The metric for finding out who are truly the highest paid athletes in all of sports are hard to compare. We usually know the salaries stars get from their teams since it is public knowledge. However, the money to come from endorsement deals is a huge part of an athlete’s income. Those figures aren’t always easy to find. Luckily, we have the official list for both salaries and endorsement deals to figure out which sports stars are raking in the most money. The average reader will assume stars in the NFL, NBA and MLB dominate the list, but that just isn’t true.
Only two NFL stars make the top fifteen and zero MLB stars are on the list. The NBA is the biggest North American sport represented with numerous surprises. Endorsements typically go to the athletes with the most impressive selling power. The athletes from the NBA, foreign sports, and individual sports dominate the extra income. We are comparing the total amount of money made by each athlete on an annual basis based off their current contracts and endorsement deals. Find out if your favorite superstar is getting paid as much as you think. These are the top fifteen highest paid athletes of 2017:
15 Damian Lillard: $38.4 million
The argument can be made that Damian Lillard is not even a top fifteen player in the NBA, but the point guard is highly marketable. Lillard’s defiance towards super teams and thrilling style of basketball made him a huge star to fans in Portland and beyond. The Blazers are currently paying Lillard $24.4 million for the season as the face of the franchise. A star like Lillard is hard to find in the NBA and Portland is hoping to keep him there for life by paying him handsomely.
Lillard brings in another $14 million for all of his endorsement deals. The likeable personality of Lillard lands him deals that places him in many entertaining commercials. No one could have predicted that the star power of Lillard would get this big this fast. At the age of 26, Lillard is already one of the top fifteen highest paid athletes on the planet.
14 Sebastian Vettel: $38.5 million
Sebastian Vettel is not a name many North American sports fans would expect to make this list. The German racing driver currently competes in Formula One for Scuderia Ferrari. Vettel won the Formula One World Championship four consecutive years from 2010 to 2013. The money made from racing has Vettel bringing in a shocking $38 million as one of the five highest paid athletes on this list if we excluded the endorsements.
An extra $500,000 for endorsements is nothing special for an athlete but it adds to the overall figure. It just goes to show that race car drivers can make more than the bigger stars in team sports if they win enough. Vettel may not be a face you recognize at first glance like the others on the list but he is clearly doing just fine when it comes to the financial comparison. Ferrari takes very good care of the successful driver.
13 Russell Westbrook: $38.6 million
The star power of Russell Westbrook is on the rise after Kevin Durant abandoned him and the Oklahoma City Thunder to join the Golden State Warriors super team. Westbrook became the hero in the aftermath as he carries the Thunder franchise on his back. The incredible triple double average of Westbrook delivered one of the most impressive seasons in NBA history leading Oklahoma City to the playoffs without Durant.
Westbrook was paid $26.6 million thanks to signing a new contract last summer shortly after Durant ditched the franchise. It won him a massive salary and the love of the NBA fanbase. The exciting style of Westbrook and the winning smile makes him a tremendous asset to brands. Westbrook takes advantage of it with an impressive $12 million thanks to his endorsement deals. Durant leaving the Thunder may have destroyed any chance of Westbrook winning a title in the next few years, but he’s a richer and more popular athlete thanks to it.
12 Phil Mickelson: $43.5 million
Forgotten golfer Phil Mickelson is no longer one of the best at the game but he is still among the wealthiest. Mickelson only made $3.5 million over the past year in winnings from golfing events. The star power from his glory days however makes him a massive star that is thriving in the endorsement game. Mickelson made an astonishing $40 million solely from the endorsement deals he wisely agreed to.
Aside from Tiger Woods, Mickelson is the biggest golf star in recent memory. The fame and the reputation of Mickelson make him a better face to market around than the majority of stars in the sport today. Mickelson, Woods, and one mystery golfer later in the list are the only three from the sport to make the top twenty. It is probably not the best sign that two of the three most popular golfers were relevant in the 90s. Still, life is great for Mickelson with the money still being incredible thanks to endorsements.
