Let’s face it: the average American male watches maybe four or five sports on a regular basis. Sure, he may check out the Olympics, flip over to a big race, or pretend to be thoroughly engrossed in golf in order to avoid having to do household chores, but he is pretty ignorant when it comes to the dozens of sports that take place around the world at any given time. So unless he happens to be up at 3am on a Tuesday watching channel 1769 on his satellite, he probably won’t even be aware that these competitions exist.
Believe it or not, there are people who participate in these obscure sports. The vast majority of them pay for their own equipment, receive no assistance from sponsors or endorsements, and truly compete “for the love of the game.” But there are a few of them who do make some decent coin in (or on) their chosen fields. And while you’ll never read about their exploits on sports websites, the elite players in these sports will cash their earnings checks without having to worry about being stalked by autograph hounds or paparazzi. Here are ten such athletes, along with their non-endorsement earnings for the 2013 (or most recent) season:
10. Walter Ray Williams Jr. – Bowling – $41,175
Believe it or not, professional bowling used to be on network TV every weekend. Williams remembers; after all, he’s been a part of the Professional Bowlers Association since 1980. To his credit, Williams has amassed more almost $4.5 million in career earnings – which is what Packers QB Aaron Rodgers makes in about six weeks. It’s not because Williams is dumb; he has a physics degree from Cal-Poly Pomona. But he has won 47 tournaments in his career (and seven ESPYs!). Williams lives in Ocala, Florida and boasts the unique nickname of “Deadeye.” He’s also proficient in the equally-profitable sport of horseshoes.
9. Michael van Gerwen – Darts – $174,803
Yes, they actually pay people to play a game often characterized by tipsy tossers and smoky bars. Nicknamed “Mighty Mike”, this 24-year old Dutch prodigy is the reigning world champion of the Professional Darts Corporation. (What? A sports league admitting to acting like a corporation? Say it isn’t so!) He won his first major title at age 17, and has even delivered a few perfect “nine-dart” rounds during international play. He’s immediately recognizable with his shaved cue-ball dome and lack of neck, and his walk-on music is “Seven Nation Army” by the White Stripes. (Yes, darts players have their own walk-on music.)
8. Pedro Salgado/Bruno Oscar Schmidt – Beach Volleyball – $188,775
Sure, you occasionally watch women’s beach volleyball because of the skimpy outfits, but unless you live at the beach, you may catch a men’s match or two every Olympic year. This Brazilian duo of Salgado and Schmidt finished second in the rankings on the 2013 Fédération Internationale de Volleyball (FIVB) tour behind a pair of guys from the beach volleyball powerhouse nation of Latvia. Salgado and Schmidt did win two titles in 2013 – one in Sao Paolo and the other in The Hague. Both men are just 27 years old and very, very tall.
7. Trevor Brazile – Rodeo – $426,011
Now, on to a different “Brazile.” Trevor is a legend on the pro rodeo circuit, and cemented his legacy further by capturing his 19th World Championship in December of 2013. His annual earnings are the second-highest ever in PRCA history, behind only the $500,000+ set in 2010 by… himself. The Decatur, Texas native is the pride of Vernon Regional Junior College. Rodeo cowboys have to be proficient in multiple disciplines, including saddle bronc riding, team roping, steer wrestling, bareback riding, calf roping, barrel racing, thick drawling, chewing and spitting, and horse whispering.
6. Jonny Wilkinson – Rugby – $529,749
You know rugby, the sport which made football look like schoolyard tag even before the recent NFL rule changes. Wilkinson made his name playing for England’s international club before cashing in and signing on with France’s RC Toulon of the Professional Rugby Union in 2009. He has scored over 3,100 points in his 17-year professional career and almost 1,200 points while playing for England’s national club, which he joined at the youngest-ever age of 18. Rugby aficionados know that Wilkinson plays fly-half or inside centre, was born in Frimley, Surrey, and attended Lord Wandsworth College.
5. J.B. Mauney – Bull Riding – $1,810,710
Who do you really respect: someone who earns seven figures by hitting a little white ball into a hole, or someone who does it by sitting atop an angry, spastic animal? Mauney (rhymes with “looney”) did that 47 times in 2013 to earn him Professional Bull Riders World Champion honors for 2013. Mauney started riding bulls at the ripe old age of three. Today, the 27-year old Mooresville, North Carolina resident weighs in at just 140 pounds, meaning that the creatures he rides are about 14 times as heavy as he is.
4. Gary Ablett Jr. – Australian Rules Football – $2 million
If you think rugby is tough, try playing Australian rules football. No pads, rough tackles, and guys jumping onto your head trying to catch balls. The Gary Ablett name in the AFL is like the Griffey name in baseball: the senior Ablett is a Hall of Fame player from the eighties and nineties, when he scored over a thousand goals back when junior was running around the practice facilities as a tyke. Today, the younger Ablett is one of the modern game’s greatest midfielders with 334 goals since 2002. The Modewarre, Victoria native currently plays for the Gold Coast Suns, on which he was a charter member when the AFL club was formed in 2011. He made waves earlier this year when he was “outed” by a publication for being a “closet rapper.”
3. Inbee Park – Women’s Golf – $2,456,619
There are two kinds of men in this country: those who never watch women’s golf and those who never admit to watching it. Neither group will tell you that the 5’6″ Korea native won six LPGA titles in 2013, including three majors. Park missed the cut only once in 23 tournaments and finished in the top ten 11 different times. She started playing golf at ten years old and has won over $7.7 million in her career. Park says that one of the things on her “bucket list” is to live with ten dogs. Sorry, guys – she’s taken (engaged to her coach).
2. Mahendra Singh Dhoni – Cricket – $3.5 million
To never have heard of India’s cricket captain, you’d have to be living under a rock (or somewhere other than India). That’s a big reason why Dhoni makes eight times his annual salary in endorsements. The 32-year old attacking right-handed middle-order batsman/wicket-keeper is nicknamed “Mahi.” He is a captain in all three levels of Indian cricket (One-Day International, Test, and Champions Twenty20 – but you knew that). The Ranchi native married in 2010 after a lengthy one-day engagement.
1. Valentino Rossi – Motorcycle Racing – $12 million
Considered by many to be the best motorcycle racer ever, the 34-year old Rossi is the top career MotoGP series race winner with 80 titles, including nine Grand Prix World Championships. The Urbino native began racing karts at a young age because his mother feared for his safety should he follow in his father’s footsteps of becoming a motorcycle racer. Bucking the Italian tradition of listening to everything his mother says, Rossi began competitive 125cc racing in 1994 and has since raced for Honda, Yamaha, and Ducati. His nickname is “The Doctor,” and his love of superstition puts most baseball players to shame. Before getting on his bike, Rossi stops, bends over, and reaches for his boots; then he crouches down, bows his head, and holds the right-side foot peg. He also mounts and dismounts his motorcycle the same way each time. Different strokes…
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