Very little about the past few years in sports, and in life, felt normal for the world’s elite athletes. Even as the pandemic cancelled hundreds of sporting events and left pro leagues scrambling, the world’s 50 highest-paid athletes turned in a record-setting year, including the highest-paid soccer player ever, NFL player and female athlete.
Even an earnings record for an NBA player, despite that league effectively slashing salaries for the 2020-21 season with emergency adjustments to its escrow system. Forbes’ cutoff to make the Top 50 in 2021 rose from $28,5 in 2020 to $34 million – the highest ever.
These 50 athletes made nearly $2.8 billion in 12 months - a 16% increase from 2020 and an all-time high. Just over $1 billion of that came from endorsement deals and other off-the-field endeavours. The Top 10 athletes 10.
Kevin Durant, 32-year-old American basketball player, made a cool $75 million. After an Achilles injury benched him for the 2019-2020 season, this Brooklyn Nets giant became a media mogul with Boardroom and his firm, Thirty-Five Ventures.
He was an executive producer of Two Distant Strangers, which received the Oscar for the best live-action short film and he purchased a stake in MLS’s Philadelphia Union. Durant also cashed in last year when Uber bought Postmates, having invested roughly $1 million in the startup in 2016 at a discounted entry price.
9. American football star, Tom Brady (43) smiled all the way to the bank with $76 million in 2021 – the most lucrative year of his career. Brady added endorsement deals with eyewear maker Christopher Cloos and apparel juggernaut Fanatics.
He also earned a pretty penny as a speaker on the virtual circuit and as a commercial pitchman. The seventh Super Bowl title certainly didn’t hurt. He also recently launched a film production company and an NFT platform.
8. After racing to his sixth Formula 1 championship in seven seasons in 2020, Mercedes driver Lewis Hamilton landed in the top ten for the second time in his career with a staggering $82 million. Hamilton placed tenth in 2017 with $46 million.
His 11 wins last season netted him healthy bonus payments to go with an endorsement stable that includes Tommy Hilfiger, Monster Energy and Puma. He is also launching a team on the Extreme E racing series. 7. No surprise to see Roger Federer in the top 10.
Even though he didn’t play much tennis, he still aced $90 million, most of it through earnings from sponsorships with brands like Rolex, Credit Suisse and Uniqlo. The legend’s biggest payday yet may come from his stake in Swiss athletic apparel company On, which is reportedly eyeing an autumn 2021 IPO.
6. Soccer player Neymar kicked $95 million to the bank. The player has 282 million followers across Facebook, Twitter and Instagram. This makes him the third most popular athlete on social media (behind Ronaldo and Messi), which means a lot of lucrative brand deals.
In 2021 he announced an early exit from his contract with Nike’s Jordan Brand and became a brand ambassador for Puma, with a signature version of its King shoes. Recently Epic Games introduced the avid video gamer into its blockbuster game Fortnite with an in-game skin and a competition to win a pair of his shoes.
5. Basketball legend LeBron James comes in at number 5 with $96,5 million. The 36-year-old looks as dominant as ever on the court is debuting as a Hollywood leading man with the July release of Space Jam: A New Legacy and boasts a new deal with PepsiCo after leaving longtime partner Coca-Cola.
He also recently purchased a small stake in Fenway Sports Group, which owns the Boston Red Sox, Liverpool FC and Roush Fenway Racing. 4. With an eye-popping $107,5 million, football star Dak Prescott shows no signs of slowing down.
The $66 million signing bonus that came with his four-year, $160 million contract extension, pushes the Cowboys star into the $100 million club. His endorsement portfolio includes Sleep Number, 7/11 and DirecTV. Prescott also recently announced an investment in four Texas locations of the restaurant chain Walk-On’s.
Top 3 athletes of 2021 3. Cristiano Ronaldo became the first person in the world to reach 500 million followers across Facebook, Instagram and Twitter in February and followed that up a month later by surpassing Brazilian legend Pelé’s goal tally, reaching 770 across all competitions with a hat trick in a Juventus win over Cagliari.
If that doesn’t impress you, the $120 million he made last year, probably will. The 36-year-old, whose four-year contract is worth an average of $64 million annually and expires in 2022, has a lifetime deal with Nike and is behind the CR7 business of branded clothing, accessories, hotels and gyms.
2. With $130 million in his pocket, Lionel Messi pads his Barcelona contract with sponsorships including a lifetime deal with Adidas, as well as a clothing line designed by Ginny Hilfiger, sister of Tommy Hilfiger. Last month, Messi sent signed jerseys to Chinese pharmaceutical firm Sinovac to help secure 50,000 Covid-19 vaccines ahead of the Copa América soccer tournament.
1. Hitting his way to the top is Connor McGregor, who earned a knockout of $180 million in 2021. The real moneymaker was his sale of whiskey brand Proper No. Twelve, buttressing an endorsement portfolio that includes DraftKings, the video game Dystopia: Contest of Heroes and the lifestyle brand Roots of Fight.