The career of a professional athlete is usually relatively brief. It spans six years in Major League Baseball on average and less than four years in football, according to the NFL Players Association. Athletes have a small window to bank as much as they can, as the money spigot typically dries up pretty quickly after retirement. But a select group of stars enjoy long careers with hefty paydays and continue to make millions after leaving the game.
Arnold Palmer died in September at the age of 87. The golfing legend earned $3.6 million in prize money over 52 years on the PGA Tour and Senior Tour. His last PGA win was the 1973 Bob Hope Desert Classic, but the Latrobe, Pa., native earned more than $40 million annually in the years before his death thanks to a slew of endorsement and licensing agreements, as well as 500 stores in Asia selling Arnold Palmer-branded apparel and footwear. Palmer’s line of beverages with AriZona Beverage Co. generated $200 million annually in revenue for the company last year and millions for Palmer’s bank account.
The six decades in the spotlight helped Palmer earn a cumulative $1.35 billion (in 2016 dollars) since turning pro in 1954. It is the third biggest haul ever for an athlete.
Palmer revolutionized the idea of an athlete as product endorser through his partnership with IMG founder Mark McCormack. Palmer and McCormack’s marketing work in the 1960s and 1970s laid the foundation for the greatest product pitchman of his time, Michael Jordan. Jordan and his agent, David Falk, took sports marketing to another level and with the help of Nike made Jordan the highest-paid athlete of all-time, with earnings of $1.7 billion (in 2016 dollars) since leaving North Carolina for the NBA in 1984.
Jordan is widely considered the greatest basketball play to every play the game, but his on-court salary rarely matched his place in the game. Only two seasons did he earn more than $4 million from the Chicago Bulls (both years were $30+ million). His cumulative salary over 15 seasons with the Bulls and Washington Wizards was $93 million.
It was off the court that Jordan rose to unprecedented heights with endorsement deals with Nike, Gatorade, McDonald’s, Coca-Cola, Wheaties, Hanes and more than a dozen others. His top earnings year as a player was 1997 with $78 million in salary and endorsements ($117 million in today’s dollars).
Jordan retired permanently from the NBA 13 years ago, but his earnings have never been greater. Nike paid him more than $100 million this year thanks to the phenomenal success of the Nike-owned Jordan brand, which dominates with more than 50% of the basketball sneaker market. The Jordan brand generated $2.8 billion in revenue for Nike in the fiscal year ending in May, up 18% year-over-year.
Jordan’s earnings prowess will remain robust. Nike wants the Jordan brand to reach revenue of $4.5 billion by 2020, with MJ collecting royalties on every shoe, shorts and hoodie sold by the sportswear giant.
Sandwiched between Jordan and Palmer is the athlete who inherited Jordan’s title in the late 1990s as the most sought after endorser in sports. Tiger Woods drove a surge of interest in golf while racking up record-setting scores around the globe. Woods was the highest-paid athlete in the world for 11 straight years with his peak year of earnings the $115 million he banked for the 12 months ending in June 2008 ($128 million in 2016 dollars) thanks to lucrative endorsements with Accenture, Buick, Gatorade, Gillette, Nike and more.
Woods’ earnings are off more than 50% from his heyday, but he still banked $45 million from sponsors, appearances and course design fees in the most recent year, pushing his cumulative career earnings to $1.65 billion.
Rounding out the top five is another golfer (Jack Nicklaus: $1.15 billion) and F1 racing legend Michael Schumacher with $1 billion.
Forbes has tracked the earnings of athletes since 1990 during a period when the compensation for sports stars has exploded. Nolan Ryan had the highest salary in baseball in 1980 at $1 million. Last season, 36 MLB player earned at least $20 million.
Our earnings estimates cover salaries, bonuses, prize money, endorsements and licensing, as well as fees from books, golf course design and appearances through the end of May 2016 (the cutoff for Forbes most recent Celebrity 100 list). We do not include investment income or deduct for taxes or agents’ fees. We exclude the sale of businesses such as in the case of Roger Staubach, who sold his real estate business in 2008 for $640 million, although Staubach only owned 12% of the company when it was sold. We back-filled years where we did not publish earnings figures, such as prior to 1990 for Palmer and Jack Nicklaus.
We adjusted all figures for inflation to 2016 dollars. Adjusting for inflation bumped Palmer’s earnings from $875 million to $1.35 billion. Boxer Mike Tyson got a 58% boost to $685 million. Tiger would be the top earner with $1.4 billion if we ignored inflation, narrowly outpacing Jordan at $1.35 billion.
The 20 highest-paid athletes of all time played a mix of sports with golf (five entries) and basketball/boxing (four each) leading the way. Other sports represented include soccer (three), racing (two) and a single player each from tennis (Roger Federer: $600 million) and baseball (Alex Rodriguez: $545 million). Peyton Manning was the top-earning football player, but just missed the cut at $460 million. The top 20 earned a cumulative $16.4 billion ($13.3 billion without adjusting for inflation).
There are multiple paths to the road to riches. A-Rod earned 93% of his income on the field from salaries and bonuses, while Tiger Woods can thank sponsors for more than 90% of his career haul.
Lionel Messi is the youngest player to make the cut. The 29-year-old Barcelona star ranks No. 17 with $520 million (in 2016 dollars). Other young guns include a pair of 31-year-olds in LeBron James ($640 million) and Cristiano Ronaldo ($620 million). These three global icons are fast approaching the $1 billion mark in career earnings, as they ranked as the three highest-paid athletes in the world this year led by Ronaldo at $88 million.