Michael Jordan, Muhammad Ali, Jim Brown, Usain Bolt and others are often hailed as the greatest athlete of all-time. Williams needs to be in the conversation, too.
Williams has been sidelined since January, when she won her 23rd Slam title with a win over sister Venus at the Australian Open. She revealed three months later that she was pregnant during the tournament. Despite the layoff, Williams still finds ways to dominate her peers. Her earnings between June 2016 and June 2017 of $27 million from prize money and endorsements are twice the total from any other female athlete in the world.
Williams rules Maria Sharapova on the court, with a streak of 18 straight wins against her rival, and for years earned more than double Sharapova's prize money. But Williams typically lagged her among the top-earners because of lower off-the-court earnings. Sharapova was the highest-paid female athlete for 11 years until Williams unseated her in FORBES’ 2016 look at the top-paid women in sports.
Williams' endorsement earnings soared in recent years as marketers flocked to her while she became the elder stateswoman of tennis and approached the Open-era Grand Slam record of 22 held by Steffi Graf. Williams currently has more than a dozen endorsement partners, including Beats by Dre, Gatorade, JPMorgan Chase, Nike and Tempur-Pedic. Intel added her this year for a campaign with the message that high-tech equals high performance.
There has been a break in Williams’ tennis schedule, but she’s remained engaged with her sponsors and business interests. She joined SurveyMonkey’s board in May at the recommendation of fellow board member and Facebook chief operating officer Sheryl Sandberg. Williams and her fiancée, Reddit co-founder Alexis Ohanian, are expecting their first child sometime in the next month. Williams expects to be back on the court early in 2018.
Angelique Kerber, who finished 2016 as the WTA Tour's No. 1 player, ranks second with earnings of $12.6 million, including $7.6 million in prize money. The German tennis ace is not the most marketable player in tennis, but she secured lucrative bonuses from sponsors Adidas and Yonex for her top world ranking, US Open title and Wimbledon finals appearance. She also inked five new deals over the past 12 months, with SAP, Generali, Rolex, Slim Secrets and bareMinerals.
Tennis players dominate the highest-paid female athletes with eight of the top 10. It is the one major sport where, when comparing men and women, the money is in the same stratosphere. Williams trails Roger Federer ($64 million) in tennis, but she is not too far behind Novak Djokovic ($37.6 million), who ranks second in the sport for earnings. The gap is massive in golf, where Rory McIlroy ($50 million) out-earns Lydia Ko ($5.9 million) by more than eight-to-one. The divide is even worse in soccer, with Cristiano Ronaldo ($93 million) and Alex Morgan ($3.5 million) the top earners.
Danica Patrick ($12.2 million) and Ronda Rousey ($11 million) are the two non-tennis players in the women's top 10, ranking third and fourth overall. Both have made inroads as marketable athletes in male-dominated sports.
Patrick has one more year left on her contract at Stewart-Haas Racing, but it is contingent on having a sponsor for her car in 2018. A sponsor is not lined up as of now. Patrick has 10 personal sponsors, including giants like Coca-Cola, Ford and Nationwide.
Rousey was the headliner at UFC 207 in December and secured a record-tying $3 million guarantee for the bout, plus her cut of the 1.1 million pay-per-view buys. She pocketed a sizable check for her role as coach this summer in the reboot of "Battle of the Network Stars" and endorses Reebok and Pantene. Next up: marrying fellow MMA fighter Travis Browne and filming "Mile 22" alongside Mark Wahlberg.
Rounding out the top five is Venus Williams ($10.5 million), who reached her first Grand Slam final since 2009 in January when she fell to Serena at the Aussie Open. Williams has her own apparel line, Eleven, so her endorsement portfolio lacks the big Nike/Adidas deal that other top tennis players have. But Williams is still a big draw at 37 and commands hefty fees for tournaments and exhibitions.
Williams is also a hit on the speaking tour, with six-figure checks for revelations about her two decades in tennis, her fight for equal pay and her battle with the autoimmune disease Sjogren's syndrome. Her endorsements include American Express, Jamba Juice, Silk and Wilson. In addition to shilling for Jamba Juice, Williams owns 10 of the smoothie and juice shops in the Washington, D.C., area. Her career prize money of $38 million ranks second all-time behind her sister's.
The biggest drop-off among the top female earners is Sharapova, who ranked No. 2 last year after ranking first for 11 years. Sharapova was sidelined for most of our 12-month tracking period while serving her 15-month suspension for use of the banned substance meldonium. American Express, Avon and Tag Heuer did not renew their sponsorship deals with Sharapova. She still maintains Nike, Head, Evian and Porsche in her endorsement portfolio, but those deals included massive reductions that kicked in with Sharapova off the tour for over a year and pushed her earnings below the $6 million cutoff.
Our earnings estimates include prize money, salaries, endorsements, bonuses, appearance fees and royalties for the 12 months between June 1, 2016, and June 1, 2017. The top 10 women made a combined $109 million, down 13% from last year. Other drop-offs besides Sharapova include Ana Ivanovic, who retired from tennis in December, and Victoria Azarenka, who had a baby in December.