But don't shed a tear for MJ. Sure, he made more than $4 million during only two of his 15 seasons in the NBA (Bulls owner Jerry Reinsdorf also paid Jordan his $4 million salary during the full season he took off to play baseball). Yet Jordan elevated athlete endorsements to an entirely new level, which has continued long after he hung up his high-tops for good in 2003. The result: Jordan is the highest-paid athlete of all time at $1.85 billion in 2017 dollars (the tally is $1.5 billion in current dollars).
Jordan has partnered with dozens of brands since he turned pro in 1984, including Gatorade, Hanes, MCI, Oakley, Upper Deck, Wheaties and more. His biggest backer has always been Nike, which signed Jordan ahead of his rookie year to a five-year deal worth $2.5 million, plus royalties. The Jordan Brand exploded for Nike and is now a $3.1 billion global business with revenue up 13% over last year and $800 million from two years ago. Jordan's estimated cut of the business is $140 million this year.
Jordan showed the path to a fortune built on endorsement earnings that has since been followed by Tiger Woods, who ranks second at $1.7 billion. Like Jordan, Woods reached the pinnacle of his sport while shying away from any controversy, making him a marketing darling for sponsors like Accenture, American Express, EA Sports, General Motors and Nike.
Woods banked $600 million (adjusted for inflation) between 2006 and 2010, with endorsements and appearance fees fueling most of the earnings. The image of Woods as the perfect pitchman came crashing down on a Thanksgiving night eight years ago, but he remains the top draw in golf when healthy. His earnings are off 68% from their peak but still rank among the highest in golf.
Forbes' earnings estimates include salaries, bonuses, prize money, endorsements and licensing, as well as fees from books, golf course designs and appearances. Earnings cover from the time the athletes turned pro through June 1, 2017, and include money earned after playing careers were over, as well as earnings by the estate in the case of Arnold Palmer. We do not include investment income, and 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.
The 25 highest-paid athletes of all time played a mix of eight sports, with golf, basketball and boxing landing five entries each. The top 25 have earned a cumulative $19.4 billion since turning pro ($15.9 billion without adjusting for inflation).
From branding it like Beckham to the Golden Bear’s Midas touch, these sports legends are so money when it comes to career earnings and endorsement deals.
The Highest-Paid Athletes of All-Time
1. Michael Jordan
Career earnings: $1.85 billion (2017 dollars)
Jordan still maintains his longtime endorsement relationships with Gatorade, Hanes, Nike and Upper Deck, but the investment that made him a billionaire was the $175 million fire-sale price he got the Charlotte Bobcats (now the Hornets) for in 2010. Jordan bumped his Hornets stake to 90% in 2013, and the team is now worth $780 million.
2. Tiger Woods
Career earnings: $1.7 billion
The 14-time major winner has played only 18 official PGA Tour events since the start of 2014 because of injuries (he's missed the cut or withdrawn from half of them). Sponsors still see value in partnering with Woods, with TaylorMade, Bridgestone and Monster Energy the most recent additions to his endorsement portfolio.
3. Arnold Palmer
Career earnings: $1.4 billion
Palmer died in September 2016, but his estate still banked $40 million during the last 12 months. More than 400 stores sell Arnold Palmer-branded apparel in Asia, with plans to move into new markets like Thailand and Vietnam. His estate has agreements with 39 licensees. The partnership between IMG founder Mark McCormack and his first client, Palmer, revolutionized sports marketing.
4. Jack Nicklaus
Career earnings: $1.2 billion
Nicklaus' course design company is responsible for 410 courses in 41 countries, with the 18-time major winner involved in three-quarters of the projects. In addition to course design, the Nicklaus business empire includes real estate, wine, ice cream, drinkware, golf academies, lemonade and more.
5. Michael Schumacher
Career earnings: $1 billion
The health of Schumacher, 47, has been precarious since a 2013 skiing accident in the Alps left him in a coma. The F1 titan dominated his sport while racking up seven titles and is one of only six athletes to top the FORBES highest-paid athletes list since 1990.
6. Phil Mickelson
Career earnings: $815 million
Mickelson pitches for Amgen, ExxonMobil, KPMG, Rolex, Grayhawk and the Greenbrier, as well as two new partners in Intrepid Financial Partners and Workday. His $84 million in career prize money ranks second all-time. Coming in second to Tiger has been plenty lucrative for Lefty, who finally outearned his rival in 2015, for the first time since Woods turned pro in 1996.
7. (tie) Kobe Bryant
Career earnings: $800 million
Bryant's earnings during his playing career were tops all time among team athletes, and he had the highest NBA salary the final six seasons of his career. The Black Mamba is attacking retirement the way he did opposing guards during his 20-year NBA career. He launched Kobe Inc. and a venture capital firm, Bryant Stibel, with $100 million in funding.
7. (tie) David Beckham
Career earnings: $800 million
Beckham's most lucrative years have come in retirement thanks to royalty deals with Diageo, to launch a new single-grain Scotch whisky called Haig Club, and Global Brands Group, to create Beckham-branded consumer products. Beckham is inching closer to bringing an MLS expansion team to Miami, which he got the rights to at the bargain-basement price of $25 million.
