It’s an open secret that the real money in sports isn’t in the team contract or the winnings, but in the endorsement deals. This is ever since Honus Wagner first signed on with Hillerich & Bradsby in 1905, putting his replicated signature on their own personal baseball bat, the Louisville Slugger. That kicked opened the floodgates, and now everyone is looking for that Nike or Adidas cash. Money’s money, regardless of your kicks.
But sponsorship beyond ‘active’ career earnings — the paycheck earned from showing up to the game or from winning the tournament — is a wildly variable thing. It could be as economically uninteresting as free equipment, or it could be mountains of cash. Actual mountains. Mountains you could rappel downward at a rapid pace.
We’re interested in the mountaineers, to sustain the analogy. We took a look into the biggest endorsees of the last year, across the globe, and with no sport unturned. Unfortunately, we had to quantify our list with money, rather than ‘awesomenitude,’ because science has not yet found an accurate metric for that. All endorsement info courtesy of opendorse.com.
10. Rafael Nadal, $21 million
Nadal knows what Nike cash looks like. As the current No. 1 tennis player in the world (and forever champion of clay court everything), Nadal signed with the athletic apparel behemoth in 2006 when he was winning his second French Open. He was second of eight, almost eight consecutive aside from 2009. Beyond Nike, Nadal’s got deals with Bacardi, Kia, and Quely.
Quely, according to the company website, is “a family-run company founded in 1853 that manufactures biscuits, baked goods, and chocolate-coated products.” Apparently, Nadal’s eaten them ever since he was a little kid. They are, by his admission, delicious. Here’s a video of him getting ready to promote the biscuits, presented without comment.
9. Cristiano Ronaldo, $21 million
One of the best players in the global phenomenon that is ‘proper’ football, Cristiano Ronaldo — the Real Madrid forward who’s still, somehow, not yet 30 — has struck deals with Coca-Cola, Emporio Armani (the fashion house’s accessory line), Castrol, the motor oil company, and, hilariously, KFC.
Ronaldo, who has been a professional footballer since 1997 and associated with professional football clubs since the age of 8, became the most expensive transfer in the history of the sport, massively impressive when you consider that the biggest football clubs play around with so much money a year it makes the MLB looks like a hard-capped rec league. Transfers are similar to trades in other sports, except that the contract is usually renegotiated as it’s happening, and players typically bought straight out, rather than exchanged for other players.
Ronaldo was transferred to Real Madrid, his current club, from Manchester United in 2009 for $131 million. He then signed a contract with Real Madrid for $144 million, with a $1.38 billion dollar buyout clause. That’s billion with a B. Football teams have oceans of money. Here’s Ronaldo promoting Castrol in a way that seems to have exactly nothing to do with motor oil.
8. Maria Sharapova, $23 million
The second tennis player on our list is also our first (and last) female athlete, the most endorsed woman in tennis, and the most endorsed female athlete on the planet last year — Maria Sharapova. Sharapova, who rose to national attention ten years ago as the 17-year-old wunderkind that defeated Serena Williams at Wimbledon. Since then, the tennis star has claimed 28 other titles — including four Grand Slam wins — and pocketed more than $27 million dollars in career winnings. It has also lead to a solid endorsement deal with Nike (it does, actually, endorse nearly everyone), Canon, Evian water, Head, and Porsche (it does not.)
After withdrawing from the U.S. Open in 2013 due to a shoulder injury, Sharapova returned to competititon in 2014, failing to accomplish much in the Australian Open, the BNP Parapas Open at Indian Wells, or the Sony Open in Miami. She is currently the 8th ranked woman (in singles) in the world. Here’s the highlights from her 2014 Brisbane semi-final match against Serena Williams.
7. Usain Bolt, $24 million
The fastest man on the face of the earth, Usain Bolt is not sponsored by Nike, instead getting his fastest footwear from Puma since 2003. With six Olympic Gold Medals, as well as world records in the 100 meter and the 200 meter dash, the appropriately named Bolt has run the 100 meter in 9.69 seconds. That’s crazy fast. That’s faster than everyone else, hence his title.
Aside from Puma, who he re-upped with last year, he also has deals with Gatoraide, Visa, and Comcast. Even world renowned runners watch Game of Thrones. Bolt, who is set to defend his titles, as well as his records for the third consecutive Olympics, is prepping for 2016 in Rio. He may even be running as we speak.
6. Mahendra Singh Dhoni, $28 million
That’s right — a cricket player pulls in more endorsements than Maria Sharapova, Cristiano Ronaldo, Rafael Nadal, and Usain Bolt. Weird, right? Cricket, usually brought up and referenced as a specifically British pastime couched in strange, incomprehensible rules and antiquity, is actually a thriving sport with real fans and everything.
