For much of 2020, the world’s leading athletes were sidelined, working for reduced pay, playing to empty seats, or isolated in competitive bubbles designed to thwart a pandemic that has sapped billions of dollars from professional sports.
Still, for the best of the best, things couldn’t be better—at least in terms of their financial heft.
The ten highest-paid athletes in the world took home pretax gross earnings of $1.05 billion during the past 12 months, 28% more than last year’s top earners. The combined haul falls just a few million short of the $1.06 billion records set in 2018, the 12-month window in which boxer Floyd Mayweather earned $285 million, almost all of it from his 2017 pay-per-view fight with Conor McGregor.
This year, McGregor lands the winning punch, having leveraged his unmatched popularity in mixed martial arts to build a lucrative hustle outside UFC’s Octagon. The brash McGregor collected a total of $180 million over the last 12 months; most of that comes from the recent sale of his majority stake in whiskey brand Proper No. Twelve to Proximo Spirits for $150 million. It’s the 32-year-old’s first time at No. 1 and his second appearance in the top ten (he landed at No. 4 with $99 million in 2018 after the fight against Mayweather). McGregor clearly wants to put his money to work even beyond booze: He has floated the far-fetched notion of buying Manchester United, the Premier League’s most valuable team, in recent tweets.
Adding in his endorsements, McGregor made $158 million outside of his fighting career over the last 12 months, becoming only the third athlete, after Roger Federer and Tiger Woods, to earn more than $70 million off the field in a single year while still actively competing.
Three other superstars also surpassed $100 million in total earnings this year: soccer stars Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo and NFL quarterback Dak Prescott. Messi, whose off-the-pitch drama with FC Barcelona last summer was followed by media reports of the club’s dire financial state and the revelation that his contract was worth $674 million, sets a record for soccer players with his 2021 total of $130 million. Prescott, with $107.5 million, breaks the record for NFL players thanks to a $66 million signing bonus from the Dallas Cowboys. The four on this year’s list join only five other athletes—Federer, Mayweather, Neymar, Manny Pacquiao, and Woods—to have made more than $100 million in a single year. Previously, the most $100 million earners to appear on one list was three, accomplished in 2018, 2019, and 2020.
LeBron James was just shy of joining that elite group. The Los Angeles Lakers star took home $96.5 million, a record for NBA players. Another record set in 2021: the $75 million cutoffs to qualify for the top ten, beating the previous high-water mark of $65.4 million from 2019. This year’s top ten also made a combined $512 million off the field, crushing the previous record of $407.5 million from 2020.
That isn’t to say that Covid-19 didn’t take its toll on athletes’ earnings. Soccer players at many clubs, including Messi, had their wages cut. Major League Baseball salaries were prorated last year as the season was shortened to 60 games, from the usual 162. In the NBA, two shortened seasons and empty arenas prompted emergency changes to the league’s agreement with players. Adjustments to the escrow system, coupled with dramatically lower game-day revenue, mean player salaries will almost certainly end up reduced by 20% this season. That translates to a haircut of more than $7 million for both James and Kevin Durant, who lands at No. 10 this year with $75 million.
But with athletes making more than ever off the field, the drop is more nuisance than a disaster.
Forbes’ on-the-field earnings figures include all prize money, salaries, and bonuses earned between May 1, 2020, and May 1, 2021. In cases where players continue to be paid beyond May for a regular season that is typically concluded by then, as in the NBA and European soccer, we assign the full season of salary. We ignored the salary and bonuses that NBA players earned for playing in the league’s bubble last summer; the figures in this year’s list reflect only the 2020-21 NBA season, with a 20% cut from base salaries because of the league’s escrow adjustment.
Off-the-field earnings figures are an estimate of sponsorship deals, appearance fees, and licensing income for the 12 months through May 1, plus cash returns from any businesses operated by the athlete, based on conversations with industry insiders. We do not deduct taxes or agents’ fees. Our list includes athletes active at any point during our time frame.