This year’s list of highest-paid athletes is dominated by football and basketball superstars as Lionel Messi leads the charts from LeBron James and Cristiano Ronaldo, while a couple of new entrants have made this year’s list as well. The world’s highest-paid athletes have raked in a combined US$992 million over the last 12 months according to Forbes’ estimates. This represents a 6% drop from 2021, and much of it can be attributed to Conor McGregor’s massive earnings of US$180 million from last year, after he pocketed a massive US$150 million from the sale of his Irish Whiskey brand, Proper No. Twelve.
This year’s collective total is the third-highest ever, behind last year’s US$1.05 billion and the US$1.06 billion of 2018, when McGregor once again skewed the results because of his superfight against Floyd Mayweather.
With McGregor’s fall, it is the footballing superstar Lionel Messi, who after spending seventeen years with FC Barcelona left his only-known professional home to move to the French superclub Paris-Saint Germain, finds himself on top of Forbes’ annual ranking of the world’s highest-paid athletes just for the second time (first in 2019). Although there’s a massive drop in his salary — down from US$97m in his final year with Barcelona to US$75m with PSG — a major boost in endorsement deals sees him beat the likes of LeBron James and his arch-rival Cristiano Ronaldo to top the list.
Cristiano Ronaldo still finds himself in the third spot. He has seen his returns diminish just a little bit as his earnings fell from US$120 million last year to US$115 million this time around. However, sandwiched between the two footballing giants is a great from the basketball arena: LeBron James took home US$96.5 million last year, which was a record for an NBA player. This year, though, he has eclipsed his record by raking in a massive US$121.2 million, becoming only the tenth-ever player to breach the US$100 million mark.
Furthermore, one clear indicator that suggests athletes are doing better this year is that the cut-off to make the top ten is US$80.9 million: that is an 8% hike from last year’s US$75 million and a 24% increase from 2019’s US$65.4 million. Besides, off-the-field earnings from the top-ten athletes hauled in an estimated US$500 million from endorsements, appearances, memorabilia, licensing fees as well as cash returns from the business they operate and the equity stakes they sold. That’s basically on par with last year’s record US$512 million.
Finally, cryptocurrencies and NFT marketplaces have made a big splash at least in the endorsement and marketing industry. From Lionel Messi’s near-US$20m deal with fan engagement platform Socios.com to the likes of Stephen Curry and Tom Brady partnering with crypto exchange FTX and the basketball duo of LeBron James and Kevin Durant aligning themselves with Crypto.com and Coinbase respectively, cryptocurrency and NFT marketplaces have certainly generated some waves in the sports industry.
Top 10 highest-paid athletes 2022
Let’s dive into it and take a look at the ten highest-paid athletes in the world for 2022.
1 Lionel Messi (US$130 million)
On-field: US$75 million
Off-field: US$55 million
Lionel Messi’s latest US$20m-a-year partnership with Socios.com adds to an endorsement portfolio that includes the likes of Adidas, Budweiser and PepsiCo. He also became Hard Rock International’s first athlete brand ambassador in a deal announced last June, drawing himself 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 Barça. But while PSG flamed out in the UEFA Champions League’s Round of 16, with Messi failing to make any substantial impact, the club still managed to regain the French Ligue 1 title in Messi’s first season.
2 LeBron James (US$121.2 million)
On-field: US$41.2 million
Off-field: US$80 million
LeBron James’ Los Angeles Lakers missed the NBA Playoffs this season, but he himself has never been more 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 US$725 million, pushing his net worth to US$850 million as per 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. Cristiano Ronaldo (US$115 million)
On-field: US$60 million
Off-field: US$55 million
Like his rival Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo has had a disappointing first season with his new team Manchester United but has still managed to provide 21 goal contributions in 30 league appearances, with United stuck in sixth place in the Premier League with one game remaining. With no Champions League football, rumours are now swirling that Ronaldo, who previously played for Man United from 2003 to 2009, could be on the move once more in the summer.
Much of Ronaldo’s earning power, however, 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. 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 foster a digital soccer community.
