These Athletes Have Earned More Than $1 Billion Apiece

Sports all-time earning leaders include two soccer stars, a tennis pro, an NBA center, a prize fighter and a golf legend.

Phil Mickelson’s rumored $200 million contract with the Saudi-backed LIV Golf tour is the latest, and largest, example of the value sports leagues, brands, and even sovereign wealth funds see in aligning themselves with the best athletes in the world.

Athletes are strategic assets of the leagues in which they play,” says David Carter, who founded the consulting firm Sports Business Group and is a professor of sports business at USC. “Before they were simply employees.”

If credited for the LIV Golf payout, which he did not deny when confronted with it at a press conference this week, Mickelson now joins one of the most exclusive clubs in all of sports – those athletes who have earned more than $1 billion in their careers.

The seven athletes on the list, which includes soccer, tennis and basketball players as well as golfers, have transcended the sports they have respectively dominated and become global icons, leading to even more lucrative opportunities outside their fields of play.

The top earner of all, Tiger Woods, for example, made less than 10% of his unequaled $1.72 billion career haul from golf winnings, with the rest coming from massive endorsement deals he has maintained across a storied 27-year career.

Woods is a billionaire, thanks largely to his record haul as is LeBron James who brought in $1.16 billion in lifetime earnings and has also made plenty of money from smart investments. But they are the only two among these billion-dollar earners to cross that threshold. That’s because earnings are recorded before taxes and other expenses.

Still, the existence of athlete billionaires is a new phenomenon, enabled by the ever-expanding reach of modern media. As the international celebrity of top athletes increases, so has the size of their endorsement deals.

“None of these guys are going to be billionaires if they don’t have a global footprint,” Carter says. “What is new in the last generation is the immediacy of the media link to technology, the fact that most businesses these guys are involved in have a global opportunity attached to it.”

The trend shows no signs of slowing, and in recent years, record-breaking sports contracts seem to be surpassed before the ink has dried on the previous record holder. Before long, expect more athletes to join the ranks of these privileged few.

All-Time Earnings Leaders

Tiger Woods $1.72 bil


The 46-year-old Woods was, at his peak, the most prolific athlete endorser in history, raking in over $100 million off the course per year and leading Forbes annual list of the world’s highest paid athletes for a decade straight.

Cristiano Ronaldo $1.24 bil


The world’s all-time goal-scoring leader boasts more than 690 million followers across social media platforms, allowing him to command sky-high rates from sponsors like Nike, Herbalife and Clear shampoo. He’s an investor in Tatel restaurants and a forthcoming soccer community app ZujuGP, and still commands premium wages on the pitch for Manchester United.

LeBron James $1.16 bil


In addition to his lifetime contract with Nike and a $41.5 million contract with the Los Angeles Lakers, the 37-year-old hoops legend sold a significant minority stake in his production company, SpringHill, in October at a valuation of about $725 million. He has also taken equity stakes in several of the companies he has endorsed, including the at-home fitness company Tonal, all adding up to a $1 billion net worth.

Lionel Messi $1.15 bil


The Argentinian forward was the highest paid athlete in the world over the past 12 months, despite a significant pay cut when he moved to PSG from BarcelonaCK when MONTHTK. He added a $20 million deal with fan engagement app Socios WHEN to go with long-term deals with Adidas, Budweiser, PepsiCo, and Hard Rock International.

Roger Federer $1.09 bil


Despite not playing in a tournament since Wimbledon last July, the 40-year-old Swiss maestro earned more money in the last 12 months off the field – $90 million – than any other athlete in the world. He’s a top pitchman for Rolex and Uniqlo, and has a sizable investment in burgeoning shoe brand On.

Floyd Mayweather $1.08 bill


In 2018, Mayweather produced the biggest single payday in the history of sports when he netted $275 million from his prize fight with Conor McGregor. His decision to run his own promotion company for his fights led to him receiving a cut of the pay-per-view, gate, sponsorships, merchandise and international TV deals for each of the four most profitable fights in boxing history.