are inclusive of all bonuses paid during that time, from signings, incentives, playoffs and All-Star games. NFL signing bonuses that are paid within 12 months of contract signing are included in the tally, even if partial payments are made outside our scoring window.

Endorsement income includes earnings from sponsorships, licensing, royalties, memorabilia, appearances, golf course design, book deals and branded car dealerships. Sportico conducted more than three dozen interviews with industry insiders to gauge the earnings.

Investment income was not included, but we did factor in payouts from equity stakes of brands stars promoted, like Kevin Durant’s estimated $15 million stake in Postmates, which was bought by Uber in December, or McGregor’s stake in Proper No. Twelve. We did not deduct for taxes or agent fees.

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