The World’s 10 Highest-Paid Athletes 2023

Forbes June 10, 2023

Lifestyle

The World’s 10 Highest-Paid Athletes 2023
The Middle Eastern money flowing into golf and soccer has sports stars making more than ever—an estimated $1.1 billion in one year for these ten, beating the all-time record set in 2018.
By Brett Knight, Forbes Staff
 

After a disappointing year and a half with Manchester United, Cristiano Ronaldo jumped to Saudi Arabia’s Al Nassr on a huge new contract in January, nearly doubling his annual playing salary to an estimated $75 million. Star golfers Phil Mickelson and Dustin Johnson made their move last year, leaving the PGA Tour for the Saudi-backed LIV Golf and tens of millions of dollars in upfront guarantees. Lionel Messi is reportedly considering a transfer to Saudi Arabia this summer and already works with the country as a tourism ambassador—a multimillion-dollar arrangement that led to a two-week suspension from his current club, Paris Saint-Germain, on Tuesday after he missed practice because of an unsanctioned promotional trip. PSG, of course, is also the home of Kylian Mbappé and has its own Gulf connection, with its ownership group a subsidiary of Qatar’s sovereign wealth fund.

Skyrocketing league media rights agreements and growing off-field opportunities have already sent athletes’ pay soaring in recent years, but Middle Eastern money is pouring oil on the fire. In all, the world’s ten highest-paid athletes collected an estimated $1.11 billion before taxes and agents’ fees over the last 12 months, up 12% from last year’s $990 million and 5% from the record of $1.06 billion set in 2018.

 
Ten Years Of The Top Ten

The world’s ten highest-paid athletes collectively made $1.11 billion before taxes and agents’ fees over the last 12 months, the highest total ever.

The 2018 total was tilted by an extraordinary outlier in boxer Floyd Mayweather Jr., who hit $285 million that year—the second-highest payday for an athlete in the 33-year history of the Forbes list. The 2023 top ten, however, is imposing from top to bottom. Ronaldo leads the way with an estimated haul of $136 million, including $46 million from his playing salary and bonuses and $90 million from endorsements, appearances, licensing income and other business endeavors. Mbappé, who at age 24 comes in at No. 3 with $120 million, and Johnson, who lands at No. 6 with $107 million, make eye-popping debuts in the top ten.

Those three are part of a group of eight athletes who each earned more than $100 million over the last 12 months, twice as many as in any previous year. Ronaldo, Messi ($130 million) and LeBron James ($119.5 million) have all reached that threshold before, but the other five—Mbappé and Johnson, plus boxing champion Canelo Álvarez ($110 million), Mickelson ($106 million) and NBA sharpshooter Stephen Curry ($100.4 million)—earned nine figures for the first time. Only seven other sports stars have ever joined this exclusive club.

Tennis ace Roger Federer—No. 9 on this year’s earnings list—is one of them, and he didn’t miss the milestone by much in 2023, either, with an estimated $95.1 million, almost all of it coming off the court. His total would have made him the world’s highest-paid athlete as recently as 2017, when Ronaldo led the list with $93 million. Kevin Durant rounds out the 2023 top ten with $89.1 million, pushing the cutoff up 10% from 2022’s record $80.9 million.

The biggest surprise of 2023 may be the inclusion of the two golfers. Mickelson is 52 and, with the exception of a magical run at the Masters last month, no longer resembles the player who cracked the earnings top ten for 11 straight years, from 2006 to 2016. (He ranked 31st on last year’s list with $45.3 million.) Johnson, meanwhile, missed the earnings top 50 last year and has seen his off-course pay dry up to an estimated $5 million, from an estimated $29 million in 2022, as sponsors treat LIV Golf warily.

 
Gallery: The World’s 10 Highest-Paid Athletes 2023

The upstart LIV tour has been able to offer bonuses that more than make up the difference, however. Forbes estimates that Mickelson received a guarantee of $200 million to sign with the tour, and Johnson $125 million, half of which they are believed to have received upfront.

With LIV’s seemingly infinite budget thanks to support from Saudi Arabia’s Public Investment Fund—and its $620 billion in assets under management—the paychecks should keep coming.