11 Drew Brees: $45.3 million
The New Orleans Saints franchise was essentially saved by Drew Brees. Every team needs a superstar quarterback but Brees lifted the irrelevant franchise into the spotlight with both entertaining play and by winning. Brees has been a top tier superstar in the NFL over the past decade. It only makes sense he is one of the highest paid athletes as one of the faces of the biggest sport in America.
New Orleans pays Brees a salary of $31.3 million and that number could be low. You can’t really put it into a financial figure to summarize just how much Brees gives to the Saints. The fans will always care about the team with Brees on the roster. Brees having a likeable personality factors into his wealth with the extra $14 million coming from endorsement deals. There are rumors surrounding the future of Brees given his age of 38 being old for the NFL, but for now, he's doing wonderfully with the financial success for his work.
10 Lewis Hamilton: $46 million
British Formula One racing driver Lewis Hamilton has dominated the sport enough to become a very wealthy man. As a member of the Mercedes AMG Petronas team, Hamilton delivered an impressive ten Formula One wins in 2016 before falling just short in the World Championship. Hamilton however still managed to earn an astonishing $38 million from his racing. Guys, driving really fast can pay off in worlds other than the Fast and the Furious movies.
An extra $8 million in endorsement deals from multiple brands made Hamilton a total of $46 million. The 32-year-old already has the second most Grand Prix victories with a total 56 wins. Hamilton’s track record says it all and you get a glimpse into how much he means to the racing world. The earlier years of Hamilton’s career featured him dealing with many racist hecklers. Hamilton becoming such a success is a true story of determination dealing with more than the average driver.
9 James Harden: $46.6 million
Houston Rockets superstar James Harden has become one of the top superstars in the league. The Rockets go as far as Harden takes them with his astonishing stats standing out like very few can. Harden is absolutely a top ten star in the league and could be top five. Houston is hoping to win an NBA Championship during the era of Harden and have paid him hugely to remain on the team in the long term.
Harden makes $26.6 million salary from the Rockets as the standard max contract for a superstar in the NBA. The brand of the beard has also helped Harden become a star off the court. His endorsement deals go all the way up to $20 million thanks to big names like Adidas, Beats, Foot Locker, and about another eight companies. Harden is truly enjoying the prime of his career as a basketball superstar and a celebrity off the court.
8 Stephen Curry: $47.3 million
Stephen Curry has become arguably the most popular star in the NBA over the past three years with his play leading the Golden State Warriors to dominance. Golden State won the NBA Championship in 2015 and won 73 games setting the all-time NBA season record in 2016 thanks to the leadership of Curry. Another title came to the Warriors this year with Curry and Kevin Durant joining together.
The crazy thing about Curry’s money total is that he’s been on one of the cheapest NBA contracts for a superstar, making just $12.3 million salary. Curry signed this deal before his improvement but makes up for it with $35 million in endorsement deals. Everyone wants a piece of Curry today as the most exciting star in the game. Curry’s placement on the list next year will be significantly higher as he expects to get $30 million per season in his next contract with Golden State as a free agent.
7 Rory McIlroy: $50 million
Rory McIlroy is the only golf star other than Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson to still have a high spot in the highest paid list. The 28-year-old Irish golfer earned $16 million on the course over the past year, including a $10 million bonus with the FedEx Cup. McIlroy got the majority of his income from his various endorsement deals. At a total of $34 million in endorsements, McIlroy clearly is reaping the benefits from his name value.
Nike pays a huge chunk of the money there and they are hoping he can become their biggest golf star following the downfall of Tiger. McIlroy’s youth and look makes him a better bet to market around than the vast majority of competitors in the sport. The young golfer has won a total of four major championship events but lacks the Masters to get the career grand slam. McIlroy achieving that goal next year would just increase his value.
6 Andrew Luck: $50 million
Andrew Luck is essentially tied with Rory McIlroy at $50 million but team bonuses likely put him over the top by a small number. The Indianapolis Colts drafted Luck the one season Peyton Manning missed out with injury, causing the franchise to trade their legend in favor of starting the rookie. Luck has rewarded them by becoming a top tier quarterback in the league. A few injuries have limited him but the overall body of work shows Luck will be the face of the NFL once the veteran quarterbacks retire.
