Lionel Messi leads a group that collectively earned more than $990 million in 12 months, with the bar for entry higher than ever.
BY BRETT KNIGHT
Lionel Messi was only 17 when he began suiting up for the top squad at FC Barcelona, so it was more than a little jarring when, after 17 seasons, he left the only professional home he had ever known to transfer to Paris Saint-Germain last August.
In one regard, though, this season marked a return to familiar territory for the 34-year-old soccer superstar.
With $130 million in pre-tax gross earnings over the last 12 months, Messi claims the top spot in Forbes’ annual ranking of the world’s highest-paid athletes, leading the list for the second time (the other was in 2019). Although Forbes estimates that Messi’s salary is down some $22 million from his final year with Barcelona—to $75 million this season at PSG—a major boost in endorsements helps him equal the record 12-month total for a soccer player he posted last year, when he finished No. 2 to MMA fighter Conor McGregor.
Messi’s archrival, Cristiano Ronaldo—who also switched teams in August, moving from Juventus to Manchester United—lands at No. 3 this year with $115 million. Sandwiched between the two is the Los Angeles Lakers’ LeBron James with $121.2 million, crushing the $96.5 million record for an NBA player that he set last year. James becomes only the tenth athlete ever to surpass $100 million in a single year, a milestone Messi and Ronaldo have now reached five times each.
TEN YEARS OF THE TOP TEN
The world’s ten highest-paid athletes collectively made $992 million in pre-tax gross earnings over the last 12 months, the third-highest total ever.
Collectively, the world’s ten highest-paid athletes raked in $992 million over the last 12 months, according to Forbes’ estimates. That represents a 6% drop from 2021, but the decline is directly related to McGregor’s massive $180 million total last year, after he pocketed an estimated $150 million from the sale of his Irish whiskey brand, Proper No. Twelve. (McGregor fell out of the top ten but appears at No. 35 in the full 2022 ranking, with $43 million.)
This year’s collective total is the third-highest ever, behind 2021’s $1.05 billion and the $1.06 billion total of 2018, when McGregor skewed the result once again with his superfight against Floyd Mayweather. And in one clear sign that sports’ top stars are doing better than ever, the cutoff to make the top ten this year is $80.9 million, posted by the Milwaukee Bucks’ Giannis Antetokounmpo. That’s an 8% jump from 2021’s $75 million—and a 24% increase from 2019’s $65.4 million, the previous high.
Off the field, the top ten athletes hauled in an estimated $500 million from endorsements, appearances, memorabilia and licensing fees, as well as the cash returns from businesses they operate and equity stakes they sold. That’s nearly flat from last year’s record $512 million.
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The addition of cryptocurrency and NFT platforms to the sports marketing equation helped offset the loss of McGregor’s big payday from last year. In March, Messi signed a deal worth $20 million annually with Socios, a “fan engagement” app built on blockchain technology. Lower down the top ten, the Golden State Warriors’ Stephen Curry and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers’ Tom Brady have partnered with crypto exchange FTX while James and the Brooklyn Nets’ Kevin Durant have aligned themselves with competitors Crypto.com and Coinbase, respectively.
Up or down, it’s some serious coin.
THE WORLD’S 10 HIGHEST-PAID ATHLETES 2022
#1. $130 MILLION
On-Field: $75 Million | Off-Field: $55 Million
Age: 34 | Sport: Soccer | Nationality: Argentina
Lionel Messi’s $20 million-a-year partnership with Socios adds to an endorsement portfolio that includes Adidas, Budweiser and PepsiCo. He also became Hard Rock International’s first athlete brand ambassador in a deal announced last June, helping Messi draw level with Manchester United’s Cristiano Ronaldo with his off-field earnings for the first time since 2013. Messi won the Ballon d’Or in 2021 as the world’s best men’s soccer player, but he has had a tougher time on the pitch more recently, scoring just nine goals in 32 appearances for Paris Saint-Germain after notching 38 in 47 games in his final season for Barcelona. But while PSG flamed out in the Champions League’s Round of 16, the club captured the French Ligue 1 title in Messi’s first season.
