25 Highest Paid Athletes of All Time

In this article, we will be taking a look at the 25 highest paid athletes of all time. To skip our detailed analysis, you can go directly to see the 10 highest paid athletes of all time.

Sports has been a big deal ever since civilization existed, with sportsmen held on a pedestal and revered throughout history. And while fame was a given to successful athletes, riches were much less certain, though in some cases, athletes were immensely rich. One of the most idolized athletes in ancient history was a Roman chariot racer Gaius Appuleius Diocles, who earned nearly 36 million sesterces in his career, which would be worth over $15 billion today and no athlete has come close to similar earnings since. There are several sports that are popular throughout the world, with football (or soccer for the U.S.) easily being the most popular sport in the world. The two biggest football stars in the world and perhaps history not to mention among the highest paid athletes of all-time, Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, are also the two most-followed people on Instagram, with a total of 940 million followers between the two. Other popular sports, with some whose popularity is mainly centered in the U.S., include golf, American football, basketball and baseball.

25 highest paid athletes of all time
25 highest paid athletes of all time

CristinaMuraca / Shutterstock.com

Before the 1980s, while some athletes were earning a solid salary, most actually had day jobs for stable income even if they were playing in front of tens of thousands of people. While massive players such as baseball legend Babe Ruth earned $80,000 per year in the 1930s, that only comes out to $1 million per year adjusted for inflation today, which even less coveted players in the top leagues would scoff at. This all changed when televisions became a common household item, extending the reach of sports to millions of people worldwide which led to lucrative broadcasting TV rights and earned athletes massive contracts. In 1984, the highest earning athlete in the world was Magic Johnson, who of course played for the NBA and earned $2.5 million a year. Meanwhile the highest salaries in MLB and the NFL were $2 million and $1.1 million respectively. Meanwhile, the English Premier League, the richest football league in the world by far, was paying its players an average of £50,000 per year only.

When TV rights deals exploded, so did the salaries of players. The English Premier League saw the Division 1 clubs break away from the old Football League to take advantage of TV rights from Sky, which is owned by Comcast Corporation (NASDAQ:CMCSA). Now, the league's accumulated TV rights deals are worth well over £3 billion per year and a potential TV audience of over 4.7 billion people which has enriched clubs within the league and allowed them to pay incredible amounts of money in terms of wages. While it seems more closed off to the working class, there are incredible stories in the Premier League such as Jamie Vardy, who was a factory worker initially and started playing for a club which paid him £30 per match. Later on, he played for Leicester City Football Club, and was the driving force behind the team winning the Premier League in what is considered the biggest sporting shock in history. Of course, Vardy earned millions along the way and is still playing for the same club.

Nowadays, athlete's earnings aren't just from their sports contracts as endorsements and sponsorships are a big part of their wealth. Major companies such as NIKE, Inc. (NYSE:NKE), Adidas and Under Armour, Inc. (NYSE:UA) all sponsor many athletes in addition to various other companies, while these athletes also advertise several different products, earning millions for being the face of different brands. The highest paid athletes of all-time earn hundreds of millions of dollars, with seven of them having earned over $1 billion unadjusted for inflation while 12 athletes have earned over $1 billion adjusted for inflation. But before we talk about the highest earning athletes of all-time, let's talk about the highest earning athletes in 2022.

Forbes carries out an annual ranking of the highest earning sports stars in the world, who earned over $130 million in the year of which $75 million were on-field while $55 million were earned from off-field endeavors. Lebron James came second in the list with $121 million though two-thirds of his income was from off-field endeavors. The top 10 alone earned $990 million in a single year which shows how earnings for athletes are continuing to increase and there is no indication that this will slow down, regardless of an emerging recession which is threatening the livelihoods of regular people. Even during the pandemic, while many players took pay cuts to ease burdens on their clubs as games were cancelled and they played to empty stadiums, it was no big deal for people who earned a few million dollars instead of several million dollars.

