For much of 2020, the world’s leading athletes were sidelined, working for reduced pay, playing to empty seats, or isolated in competitive bubbles designed to thwart a pandemic that has sapped billions of dollars from professional sports.
Still, for the best of the best, things couldn’t be better—at least in terms of their financial heft.
The ten highest-paid athletes in the world took home pretax gross earnings of $1.05 billion during the past 12 months, 28% more than last year’s top earners. The combined haul falls just a few million short of the $1.06 billion records set in 2018, the 12-month window in which boxer Floyd Mayweather earned $285 million, almost all of it from his 2017 pay-per-view fight with Conor McGregor.
This year, McGregor lands the winning punch, having leveraged his unmatched popularity in mixed martial arts to build a lucrative hustle outside UFC’s Octagon. The brash McGregor collected a total of $180 million over the last 12 months; most of that comes from the recent sale of his majority stake in whiskey brand Proper No. Twelve to Proximo Spirits for $150 million. It’s the 32-year-old’s first time at No. 1 and his second appearance in the top ten (he landed at No. 4 with $99 million in 2018 after the fight against Mayweather). McGregor clearly wants to put his money to work even beyond booze: He has floated the far-fetched notion of buying Manchester United, the Premier League’s most valuable team, in recent tweets.
Adding in his endorsements, McGregor made $158 million outside of his fighting career over the last 12 months, becoming only the third athlete, after Roger Federer and Tiger Woods, to earn more than $70 million off the field in a single year while still actively competing.
Three other superstars also surpassed $100 million in total earnings this year: soccer stars Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo and NFL quarterback Dak Prescott. Messi, whose off-the-pitch drama with FC Barcelona last summer was followed by media reports of the club’s dire financial state and the revelation that his contract was worth $674 million, sets a record for soccer players with his 2021 total of $130 million. Prescott, with $107.5 million, breaks the record for NFL players thanks to a $66 million signing bonus from the Dallas Cowboys. The four on this year’s list join only five other athletes—Federer, Mayweather, Neymar, Manny Pacquiao, and Woods—to have made more than $100 million in a single year. Previously, the most $100 million earners to appear on one list was three, accomplished in 2018, 2019, and 2020.
LeBron James was just shy of joining that elite group. The Los Angeles Lakers star took home $96.5 million, a record for NBA players. Another record set in 2021: the $75 million cutoffs to qualify for the top ten, beating the previous high-water mark of $65.4 million from 2019. This year’s top ten also made a combined $512 million off the field, crushing the previous record of $407.5 million from 2020.
That isn’t to say that Covid-19 didn’t take its toll on athletes’ earnings. Soccer players at many clubs, including Messi, had their wages cut. Major League Baseball salaries were prorated last year as the season was shortened to 60 games, from the usual 162. In the NBA, two shortened seasons and empty arenas prompted emergency changes to the league’s agreement with players. Adjustments to the escrow system, coupled with dramatically lower game-day revenue, mean player salaries will almost certainly end up reduced by 20% this season. That translates to a haircut of more than $7 million for both James and Kevin Durant, who lands at No. 10 this year with $75 million.
But with athletes making more than ever off the field, the drop is more nuisance than a disaster.
#1 CONOR MCGREGOR $180 M
Conor McGregor’s appearance at UFC 257 in January wasn’t the triumphant return he had hoped for—Dustin Poirier knocked him out in McGregor’s first UFC fight since January 2020—but he collected an estimated $22 million for his time. 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
#2 LIONEL MESSI $130 M
Lionel Messi kept the soccer world on edge with last year’s failed attempt to leave Barcelona, a melodrama later punctuated by a leaked contract that showed the cash-strapped club is paying him far more than previously thought. He pads that pay 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. Expect more intrigue when his contract expires in June.
#4 DAK PRESCOTT $107.5 M
NATIONALITY; UNITED STATES
The $66 million signing bonus that came with Dak Prescott’s four-year, $160 million contract extension pushes the Cowboys star into the $100 million clubs as he returns from an ankle injury. The outlook is bright for the quarterback of the world’s most valuable sports team, whose endorsement portfolio already includes Sleep Number, 7/11, and DirecTV. Prescott also recently announced an investment in four Texas locations of the restaurant chain Walk-On’s.
#5 LEBRON JAMES $96.5 M
NATIONALITY; UNITED STATES
It’s been a banner year for LeBron James, whose NBA-record earnings total follows his fourth championship in October. He’s not slowing down, either: 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.
#6 NEYMAR $95 M
Neymar’s 282 million followers across Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter make him the third-most-popular athlete on social media, behind Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi—and make him a major draw for brands. Last year, 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. Last month, 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.
#7 ROGER FEDERER $90 M
Out of commission for much of the last year with a knee injury, Roger Federer made nearly all of his $90 million in earnings from sponsorships with brands like Rolex, Credit Suisse, and Uniqlo. The tennis legend’s biggest payday yet may come from his stake in Swiss athletic apparel company On, which is reportedly eyeing an autumn 2021 IPO.
#8 LEWIS HAMILTON $82 M
NATIONALITY; UNITED KINGDOM
SPORT; FORMULA 1
After racing to his sixth Formula 1 championship in seven seasons in 2020, Mercedes driver Lewis Hamilton lands in the top ten for only the second time ever, having placed tenth in 2017 with $46 million. His 11 race 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.
#9 TOM BRADY $76 M
NATIONALITY; UNITED STATES
At age 43, Tom Brady just turned in the most lucrative year of his storied career. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers quarterback added endorsement deals with eyewear maker Christopher Cloos and apparel juggernaut Fanatics while collecting big bucks as a speaker on the virtual circuit and as a commercial pitchman. (A seventh Super Bowl title certainly didn’t hurt.) Brady, who had already dipped his toe into entrepreneurship with his wellness brand TB12, recently launched a film production company and an NFT platform.
#10 KEVIN DURANT $75 M
NATIONALITY; UNITED STATES
Kevin Durant, dazzling with the Brooklyn Nets after an Achilles injury sidelined him for the 2019-20 season, has become a full-blown media mogul with Boardroom and his firm Thirty-Five Ventures. He was an executive producer of Two Distant Strangers, which took home the Oscar for the best live-action short film last month, and he purchased a stake in MLS’s Philadelphia Union last summer. 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.
Forbes’ on-the-field earnings figures include all prize money, salaries, and bonuses earned between May 1, 2020, and May 1, 2021. In cases where players continue to be paid beyond May for a regular season that is typically concluded by then, as in the NBA and European soccer, we assign the full season of salary. We ignored the salary and bonuses that NBA players earned for playing in the league’s bubble last summer; the figures in this year’s list reflect only the 2020-21 NBA season, with a 20% cut from base salaries because of the league’s escrow adjustment.
Off-the-field earnings figures are an estimate of sponsorship deals, appearance fees, and licensing income for the 12 months through May 1, plus cash returns from any businesses operated by the athlete, based on conversations with industry insiders. We do not deduct taxes or agents’ fees, and we do not include investment income. Our list includes athletes active at any point during our time frame.