4 Neymar (US$95 million)
On-field: US$70 million
Off-field: US$25 million
Neymar scored his 400th career goal in November last year, but like Messi, he was stung by criticism after PSG’s early UCL exit. Besides, the fact that he has missed nearly 40% of all matches through various injuries after signing a massive €700,000-a-week contract extension last year has been a source of frustration for his employers. However, his attention will now shift to the World Cup in Qatar later this year, which he has said could be his last.
Off the field, Neymar 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, having signed up with the platform NFTSTAR.com in November and having spent over US$1 million on two Bored Ape Yacht Club NFTs in one day in January.
#5 Stephen Curry (US$92.8 million)
On-field: US$45.8 million
Off-field: US$47 million
No NBA player has earned more in salary as an athlete this season than Stephen Curry, and the Golden State Warriors guard is due for a raise after signing a four-year, US$215 million extension last August. He’ll make roughly US$48 million on the court next season, rising to just under US$60 million in 2025-26.
Additionally, 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). His production company, Unanimous Media, also signed a deal with Comcast NBCUniversal in September.
6 Kevin Durant (US$92.1 million)
On-field: US$42.1 million
Off-field: US$50 million
Brooklyn Nets star Kevin Durant has seen his annual earnings increase from US$75 million last year to roughly US$92 million this year. It is also helpful that he brings in roughly US$28 million annually from Nike, a sneaker deal surpassed only by LeBron James’ (US$32 million) among active players.
Durant has recently signed 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. He 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 Roger Federer (US$90.7 million)
On-field: US$0.7 million
Off-field: US$90 million
Injuries limited Roger Federer to only six tournaments in 2020 and 2021 combined, with his best performance coming in the 2020 Australian Open where he made it to the Semis. He is yet to return to the tennis court in 2022.
Despite the lack of playing time, the former World No. 1 remains the top pitchman in the sport, promoting brands such as Uniqlo and Rolex. He also invested substantially in the burgeoning Swiss shoe brand On in 2019, and the company went public in September, raising more than US$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. Furthermore, deals with major brands like NetJets, Mercedes-Benz, Lindt, Barilla, Jura, Sunrise, and Credit Suisse all add up to make US$90 million in earnings for Federer through sponsorships this term.
8. Canelo Álvarez (US$90 million)
On-field: US$85 million
Off-field: US$5 million
Canelo Álvarez is currently boxing’s top draw, having earned north of US$40 million 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, Álvarez has a lucrative partnership with Hennessy and owns a taco restaurant in his native Mexico, with plans to expand to California. Álvarez said last year that he would be launching a chain of gas stations, and his Canelo Promotions is also putting together a series of fights in Mexico in partnership with Matchroom Boxing and DAZN.
9 Tom Brady (US$83.9 million)
Sport: American football / Gridiron
On-field: US$31.9 million
Off-field: US$52 million
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 the age of 43.
Brady is learning some new tricks off the field. Autograph, the NFT platform Brady co-founded last year, raised US$170 million in a Series B funding round announced in January, and Religion of Sports, the production company he co-founded 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 also has a new clothing line, which cleverly named BRADY.
When he finally retires, Brady already has his next lucrative gig lined up: a commentator role with Fox Sports. According to the New York Post, this deal is set to pay him more than he has earned on the field across 22 seasons in the NFL: US$375 million over ten years.
10 Giannis Antetokounmpo (US$80.9 million)
On-field: US$39.9 million
Off-field: US$41 million
With Neymar having turned 30 in February, Giannis Antetokounmpo is the only member in this year’s top-ten list still in his 20s. The Milwaukee Bucks’ two-time MVP signed a five-year, US$228m contract in December 2020 — the biggest NBA contract by total value to date.
Off the court, Antetokounmpo was among the investors in timepiece resale platform WatchBox’s US$165m funding round announced in November. He has also signed a licensing deal with NFT platform NFTSTAR.com and has added WhatsApp and Google’s Pixel 6 phone to his endorsement stable. We will soon also be able to watch his life story in the biopic Rise, which is set to be released on Disney+ in June later this year.