While it's easy to consider which athlete is earning the most right now, it is harder to determine the highest-earning athletes of all time. While Forbes has conducted research on this, this was last done in 2017 and in the ensuing 5 years, the list has changed significantly with current players earning a lot more. This is why we consulted research by Sportico which determined the highest-earning athletes of all time adjusted for inflation. So, let's take a look at the best of the best in the world of sports, not to mention the richest, starting with number 25:

25. Derek Jeter

Total earnings adjusted for inflation (in millions): $555

One of only two baseball players among the highest paid athletes of all time, Derek Jeter played for the New York Yankees for the entirety of his MLB career. He is also considered to be among the most heavily marketed athletes of his time, signing contracts with many companies including Ford Motor Company (NYSE:F) and Visa Inc. (NYSE:V).

24. Peyton Manning

Total earnings adjusted for inflation (in millions): $570

The highest earning NFL player of all time, Peyton Manning played in the NFL for 18 years and is considered to be among the best quarterbacks in history.

23. Oscar de la Hoya

Total earnings adjusted for inflation (in millions): $580

Oscar de la Hoya is a boxing promoter and a former professional boxer who has been integral to increasing the sport's popularity in the U.S. after it dwindled in the 1990s.

22. Jeff Gordon

Total earnings adjusted for inflation (in millions): $595

The highest earning stock car racing driver of all time, Jeff Gordon raced from 1993 to 2015 and has been considered integral in NASCAR acheiveing mainstream popularity.

21. Neymar

Total earnings adjusted for inflation (in millions): $580

Neymar is a Brazilian football player who was touted as one of the best prospects in the sport since he made his professional debut. While he didn't reach the heights that some may have expected, including failing to even reach a World Cup final with Brazil, he has been one of the most influential footballers in the past decade.

20. Lewis Hamilton

Total earnings adjusted for inflation (in millions): $620

Lewis Hamilton is the joint record holder of the most F1 championships in history, along with Michael Schumacher, and was only denied a record breaking eight championship because of some mind boggling racing decisions taken by the race director.

19. Kevin Durant

Total earnings adjusted for inflation (in millions): $625

Kevin Durant is one of several basketball players among the highest earning athletes of all time. He has two NBA championships and won the NBA MPV award once.

18. Manny Pacquiao

Total earnings adjusted for inflation (in millions): $630

Manny Pacquiao is one of the greatest boxers of all-time, being the only eight division champion in the sport's history.

17. Alex Rodriguez

Total earnings adjusted for inflation (in millions): $650

The highest earning baseball player of all time, Alex Rodriguez was one of the highly touted prospects when he entered the sport and he certainly delivered, being considered among the greatest sportsmen in baseball.

16. Mike Tyson

Total earnings adjusted for inflation (in millions): $775

One of the best and most popular boxers of all-time, Mike Tyson is as well-known for his antics inside of the ring as he is for his antics outside, which ended with him bankrupt despite earning close to $800 million.

15. Greg Norman

Total earnings adjusted for inflation (in millions): $815

Greg Norman is an Australian golfer who won 89 professional tournaments in his career.

14. Shaquille O'Neal

Total earnings adjusted for inflation (in millions): $870

Shaquille O'Neal is a four-time NBA champion and has used his influence and personality to become a brand himself, which has allowed him to have a successful life post his NBA triumphs.

13. Kobe Bryant

Total earnings adjusted for inflation (in millions): $930

Kobe Bryant tragically passed away in a helicopter crash in January 2020, but in his life, he was among the best players in basketball history, winning 5 NBA championships along the way.

12. David Beckham

Total earnings adjusted for inflation (in millions): $1,050

He does not generally make anyone's list of the greatest football players of all time, but Beckham used his looks and popular marriage with Spice Girl Victoria Beckham to carefully craft an image which has made him among the highest earning footballers in history.

11. Phil Mickelson

Total earnings adjusted for inflation (in millions): $1,080

Golf has a strong representation among the highest earning athletes of all time, and Phil Mickelson is no exception, who has won 45 PGA Tour events in his career. The majority of Mickelson's earnings come from endorsements which include Exxon Mobil Corporation (NYSE:XOM).

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Disclosure: None. 25 highest paid athletes of all time is originally published at Insider Monkey.