Top Athletes Flourished While Leagues Lost Money

    • Conor McGregor, Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo, and Dak Prescott all made over $100M in the last 12 months, despite the pandemic.
    • Top athletes combined salaries, winnings, sponsorships, and business ventures to have a banner year.

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Major U.S. sports leagues took a combined $14.1 billion revenue hit in 2020, but times have never been better for athletes with towering personal brands.

Four individual athletes earned more than $100 million in the past year, per Forbes’ 2021 tabulation. Endorsement deals, business ventures, and player salaries were factored into earnings estimates. LeBron James fell just short of the 9-figure club at $96.5 million.

At the top of the list, Conor McGregor earned $180 million, primarily from the sale of his whiskey brand, Proper No. 12. He wasn’t the only one to gain more from his business ventures than his day job.

  • Kevin Durant (10th, $75 million), like James, had his salary contained by the NBA salary cap and league-wide pay cuts as a result of the NBA’s $880 million drop in revenue from 2019 to 2020. Durant cashed in from his early investments in Postmates, which Uber acquired last July, and Coinbase, which went public in April. 
  • Roger Federer (7th) showed the power of his brand. Injuries kept him off the court, but he still brought in $90 million from deals with Rolex, Credit Suisse, Uniqlo, and others.

Soccer stars Lionel Messi (2nd, $130 million), Cristiano Ronaldo (3rd, $120 million), and Neymar (6th, $95 million) earned most of their cash from salaries, despite Europe’s big soccer leagues losing an estimated $7.3 billion in revenue from the pandemic.

Just as notable were the absences: No women made the top 10, nor did any baseball or hockey players, highlighting the challenges those sports have had in marketing their biggest stars.