Highest paid athletes
 

For the first time in history, the ten sports stars on Forbes’ annual ranking earned more than $100 million each—a record-breaking $1.38 billion combined.

In June 2022, days after LIV Golf hosted its inaugural event in London, Jon Rahm addressed the media at the U.S. Open and was asked for his thoughts on the upstart Saudi-backed tour. While seeing how LIV could appeal to some players and fans, he told reporters that the format wasn’t for him. And even though money had been a key factor for many defectors, Rahm added that the astronomical sums LIV was offering players wouldn’t convince him to leave the PGA Tour.

“Will our lifestyle change if I got $400 million? No, it will not change one bit,” the 29-year-old Spaniard said. “Truth be told, I could retire right now with what I’ve made and live a very happy life and not play golf again. I’ve never really played the game of golf for monetary reasons. I play for the love of the game, and I want to play against the best in the world. I’ve always been interested in history and legacy, and right now the PGA Tour has that.”

What a difference two years makes. In December, Rahm appeared in a LIV-branded letterman jacket on Fox News, confirming he had become the latest star golfer to leave the PGA Tour. With that move came a giant payday that is believed to be the largest in LIV’s brief history. Rahm reportedly received a guarantee of $350 million, half of which, Forbes estimates, he received upfront.

That enormous LIV check was good enough to catapult Rahm in the rankings of the world’s 50 highest-paid athletes, from 28th in 2023 to No. 2 this year. The two-time Major winner earned an estimated $218 million over the past 12 months by Forbes’ count, the highest total ever by a golfer and second-only on the list to Cristiano Ronaldo ($260 million), which is no coincidence.

 

A Decade of The Top Ten

The world’s ten highest-paid athletes collectively earned $1.38 billion before taxes and agents’ fees over the last 12 months, the highest total ever.

LIV Golf is backed by the $925 billion (assets) Public Investment Fund (PIF) of Saudi Arabia, which also owns several teams in the Kingdom’s domestic soccer league, including Ronaldo’s current club, Al Nassr. Global soccer stars Neymar ($108 million) and Karim Benzema ($106 million) also play for PIF-owned Saudi Pro League teams, while Lionel Messi ($135 million) has endorsed the country as a tourism ambassador.

The numbers have become so outrageously high that NBA stars LeBron James ($128.4 million) and Giannis Antetokounmpo ($111 million) have even joked on social media about securing their own Saudi deals—and it’s easy to see why. Each of the ten highest-paid athletes of 2024 earned more than $100 million for the first time in the history of Forbes’ data, surpassing the previous high of eight athletes in 2023. Combined, the world’s ten highest-paid athletes earned an estimated $1.38 billion before taxes and agents’ fees over the last 12 months, smashing last year’s record mark of $1.11 billion by 24%.

But that’s not the only factor supersizing those paychecks. Exploding media rights fees and increasingly lucrative opportunities off the field have greatly impacted earnings for years. James, Antetokounmpo and Stephen Curry have each signed outsized NBA contracts and developed endorsement portfolios that earn them more than $50 million annually. With an estimated $80 million coming from his off-the-court endeavors, LeBron is the most successful pitchman among the world’s highest-paid athletes.

Baltimore Ravens quarterback Lamar Jackson rounds out the top ten at $100.5 million, although he’s significantly less active off-the-field. Instead, Jackson joins the sports world’s best earners thanks to the five-year, $260 million extension he signed in May. It briefly reigned as the biggest contract in NFL history by average annual value, only to be broken by a pair of signal callers further down the list, Justin Herbert and later Joe Burrow.

 

The World’s 10 Highest-Paid Athletes

#1 • $260M

Cristiano Ronaldo

On-Field: $200 million | Off-Field: $60 million | Nationality: Portugal | Sport: Soccer | Age: 39

Ronaldo’s estimated total earnings of $260 million, an all-time high for a soccer player, makes him the world’s highest-paid athlete for the fourth time in his career. That’s largely thanks to his massive $200 million annual salary with Al Nassr, which has seemingly been a worthy investment for the Saudi Pro League club. The 39-year-old forward leads the league with 33 goals scored and earned Player of the Month honors in August, September, December and March. He’s also still enormously valuable to sponsors as well, frequently plugging his partners—including crypto exchange Binance and fitness app Erakulis—to his 629 million Instagram followers, in addition to other deals with Nike, Herbalife, Clear Haircare and, more recently, Whoop. Ronaldo is also owed a $10.5 million check from his former club, Juventus, after an arbitrator ruled the Serie A team was still on the hook for outstanding wages dating back to a Covid-19 pandemic pay cut.

 

#2 • $218M

Jon Rahm

On-Field: $198 million | Off-Field: $20 million | Nationality: Spain | Sport: Golf | Age: 29

Rahm’s decision to join LIV Golf last December has been enormously lucrative, even outside the reported $350 million guarantee he received to join the Saudi-backed tour. While the Spaniard has yet to win a LIV event, he’s already earned $6.6 million from seven tournaments in 2024, which would place him sixth on the PGA Tour’s official money list this season (as of May 13). Rahm was also tapped to captain LIV’s 13th team, Legion XIII, a title that has traditionally come with a 25% equity stake in the league’s franchises.