#2. $121.2 MILLION
On-Field: $41.2 Million | Off-Field: $80 Million
Age: 37 | Sport: Basketball | Nationality: U.S.
LeBron James’ Los Angeles Lakers missed the playoffs this season, but he’s never been so dominant off the court. He starred in last year’s Space Jam: A New Legacy and recently moved his talk show, The Shop, from HBO to YouTube. In October, he sold a significant minority stake in SpringHill—the production company behind both projects—at a valuation of about $725 million, pushing his net worth to $850 million, according to Forbes’ estimates. After announcing an endorsement deal with Crypto.com in January, James appeared in a Super Bowl commercial next to a computer-generated version of his younger self. He also recently invested in home gym company Tonal and StatusPRO, a sports tech startup that creates virtual reality training products.
#3. $115 MILLION
On-Field: $60 Million | Off-Field: $55 Million
Age: 37 | Sport: Soccer | Nationality: Portugal
Like his rival Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo has had a disappointing first season with his new team, with Manchester United stuck in sixth place in the Premier League standings with one game remaining. Rumors are now swirling that Ronaldo, who previously played for Man U from 2003 to 2009, could be on the move once more in this summer’s transfer window. Much of Ronaldo’s earning power comes from his massive social media presence: He has 690 million followers across Instagram, Facebook and Twitter, giving him leverage to demand sky-high rates from sponsors such as Nike, Herbalife and Clear shampoo. He is also an investor in Tatel restaurants—including a new location in Beverly Hills—and is the face of ZujuGP, a forthcoming app aiming to be a digital soccer community.
#4. $95 MILLION
On-Field: $70 Million | Off-Field: $25 Million
Age: 30 | Sport: Soccer | Nationality: Brazil
Neymar scored his 400th career goal in November, but like Lionel Messi, he was stung by criticism after Paris Saint-Germain’s early Champions League exit. His attention will now shift to the World Cup in Qatar this fall, which he has said could be his last. Off the field, he has a valuable set of endorsements, including Puma and Red Bull, and he is the subject of a new Netflix docuseries, Neymar: The Perfect Chaos. He is also diving into the world of NFTs, signing with the platform NFTSTAR in November and spending over $1 million on two Bored Ape Yacht Club NFTs in one day in January.
#5. $92.8 MILLION
On-Field: $45.8 Million | Off-Field: $47 Million
Age: 34 | Sport: Basketball | Nationality: U.S.
No NBA player made more in salary this season than Stephen Curry, and the Golden State Warriors guard is due for a raise after signing a four-year, $215 million extension last August. He’ll make roughly $48 million on the court next season, rising to just under $60 million in 2025-26. Curry’s new FTX endorsement deal also came with an equity stake, and he dived deeper into blockchain in December, releasing a collection of NFTs that featured his sneakers and were tied to three metaverse platforms. (He pledged to donate the proceeds.) Meanwhile, Curry’s production company, Unanimous Media, signed a development deal with Comcast NBCUniversal in September.
#6. $92.1 MILLION
On-Field: $42.1 Million | Off-Field: $50 Million
Age: 33 | Sport: Basketball | Nationality: U.S.
Brooklyn Nets star Kevin Durant brings in roughly $28 million annually from Nike, a sneaker deal surpassed only by LeBron James’ ($32 million) among active players. He has recently added deals with Coinbase, NBA Top Shot and Weedmaps, but with media company Boardroom and investment firm Thirty Five Ventures, his business empire goes far beyond endorsements. NFT platform OpenSea and digital fitness startup Future are among his latest investments, and he is backing SeatGeek’s SPAC merger. Durant and his longtime business partner, Rich Kleiman, also announced last year that they would launch a SPAC of their own; it is still seeking an acquisition.