#1 • $136 million
Cristiano Ronaldo
On-Field: $46 million | Off-Field: $90 million | Nationality: Portugal | Sport: Soccer | Age: 38

Ronaldo parted ways with Manchester United in November and joined Saudi Arabia’s Al Nassr in January, ratcheting up his annual playing salary to an estimated $75 million and generating additional marketing opportunities in his new home. (Forbes’ on-field estimate blends together his two contracts for this season and accounts for his brief unemployment.) Rumors are swirling that he might try to head back to Europe this summer, but in the meantime, the pay bump has him atop the athlete earnings list for the first time since 2017, and the third time overall, while setting an all-time high for a soccer player with his $136 million total. Brands can’t resist Ronaldo and his massive fan base—850 million followers across Facebook, Instagram and Twitter, more than any other athlete in the world. Binance, a cryptocurrency exchange, is among the latest additions to his sponsor stable, helping push his off-field total to an estimated $90 million over the last 12 months. Only three athletes in the history of Forbes’ tracking have beaten that figure in a year: Roger Federer, Tiger Woods and Conor McGregor (who made an estimated $158 million outside the UFC’s octagon in 2021, mostly from the sale of his whiskey brand, Proper No. Twelve).


#2 • $130 million

Lionel Messi
On-Field: $65 million | Off-Field: $65 million | Nationality: Argentina | Sport: Soccer | Age: 35

Messi’s future is a matter of much speculation, with rumors flying that he could return to Barcelona, or join Ronaldo in Saudi Arabia, or even land in MLS with Inter Miami. His bank account should be safe regardless. His earnings total matches his big number from the last two editions of the list, and he has a long list of lucrative endorsements, including Adidas, Budweiser and PepsiCo. His deal with Socios, a blockchain-based fan platform, alone pays him an estimated $20 million a year, and the opportunities should keep coming after he led Argentina to a World Cup victory in December. He also launched an investment firm called Play Time in October.


#3 • $120 million

Kylian Mbappé
On-Field: $100 million | Off-Field: $20 million | Nationality: France | Sport: Soccer | Age: 24

No. 35 on the earnings list last year, Mbappé makes his top ten debut and is the only member still under 30. He has the highest playing salary in all of soccer, which looks justified after he fell one win shy of a second straight World Cup title with France in 2022 and finished just behind his Paris Saint-Germain teammate Lionel Messi for the Best FIFA Men’s Player Award. In June, he became the first player ambassador for Sorare, a cryptocurrency-based fantasy game, and he exerted his growing influence later that summer in a dispute with the French Football Federation. After Mbappé refused to participate in a photo shoot with the French national team—reportedly objecting to endorsing some of the brands under contract with the squad—the federation quickly announced it would work to revise its agreement on players’ image rights.


#4 • $119.5 million

LeBron James
On-Field: $44.5 million | Off-Field: $75 million | Nationality: U.S. | Sport: Basketball | Age: 38

Today’s top athletes are also successful founders and investors, and perhaps no one embodies that entrepreneurial spirit better than James, who became the first active athlete to be certified a billionaire by Forbes in June. On top of his impressive endorsement portfolio, the Los Angeles Lakers forward is behind sports nutrition company Ladder and the SpringHill Company, which develops and produces TV and other entertainment content, and he was a producer on its 2023 film House Party, which was set at his mansion. He also has a stake in Fenway Sports Group—owner of the Boston Red Sox, Liverpool FC and the Pittsburgh Penguins—and he recently invested in a Major League Pickleball team while proclaiming his desire to someday own an NBA expansion team in Las Vegas. James was an early backer of Lobos 1707 tequila and over the last year has invested in Canyon Bicycles, climate-conscious dairy company Neutral Foods and sports apparel brand Mitchell & Ness.


#5 • $110 million

Canelo Álvarez
On-Field: $100 million | Off-Field: $10 million | Nationality: Mexico | Sport: Boxing | Age: 32

Álvarez collects tens of millions of dollars every time he steps in the ring, scoring big with blockbuster fights against Dmitry Bivol and Gennadiy Golovkin over the last 12 months. (The Forbes list runs through May 1, meaning the upcoming payday from his May 6 bout with John Ryder is not included here.) Álvarez has a relatively slim list of traditional endorsements for an athlete of his stature, partnering with Hennessy and Michelob Ultra, but he signed with Excel Sports Management in September to build out his marketing deals, and he is active as an entrepreneur. The boxer is behind sports drink maker Yaoca, fitness app I Can and gas station chain Canelo Energy, and he has his own clothing line and branded credit card. In September, he launched VMC, a canned cocktail brand.