 

#3 • $135M

Lionel Messi

On-Field: $65 million | Off-Field: $70 million | Nationality: Argentina | Sport: Soccer | Age: 36

Messi’s arrival in Miami has been nothing short of a revelation for his new club—Inter Miami has juiced ticket sales, staged a groundbreaking global preseason tour and added a slew of lucrative sponsorships, including a partnership with Royal Caribbean, the most valuable jersey deal in MLS history. Forbes estimates Inter Miami is now the second-most valuable franchise in Major League Soccer at $1.03 billion, and the club expects to grow revenues from $118 million in 2023 to more than $200 million this year. Meanwhile, Messi has been performing as advertised. The eight-time Ballon d’Or winner scored 10 goals in his first nine matches this season and recently became the first MLS player to record five assists in a single game. Off the field, Messi added Lowe’s to a group of sponsors that includes Adidas, Apple and Konami. He’s also reportedly partnering with the maker of White Claw Hard Seltzer to launch his own sports drink this summer.

 

 

#4 • $128.2M

LeBron James

On-Field: $48.2 million | Off-Field: $80 million | Nationality: United States | Sport: Basketball | Age: 39

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James’ future with the Los Angeles Lakers is the subject of great speculation after another disappointing playoff exit. The four-time MVP has a $51.4 million player option with the team, according to Spotrac, but has also expressed a desire to play with his eldest son, Bronny, who declared for the NBA Draft while maintaining his college eligibility. In the meantime, James will make what is likely his final Olympic appearance as Team USA aims to win gold in Paris this summer. And as he contemplates life after the NBA, James added a partnership with DraftKings in January and joined a slew of celebrities investing in the golf world’s new commercial venture, PGA Tour Enterprises.

 

#5 • $111M

Giannis Antetokounmpo

On-Field: $46 million | Off-Field: $65 million | Nationality: Greece | Sport: Basketball | Age: 29

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Antetokounmpo is on the mend after a calf injury ended what was a tumultuous campaign for the Milwaukee Bucks star, undergoing a midseason coaching change and helplessly watching his team suffer a first-round playoff exit. Off the court, his star continues to rise. Antetokounmpo launched a production company in January, added a partnership with Pepsi’s Starry soft drink in February and has his sixth signature sneaker with Nike on the way later this year.

 

#6 • $110M

Kylian Mbappé

On-Field: $90 million | Off-Field: $20 million | Nationality: France | Sport: Soccer | Age: 25

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Mbappé’s impending departure from Paris Saint-Germain will put an end to PSG’s $1.3 billion super-team experiment, as the 25-year-old French superstar is widely expected fulfill his childhood dream by joining Spanish powerhouse Real Madrid next season. Despite collecting six of a possible seven Ligue 1 titles during his tenure, PSG failed to win a Champions League with Mbappé on the roster. Win or lose, he remains very active outside of soccer. Mbappé formed a production company in 2022, which partnered with the NBA, and has deals with Nike, Hublot and Oakley, among others.

 

#7 • $108M

Neymar

On-Field: $80 million | Off-Field: $28 million | Nationality: Brazil | Sport: Soccer | Age: 32

To entice him to join Saudi Arabian soccer Al Hilal last year, Neymar reportedly received a pay package filled with perks, including access to a private jet, a fleet of luxury cars and a fully staffed mansion. But his tenure got off to an inauspicious start. In October, while playing in a World Cup qualifying match, the Brazilian star tore his ACL, ending his club season with just five matches played between the Saudi Pro League and AFC Champions League. That hasn’t stopped Neymar from signing new endorsement deals. Since the injury, he has added Skims to his portfolio, launched a new soccer boot with Puma and partnered with Fun Brands to develop his own line of cocktails and mocktails.

 

#8 • $106M

Karim Benzema

On-Field: $100 million | Off-Field: $6 million | Nationality: France | Sport: Soccer | Age: 36

Benzema, who won the Ballon d’Or in 2022, left Real Madrid as a free agent last year and joined Saudi Pro League team Al Ittihad. “As a Muslim, when you are in Mecca you feel at peace,” he said in an official league interview, offering a deeply personal look at why he made the move. His first season with Al Ittihad has been plagued by health issues, however, which is why he’s returned to Real Madrid’s clinic under the supervision of his former doctor in Spain, according to ESPN.

 

 

#9 • $102M

Stephen Curry

On-Field: $52 million | Off-Field: $50 million | Nationality: United States | Sport: Basketball | Age: 36

Curry’s sharpshooting has continued into the later phases of his career, leading the NBA with 357 three-pointers this season and earning a place on Team USA’s Olympic roster this summer. He has also been a force off the court, signing a new deal with Under Armour last year that will run well into retirement with $75 million in stock vesting in equal installments between 2029 and 2034. The Curry Brand has now expanded beyond its namesake star, signing Sacramento Kings point guard De’Aaron Fox in October and South Carolina guard MiLaysia Fulwiley in November. Curry is also branching out in front of the camera, co-starring in an upcoming mockumentary that was ordered straight to series by Peacock.

 

#10 • $100.5M

Lamar Jackson

On-Field: $98.5 million | Off-Field: $2 million | Nationality: United States | Sport: Football | Age: 27

Lamar Jackson arrives in the top ten thanks to the $72.5 million signing bonus he received with his new Baltimore Ravens contract last year, which he negotiated as his own agent. The 27-year-old quarterback celebrated by earning his second NFL MVP award after leading the Ravens to a 13-4 record and an AFC Central division title. Off the field, Jackson works with Oakley and StatusPro, makers of the NFL Pro Era virtual reality video game. He also owns a series of businesses including a soul food restaurant, a production company, a record label and a clothing line called Era 8.

 

Methodology

Information about the methodology Forbes uses to compile the list, which captures income the athletes collected between May 1, 2023 and May 1, 2024, can be found here.

 

With additional reporting by Brett Knight.

 

Credit: forbes.com