9. Floyd Mayweather
Career earnings: $785 million
Our earnings figure for Mayweather does not include his monster payday for his August bout against Conor McGregor (our scoring period ended June 1). His McGregor paycheck makes Mayweather just the sixth athlete ever with earnings of $1 billion.
10. Shaquille O'Neal
Career earnings: $735 million
O'Neal sold a stake in the business of Shaq last year to Authentic Brands Group, which got the rights to roughly half of O'Neal's future licensing and endorsement revenue in return for a lump sum payment. Shaq’s low-cost sneaker line has sold more than 120 million pairs during his career.
11. LeBron James
Career earnings: $730 million
The NBA's top pitchman added Intel and Verizon this year to his endorsement portfolio, which already included Nike, Coca-Cola, Beats by Dre and Kia Motor. King James owns a stake in 17 Blaze Pizzas, the fastest-growing food-service business of all-time.
12. Cristiano Ronaldo
Career earnings: $725 million
Ronaldo is rising up the charts as the highest-paid athlete in the world the past two years, including $93 million in the 12 months ending in June. His Real Madrid contract extension will push the earnings for soccer's reigning player of the year even higher.
13. Greg Norman
Career earnings: $705 million
Like Shaquille O'Neal and Muhammad Ali before him, Norman sold his future licensing rights to Authentic Brands Group in March. Norman's company retains control of his real estate, investments and course design operations, but ABG will work on his other business interests in apparel, accessories, steak and wine.
14. Mike Tyson
Career earnings: $700 million
The youngest heavyweight champion in the history of boxing squandered $400 million in earnings (not adjusted for inflation) before filing for bankruptcy in 2003. Tyson has reinvented himself at 51 as an actor and with business partnerships around gaming, motorcycles and fitness centers.
15. Roger Federer
Career earnings: $675 million
Federer recently re-took the crown for highest career prize money on the ATP Tour with his resurgent year on the court in 2017. His $111.9 million tally surpasses the total of Novak Djokovic ($109.8 million), as well as that of Tiger Woods, who sits at $110 million in prize money on the PGA Tour.
16. Lionel Messi
Career earnings: $600 million
Messi has been at Barcelona since age 13, and his contract extension last month will keep him at Camp Nou through the 2020-21 season. The buyout clause for Barcelona's all-time leading scorer doubled under the new deal to $835 million.
17. Alex Rodriguez
Career earnings: $575 million
A-Rod signed two of the three biggest contracts in the history of baseball during his 22-year career and was paid $20 million by the Yankees in 2017 despite retiring last year. He has been busy in retirement as a Fox Sports analyst and a host for an upcoming CNBC reality show, in addition to his high-profile relationship with Jennifer Lopez.
18. Jeff Gordon
Career earnings: $525 million
Gordon won 93 races during his Nascar career, the modern-day record. He owns a stake in Jimmie Johnson's No. 48 car and could be in line for a larger ownership role at Hendrick Motorsports.
19. Oscar De La Hoya
Career earnings: $520 million
The Golden Boy's 2007 fight with Floyd Mayweather was the biggest bout in pay-per-view history, with 2.5 million buys, until Mayweather faced Manny Pacquiao. De La Hoya earned a then-record $52 million because he served as the fight's promoter through his company Golden Boy Promotions, which he founded in 2002.
20. Manny Pacquiao
Career earnings: $510 million
Pacquiao's pay-per-view career includes 18.6 million buys and gross revenue of $1.2 billion. The Filipino senator lost to Australian Jeff Horn in his only 2017 bout. Pacquiao's biggest career payday was his 2015 fight with Mayweather, for which he pocketed roughly $125 million.
21. Derek Jeter
Career earnings: $490 million
Jeter's tenure as an MLB owner is off to a rocky start in South Florida. The 14-time All-Star put up only $25 million of the $1.2 billion price for the Miami Marlins, but Jeter is calling the shots as CEO of the team.
22. (tie) Peyton Manning
Career earnings: $480 million
The five-time MVP retired as the NFL’s all-time leader in passing yards (71,490) and touchdowns (539) and was the NFL record-holder for earnings on and off the field. Manning remains a popular pitchman in retirement, shilling for Nationwide, DirecTV, Gatorade, Papa John's and Otterbox. He also hosted the 2017 ESPYs.
22. (tie) Kevin Garnett
Career earnings: $480 million
Garnett earned an NBA-record $334 million in playing salary during his 22-year playing career with the Timberwolves, the Celtics and the Nets. His blockbuster six-year, $126 million contract as a 21-year-old in 1997 helped push NBA owners to lock out the players ahead of the 1998-99 season.
24. Evander Holyfield
Career earnings: $475 million
Holyfield's career-high payday was $34 million, for his second fight versus Mike Tyson, which ended abruptly when Tyson was disqualified for biting off a chunk of Holyfield's ear. Despite a quarter-century of boxing purses, Holyfield faced major financial issues with a foreclosure of his $10 million, 109-room Atlanta estate and lawsuits for unpaid child support.
25. Andre Agassi
Career earnings: $470 million
Agassi's massive Nike endorsement deal earned him $140 million over 10 years, including the appreciation of the company stock he received in the pact.