Two athletes have dominated the top of Forbes’ annual look at the highest-earners in sports over the past decade and a half: Golfer Tiger Woods landed the No. 1 spot 12 times, while boxer Floyd Mayweather ranked first three of the past four years.
But with Mayweather hanging up his gloves and Woods hampered by injuries, there is an opening at the top. Filling the gap is the biggest star in the biggest sport on the planet. This year, soccer icon Cristiano Ronaldo is the world’s highest-paid athlete, with earnings of $88 million over the past 12 months from salary, bonuses and endorsements. Ronaldo is only the second team athlete after Michael Jordan to rank as the top-paid since Forbes began tracking athlete earnings in 1990.
It is a good time to be a world-class athlete in a popular team sport. TV money is fueling massive increases in player salaries across baseball, basketball, football and soccer. The cutoff for the top 100 athletes is $20.8 million, up $2 million over last year.
Ronaldo’s Real Madrid contract is worth more than $50 million a year in salary and bonus and runs through 2018. He triggered one of those seven-figure bonuses by leading Real to the Champions League title when he found the back of the net on the clinching penalty kick.
The three-time FIFA player of the year is a marketing juggernaut earning $32 million off the pitch by our count. He kicked off a contract extension with Nike NKE +1.52% last year worth $13 million a year (Nike is partnered with 50 members of the top 100). Other Ronaldo endorsement partners include Tag Heuer, Herbalife , Pokerstars, Clear Shampoo and more. He has his own line of suits, cologne, shirts, shoes, underwear and hotels under construction.
Ronaldo’s massive social media presence is a boon to marketers, encompassing 215 million followers across Facebook, Instagram and Twitter. He posted 255 times on social media promoting a brand over the last year. Those posts generated $176 million in media value, according to Hookit, which tracks sponsorship value in social and digital media.
Fellow global soccer superstar Lionel Messi ranks No. 2 with earnings of $81.4 million. Messi earned bonuses from Barcelona and chief sponsor Adidas when he racked up his fifth FIFA player of the year award in January. Messi’s total earnings from sponsors were $28 million. His Adidas pact is worth more than $10 million annually, and he also has endorsement relationships with Huawei, Tata Motors , PepsiCo PEP +0.47% (Gatoradeand Lay’s brands), Gillette and Electronic Arts EA -0.01%.
Full Coverage: The World’s Highest-Paid Athletes 2016.
Our earnings figures include salaries, prize money and bonuses paid out between June 1, 2015, and June 1, 2016. Endorsement incomes are an estimate of sponsorships, appearance fees and licensing incomes for the same 12 month period based on conversations with dozens of industry insiders. We do not deduct for taxes or agents’ fees and we don’t include investment income (click here for a more detailed methodology and the numbers behind the top 100).
The 100 top-earning athletes hail from 23 countries and compete in 10 sports, with Americans (65) and baseball players (26) the most numerous. Over the last 12 months, they banked a cumulative $3.15 billion, 29% of which came from endorsements and appearances.
The NBA’s LeBron James ranks third with total earnings of $77.2 million and leads 18 basketball players on the list. Nike signed James to the first lifetime contract in the company’s 44-year history at the end of 2015 (Michael Jordan is presumed to have a lifetime deal in all but name). Sales of James’ signature shoes are down over the past 12 months, but if sales rebound and the four-time MVP can move product after his NBA days are over, the contract will likely pay out more than $1 billion.
King James has gone Hollywood with his SpringHill Entertainment production company and multi-platform media company Uninterrupted, which got a $15.8 investment in December from Time Warner TWX -0.60%. James made his big-screen debut in the summer of 2015 in the movie Trainwreck. James is also set to star in the sequel to the 1996 Jordan movie-vehicle Space Jam.
The new Nike pact and TV vehicles pushed James’ off-court earnings up $10 million to $54 million. His NBA salary is headed for a bump next year, too, with the league’s salary cap about to explode thanks to the start of the NBA’s new $24 billion TV contract next year, triple the prior deal annually. James can opt out of his existing Cleveland Cavaliers deal and secure a pact starting around $31 million.
Roger Federer is the top-earning athlete in an individual sport with $67.8 million over the past 12 months. He leads a group of seven tennis players, including Serb Novak Djokovic, who lands in the top 10 for the first time at No. 6 with $55.8 million.
It has been four years since Federer captured his 17th Grand Slam title at Wimbledon in 2012, but he remains the top player off the court with $60 million from endorsements and appearance fees. Federer generated millions from playing four matches in the Indian Premier Tennis League in December. His endorsement portfolio is filled with long-term deals with global brands like Nike, Rolex , Mercedes-Benz and Credit Suisse.
The top two earners on Forbes’ 2015 athletes list both took big cuts after their record paydays. Mayweather and Manny Pacquiao earned $300 million and $160 million, respectively, for the 12 months ending in June 2015 after their bout in May 2015 produced the first $600 million night in the history of sports. Both fought once over the last 12 months and claim they are now retired. Mayweather ranks No. 16 with earnings of $44 million, while Pacquiao lands at No. 63 with $24 million.
Serena Williams and Maria Sharapova are the only two women to make the cut for the second straight year, but the tennis stars flip-flopped spots thanks to new endorsements for Williams and bonuses from her historic three Grand Slam 2015, while Sharapova has been sidelined most the year after a failed drug test. Williams earned $28.9 million (No. 40) and Sharapova ranks No. 88 with earnings of $21.9 million, off nearly $8 million (click here for more on the world’s highest-paid female athletes).