Luck raked in $47 million from the Colts for the year, combining his salary and signing bonus. It will be hard to envision him keeping up this financial pace unless he starts making up for it in the endorsements. $3 million in endorsement deals is not very impressive for a popular athlete in one of the major sports. The quarterback, however, has nothing to complain about as he’s the highest paid star in the NFL this year.
5 Kevin Durant: $60.6 million
Kevin Durant has become the most polarizing man in the NBA and he is getting paid in the process. The decision of Durant to leave the Oklahoma City Thunder for the Golden State Warriors super team made him a villain in the NBA for the first time in his career. Fans detested Durant for going after an easy ring that he would get during his first season in Golden State. Durant winning the NBA Finals MVP showed just how talented he is to at least remind us why he is so highly paid.
Golden State paid $26.6 million to Durant in salary which is actually a bit of a discount since last summer’s top free agents made $30 million. Durant taking less to play for a winner was influenced by the incredible $34 million he makes in endorsements from brands like Nike, Beats, and Panini. The success is likely just going to grow for Durant and polarizing reactions just leads to his popularity growing.
4 Roger Federer: $64 million
One of the bigger gaps between salary/winnings and endorsements for an athlete would be the story of Roger Federer. The tennis legend missed a few months in the past year due to injury but returned to action to win his first Grand Slam title in five years. Federer defeated Rafael Nadal in the 2017 Australian Open. The winnings of Federer only totaled $6 million but he sure made up for it with the remarkable $58 million in endorsement deals.
Federer’s legacy as arguably the greatest tennis player of all time earned him deals from brands that set him up for many more years of financial success despite no longer being dominant. Nike, Wilson, Mercedes, and Rolex all shell out big money to have the presence of Federer representing them. Federer even brought in another recent big deal with a pasta brand proving he doesn’t have to win every Grand Slam title to make huge money.
3 Lionel Messi: $80 million
Soccer is the most popular sport in the world making it understandable that one of the major stars is in the top three. Lionel Messi currently plays for Spanish club FC Barcelona along with the Argentina national team. Barcelona pays Messi $53 million for his superb work and he rewarded them with 53 goals in just 52 appearances. The ratio of $1 million per 1 goal is pretty impressive. However, Messi makes a lot of his money off the field.
The endorsement deals of Messi total at $27 million. Adidas pays him $13 million to represent them along with various other brands looking to profit off the soccer superstar. Messi is expected to re-sign a new contract with Barcelona soon that could very well see his salary rise next year. Soccer is not very popular in the United States, but you can still spot the occasional Messi jersey proving just how big of a reach he specifically has as a star.
2 LeBron James: $86.2 million
LeBron James is clearly not only the biggest star in the NBA but the biggest star athlete in the United States. The superb play and star power of James is something the NBA has not seen since the days of Michael Jordan. James’ career reached a new high when bringing an NBA Championship to the Cleveland Cavaliers for the first time coming back from down 3-1 against the Golden State Warriors in the 2016 NBA Finals.
Cleveland pays James $31.2 million in salary and it is definitely nowhere near what his value brings. James legitimately is responsible for the economy in Cleveland going down when he left and rising when he returned. The endorsement deals of James, however, make him near his financial value as a celebrity. LeBron rakes in $55 million in endorsements from household name brands like Nike, Coca-Cola, Beats by Dre, and Kia Motor. The business skills of James have also seen him set up business ventures on the side that could make his profile richer than we even realize.
1 Cristiano Ronaldo: $93 million
Cristiano Ronaldo is the richest athlete in the world this year after bringing in an unbelievable $93 million. The soccer icon won the FIFA's best player award for the fourth time earlier this year to show his on-field dominance. Ronaldo made $58 million solely from his work for Real Madrid and is guaranteed to make $50 million+ over the next four years to keep him on this list for a long time.
The endorsements add another $35 million as the star provides a great service of making brands relevant. Ronaldo signed a rare lifetime deal with Nike that is expected to earn him $1 billion at the end of his life from the brand. The social media follower number of nearly 300 million people shows just how strong the fanbase of Ronaldo is. Between the skill, fame, and popularity, Ronaldo is the most valuable athlete in the world and deserves all the money he makes.
Sources: Forbes, Business Insider
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