#6 • $107 million

Dustin Johnson
On-Field: $102 million | Off-Field: $5 million | Nationality: U.S. | Sport: Golf | Age: 38

Johnson was the first star to jump to LIV Golf, last May, and he finished 2022 with a tour-best $35.6 million in prize money, including $18 million for winning the season-long individual championship. The move may have cost him sponsors, including Royal Bank of Canada, but it also made him the biggest gainer of the year: He didn’t even make the list of 2022’s 50 highest-paid athletes. Now he is focusing on building the brand of 4Aces GC, the LIV team he captains and co-owns, whose logo has adorned his shirt at recent tournaments in place of Adidas’. The guaranteed cash from LIV’s no-cut format helps, too—he has racked up $3.3 million across five LIV events in 2023.


#7 • $106 million

Phil Mickelson
On-Field: $104 million | Off-Field: $2 million | Nationality: U.S. | Sport: Golf | Age: 52

Mickelson, who surpassed $1 billion in career pre-tax earnings last year, has shed sponsors since joining LIV Golf, but he is staying busy off the course. He is a cofounder of For Wellness, which makes coffee supplements, and he was among the investors who recently bought a large plot of land outside Phoenix. Mickelson gave his new tour a performance to be proud of at the Masters last month, posting a final-round 65 to finish in a tie for second with his LIV Golf mate Brooks Koepka. The result came with a $1.6 million check.


#8 • $100.4 million

Stephen Curry
On-Field: $48.4 million | Off-Field: $52 million | Nationality: U.S. | Sport: Basketball | Age: 35

Fresh off his fourth NBA championship last June, Curry has his first year topping $100 million. His $48.1 million salary was the NBA’s highest this season, and he’ll become the league’s first $50 million man in 2023-24, when he is set to make $51.9 million. The Golden State Warriors guard lost a major sponsor when FTX collapsed, and he has since been swept into a lawsuit accusing its celebrity endorsers of misleading customers in ads promoting the cryptocurrency exchange. But he has filled that void and then some. In March, he signed a long-term extension with Under Armour that will extend into his retirement from basketball, and he has a new partnership with Chase Bank. His multimedia company Unanimous Media is among the producers of a documentary about him that is slated to hit Apple TV+ in July, and he is set to launch a graphic novel series next year. He also recently invested in VR platform Golf+ and TMRW Sports, the startup founded by Tiger Woods and Rory McIlroy that is aiming to create a tech-infused golf league.


#9 • $95.1 million

Roger Federer
On-Field: $0.1 million | Off-Field: $95 million | Nationality: Switzerland | Sport: Tennis | Age: 41

Federer announced his retirement from competitive tennis in September and hung up his racket after playing one final match alongside Rafael Nadal at the Laver Cup, the international team tournament he helped create in 2017. His list of more than a dozen long-term partners remains intact as he begins his second act, and last week he announced a licensing agreement for his RF brand with eyewear maker Oliver Peoples. He also has a significant stake in the fast-growing Swiss shoe company On.


#10 • $89.1 million

Kevin Durant
On-Field: $44.1 million | Off-Field: $45 million | Nationality: U.S. | Sport: Basketball | Age: 34

Durant was traded from the Brooklyn Nets to the Phoenix Suns in February, but the wheeling and dealing hasn’t been confined to the court. Through his investing firm, 35V, he has picked up stakes in the Premier Lacrosse League, nutrition brand Happy Viking, League One Volleyball, women’s sports league network Athletes Unlimited, a Major League Pickleball team, Fanatics’ Mitchell & Ness label, digital creator business Goldenset Collective, sports software startup ScorePlay and Tiger Woods’ TMRW Sports just in the last ten months. He also has a growing media empire in Boardroom and one of the NBA’s most valuable sneaker deals with Nike, which was recently upgraded to a lifetime contract. Michael Jordan and LeBron James are the only other two NBA players who have received lifetime deals from the shoemaker.


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