Michael Jordan may have retired over a decade ago but he is still the best paid athlete on the planet.
“His Airness” is arguably the greatest basketball player of all time and indisputably earns the most of sportsmen or women current or retired, which is why he is now sport’s first billionaire athlete. Most of his fortune comes from Nike payments on his iconic brand. The Jordan brand grossed around $2.25 billion in 2013, earning him over $90 million.
But his most valuable asset is his $500 million stake in the Charlotte Hornets, increased significantly when ex-Microsoft CEO Steve Ballmer bought the Los Angeles Clippers for a stunning $2 billion. The ripple effect was that the value – and income – for other clubs increased exponentially. Jordan has a 90 percent stake in the Hornets.
Athletes’ salaries continue to soar inexorably, thanks to the billions of dollars TV companies spend on securing rights to programming.
The money filters down to the athletes, which is why the average salary in the National Basketball Association was nearly $5 million last season and in baseball it was $3.8 million. Athletes typically have short careers in which to earn their fortunes, but the more savvy have cultivated their brands while they were playing and the massive paychecks continue in retirement.
Jordan, 52, leads that band as a global icon who redefined the marketing of athletes in the 1980s and 90s through Nike’s help. He made $100 million in 2014 – more than any other athlete either current or retired. Floyd “Money” Mayweather Jr. made around $50 million last year, although he looks likely to earn at least $120 million from his clash with Manny Pacquiao on May 2.
The Nike-owned Jordan Brand continues to soar for the company and its namesake. Jordan U.S. retail shoe sales alone rose 17 percent last year to $2.6 billion.
Nike royalties provide the bulk of his annual earnings, but he also enjoys sponsorship deals with Gatorade, Hanes, Upper Deck, 2K Sports and Five Star Fragrances.
Soccer star David Beckham ranked second with earnings of $75 million last year. After a 20-year career, Beckham, 39, had his biggest year ever income wise.
The bulk came from new partnerships with Diageo and Global Brands Group, which netted the Englishman more than $20 million combined. The deals also have significant potential thanks to Beckham’s ownership stake in the ventures. Becks enjoys a dozen deals, including four in the burgeoning Chinese market.
Long before LeBron James arrived, the money-making king in the sports world was golfer Arnold Palmer.
The last of his 62 wins on the Professional Golf Association Tour was in 1973, but Palmer had his biggest year ever in 2014 with earnings of $42 million.
If James follows Jordan’s business model, he too could achieve billionaire status. At just 31, his net worth is already estimated at around $270 million.
For the 2013/14 season, James earned $19 million in salary from the Miami Heat and $53 million from endorsements. But although his salary has increased since returning to the Cleveland Cavaliers, endorsement income has dipped through lack of playing success. James enjoyed back-to-back championships and four MVP awards before rejoining the Cavs. He should earn around $70 million again but being a current athlete he is not on the same list as Jordan and Beckham.
James is now the NBA’s biggest endorsement star, thanks to deals with Nike, McDonald’s, Coca-Cola, Upper Deck and others. Sales of his signature Nike shoes were tops among active players at $300 million in the U.S. during 2013 and his jersey was the NBA’s best-seller.
Palmer remains a financial force, particularly in Asia where there are 500 Arnold Palmer stores with another 200 coming over the next 18 months thanks to a new deal with Sanshu Sports.
He is still huge in the U.S., despite being 85 years old. His Arnold Palmer line of drinks represents roughly 25 percent of revenues for Arizona Beverage Co. There are plenty of other income streams too, including Xarelto blood thinner and a deal with Rolex watches that has spanned almost 50 years.
Jack Nicklaus is another golf legend still enjoying a fabulous income. He ranks No. 4 on the retired athletes’ list with earnings of around $28 million last year. The golf course design business has slowed globally, but the Golden Bear remains the top designer, ahead of the likes of Tiger Woods and Greg Norman for income.
Nicklaus Design was created 45 years ago and the firm has designed 390 courses since, with 50 more projects currently under development. Other income for the 75-year-old American is generated from his own apparel line, and he has just entered an ice cream partnership with Schwan Food.
Other golfers enjoying a fabulous income include Gary Player at $21 million and Greg Norman at $16 million.