As the captain of the Indian National Team, Dhoni is the face of one of the most successful cricket squads on the face of the earth. Since Dhoni took over the captaincy in 2007, the team has won one World Cup, one World20 tournament, one ICC Champions tournament, and one Asia Cup. Still not convinced? In 2012, Dhoni was found to be the 16th most marketable athlete in the world by SportsPro, a magazine that — you guessed it — measures the marketability of athletes around the globe. Dhoni has deals with Reebok, Pepsi, Brylcreem, and GE Money. Here’s a demonstration of his cricket skills — it’s closer to baseball than you might think.
5. Kobe Bryant, $34 million
Kobe Bryant’s biggest relationship has been with Nike. He’s a basketball player, and it’s foremost a basketball shoe company, so it only makes sense. After originally signing with Adidas in 1996, Kobe made the leap to Nike six years later — right before the Lakers shooting guard suffered a serious blow to his endorsements and image when he was charged with sexual assault in 2003. Although the case was dropped and an out-of-court settlement reached, Bryant had a difficult time obtaining sponsors — being dropped by Nutella and McDonalds, no longer being used in Sprite campaigns, and even being put on hold (but not dropped) by the shoe giant.
Ultimately, Bryant’s image would recover based on some savvy PR and serious on-the-court success, and he would once again be able to rake in tones of cash in endorsement money. In addition to his other sponsors, he also acts as a face for Smart Car and Lenovo. At this point in his career, even Kobe’s injuries are used as marketing ploys — check out this 2013 Nike commercial.
4. LeBron James, $42 million
With Kobe’s star fading gradually, LeBron James, the other basketball player on this list, is shining as brightly as he ever will. James, 29, is currently trying for the first NBA three-peat since Kobe and Shaq’s Lakers with his Miami Heat teammates, as well as a fifth MVP award, which would put him equal to Michael Jordan and Bill Russell. LeBron, who is signed to Nike (of course), also has deals in place with Poweraide, Samsung, and Baskin-Robbins.
As the biggest face in the NBA right now, everything that James does is under the most severe of microscopes, and a misstep can be catastrophic. Can you think of another player who inspired mass jersey burnings when he exercised his right to free agency? The Decision painted a black mark on LeBron that lasted for an entire season, helped Derrick Rose win the sole LeBron-less MVP since 2009, and allowed Kevin Durant to blossom as ‘the good guy counterweight’ in the eyes of the general sports fan. Now, though, everyone likes LeBron again, and the world is a better place for it. This Samsung ad would’ve been unthinkable in 2011, but it seems perfect in 2014.
3. Phil Mickelson, $44 million
Golf is not an inexpensive sport. It follows, then, that professional golfers would be raking in loads of endorsement cash — and that’s true. Take Phil Mickelson, 42, who won three Masters and one PGA and one Open. Through his endorsements with golf-friendly brands like Rolex, Callaway, and Barclays, Mickelson helps broadcast luxury in golfing to the millions of golfers worldwide who are not as good as Phil Mickelson but wish to be.
One of the more notable Mickelson endorsements is for the drug Enbrel. After announcing his battle with Psoriatic Arthritis in 2012, Mickelson partnered with the company in order to help endorse the drug he was using to help in the fight against the disease. Here’s one of those ads below.
2. Roger Federer, $65 million
The sun never sets on the Federer empire. While Federer’s career status seems more likely to fall as ‘one of the greatest’ rather than ‘The Best Ever’ that was predicted during his initial dominant run, he’s still bringing in money hand over fist from his deals with Nike, Moet & Chandon, Gillette, and Mercedes-Benz. We do not advise combining all of Federer’s endorsers products at once. It could be dangerous.
So far, Feds is 24-4 in 2014, and 5-2 against top 10 players. He is currently ranked fourth in singles. He also does a pretty fantastic William Tell impersonation.
1. Tiger Woods, $65 million
Of course, Tiger Woods tops it off. The most marketable athlete in one of the most affluent sports, Woods’s deals with Nike, Rolex, the Upper Deck trading card company, and Fuse Science (a sports nutrition firm) keep him rolling in cash even with his winnings are drying up. After a dismal pair of tournament showings to start of the 2014 season — one 80th place finish and one withdrawal — Woods is in danger of losing his No. 1 spot to the competition.
It’s unlikely that Woods will ever regain his form again, but I’m not sure he’s terribly worried about it. After cracking $1 billion in career earnings this year, it would be an impressive feat for Tiger to ever be hurting for money again. Actually, we might think it’d be fun to see him try.