#7. $90.7 MILLION
On-Field: $0.7 Million | Off-Field: $90 Million
Age: 40 | Sport: Tennis | Nationality: Switzerland
Injuries limited Roger Federer to six tournaments in 2020 and 2021 combined, and he has yet to return to the tennis court in 2022. No matter—the world’s former No. 1 player remains the top pitchman in sports, promoting brands such as Uniqlo and Rolex. He also invested in the burgeoning Swiss shoe brand On in 2019, and the company went public in September, raising more than $600 million. “We work very closely together on product design,” Federer told Forbes at the time, having spent 20 days in the lab with the On team developing the company’s pro tennis shoe.
#8. $90 MILLION
On-Field: $85 Million | Off-Field: $5 Million
Age: 31 | Sport: Boxing | Nationality: Mexico
Canelo Alvarez is boxing’s top draw, earning $40 million or more from his two pay-per-view victories last May and November. (His loss to light-heavyweight champion Dmitry Bivol on May 7, 2022, fell outside Forbes’ tracking window for this list.) Beyond the ring, Alvarez has a lucrative partnership with Hennessy and owns a taco restaurant in his native Mexico, with plans to expand to California. Alvarez said last year that he would be launching a chain of gas stations, and his Canelo Promotions is putting together a series of fights in Mexico in partnership with Matchroom Boxing and DAZN.
#9. $83.9 MILLION
On-Field: $31.9 Million | Off-Field: $52 Million
Age: 44 | Sport: Football | Nationality: U.S.
Tom Brady’s retirement this off-season lasted less than six weeks, which was welcome news for the Tampa Bay Buccaneers after he turned in a spectacular 2021 season at age 43. He’s certainly learning some new tricks off the field. Autograph, the NFT platform Brady cofounded last year, raised $170 million in a Series B funding round announced in January, and Religion of Sports, the production company he cofounded with Pro Football Hall of Famer Michael Strahan and filmmaker Gotham Chopra, unveiled a content deal with Skydance Sports in March. Meanwhile, his other production company, 199 Productions, is behind the upcoming road-trip movie 80 for Brady, and he has a new clothing line cleverly named BRADY. And when it is finally time to retire permanently from football, Brady already has his next lucrative gig lined up: a commentator role with Fox Sports. According to the New York Post, that deal is set to pay him more than he has earned on the field across 22 seasons in the NFL—$375 million over ten years.
#10. $80.9 MILLION
On-Field: $39.9 Million | Off-Field: $41 Million
Age: 27 | Sport: Basketball | Nationality: Greece
With Neymar turning 30 in February, Giannis Antetokounmpo is the only member of this year’s top ten still in his 20s. The Milwaukee Bucks’ two-time MVP signed a five-year, $228 million contract in December 2020, the NBA’s largest contract by total value to date. He was among the investors in timepiece resale platform WatchBox’s $165 million funding round announced in November, and he has also signed a licensing deal with NFT platform NFTSTAR and added WhatsApp and Google’s Pixel 6 phone to his endorsement stable. And Antetokounmpo will soon be able to watch his life story in the biopic Rise, set to be released on Disney+ in June.
Forbes’ on-field earnings figures include all prize money, salaries and bonuses earned between May 1, 2021, and May 1, 2022. In cases where players continue to be paid beyond May for a regular season that is concluded by then—as in the NBA and European soccer—we assign the full season of salary. Playoff bonuses are included for the 2021 NFL season and the 2020-21 NBA season.
Off-field earnings figures are an estimate of sponsorship deals, appearance fees and memorabilia and licensing income for the 12 months leading to May 1, 2022, plus cash returns from any businesses operated by the athlete, based on conversations with industry insiders. Forbes does not include investment income such as interest payments or dividends but does account for payouts from equity stakes athletes have sold.
Forbes does not deduct for taxes or agents’ fees. The list includes athletes active at any point during the 12-month time period.
With additional reporting by Justin Birnbaum and Matt Craig
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