20 Years After Retiring, Michael Jordan Is Still the Highest-Paid Athlete of All Time — By a Lot

His Airness has mastered basketball — and the art of personal branding

Michael Jordan, owner of the Charlotte Hornets, goes in for a handshake with one of his team's players on the sidelines of a basketball court
Who wants to be "like Mike"? In terms of dollars earned, only every other athlete ever
Jacob Kupferman / Contributor, Getty Images

Michael Jordan may have had two forgettable seasons as a Washington Wizard at the end of his career (though he still played in 82 games and averaged 20-6-6 in his final year as a 39-year-old, so take that “load management”). But his time in navy blue and silver did nothing to diminish his legacy as the man who once draped himself in Bulls red and black. Twenty years after His Airness “retired,” every other athlete that came before or has arrived since still wants to be like Mike in at least one respect. 

Yesterday, Sportico released its list of the top 50 athletes of all time when it comes not to field goals made, but dollars. Michael Jordan remains at the very top.

“Since he was drafted in 1984, Jordan has earned an estimated $3.3 billion when adjusted for inflation, more than any other athlete in the history of sports,” the publication wrote in a corresponding article. “Jordan has grossed roughly $1.8 billion from Nike, not factoring inflation, since [his] first contract [in 1984], negotiated by David Falk for $500,000 a year plus royalties. It represents 75% of MJ’s career earnings, and the annual check has ballooned with the growth of the brand over the past decade.”

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Jordan can always hang his hat on the fact that his partnership with Nike “helped turn the Swoosh from a barely profitable enterprise with $920 million in revenue, to a $49 billion sportswear giant with a market value of $187 billion,” Sportico also wrote. And the dude still has endorsement deals with Gatorade, Hanes, Upper Deck and 2K Sports, Sportico noted. Add that all up, plus his player contract compensation, and you have enough to own an NBA franchise. (Mike’s Charlotte Hornets have increased in value since he took over as principal owner in 2010, too. Back then the club was worth $278 million. Now it’s valued at $1.7 billion.) 

The second-highest ranked NBA player on Sportico’s top-50 list is LeBron James, whose adjusted earnings in his professional life sit at a cool $1.53 billion. That puts him sixth all-time. In terms of active athletes, however, James is number one, having earned just under $127 million last year alone. 

Like Jordan, one of his childhood idols, James doesn’t rest on his basketball laurels. He has his own bevy of endorsement relationships, as well as various real estate holdings. Among his more recent high-profile ventures, James bought a stake in pickleball. Three years ago he founded the SpringHill TV and film production company. He’s said he would also like to one day own an NBA franchise. 

A trio of golfers slid into the all-time athlete earnings list behind Jordan. Tiger Woods ranks number two, with career earnings that, at $2.5 billion, amount to $800 million less than what Jordan’s raked in. Then, $800 million behind Woods is Arnold Palmer. (To get a sense of how big the gap between Jordan and Tiger is, as well as the one between Woods and Palmer, there are 12 athletes listed past Palmer who have earned within $800 million of him.)

“Palmer was earning nearly $40 million a year from endorsements and licensing his name when he died in 2016 at 87 years old,” wrote Sportico. “It was 43 years after his last PGA Tour win and 28 years from his final title on the PGA Tour Champions, formerly Senior PGA Tour.”

Another golfer, Jack Nicklaus, rounds out the top four, with $1.6 billion earned. All told, eight golfers showed up in the top 50. Sportico explained golfers’ outsized presence on the list this way: “Golfers benefit from decades-long careers, and the sport’s biggest stars remain popular pitchmen long after their biggest victories…Another advantage for elite golfers: diverse revenue streams, including prize money, endorsements, appearance fees and course design work. Nicklaus Design has been the architect for 425 courses around the world.”

Unsurprisingly, given that soccer is the most popular sport in the world, the two best to ever play on the pitch slotted themselves into the list around James, with Christiano Ronaldo ($1.58 billion) at fifth and Lionel Messi ($1.48 billion) at seventh. Several boxers, including Mike Tyson ($875 million, 16th) appeared on the list, as well as a number of racing greats, such as Michael Schumacher ($1.31 billion, 11th). 

But if you, too, want to be like Mike, or as close to him in the ways of Tiger, Arnie, Jack and LeBron, the key does not appear to be your ability to toss a ball into a hoop or hit a smaller ball into a smaller hole in the ground. Whatever the scale, the secret seems to be diversified investments. 

As a writer, maybe my first natural endorsement relationship should be with Merriam-Webster. Call me, boys!

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