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Michael Jordan Is the Highest-Paid Athlete Ever, With $2.62 Billion in Career Earnings

The retired NBA great is the highest-paid athlete of all time, with an estimated $2.62 billion in inflation-adjusted career earnings, according to an analysis by Sportico. His Airness tops a list of 12 billionaire athletes, which includes long-retired greats like Arnold Palmer and present-day stars such as Lionel Messi.

The most startling fact about Jordan’s career earnings, apart from the amount itself, is how little of it comes from his time on the court. Only six percent of what the 58-year-old has made comes from contracts he signed with the Chicago Bulls and Washington Wizards during his 15 years in the league. A big reason for this is how much the sports world has changed since Jordan’s rookie season in 1984. Although NBA players can make upwards of $45 million today, the highest-paid player back at the time was Magic Johnson, who was paid $2.5 million that season. Jordan’s salary during his first year in the NBA? $500,000.

Instead, the bulk of his earnings come from endorsements, licensing and memorabilia earnings. Although he hasn’t played in an NBA game since 2003, Jordan still has ongoing deals with Gatorade, Hanes, Upper Deck and, of course, Nike. His 37-year-relationship with the sneaker giant is the biggest reason he tops the list. In addition to having his own brand at the company, Air Jordan, he’ll also make $150 million in royalties this year.

Joining Jordan in Sportico’s top five are golfers Tiger Woods (who has made $2.1 billion), Palmer ($1.5 billion), Jack Nicklaus ($1.38 billion), and soccer star Cristiano Ronaldo ($1.24 billion). Rounding out the Billionaires Dozen are boxer Floyd Mayweather ($1.2 billion), basketball player LeBron James ($1.17 billion), Messi ($1.14 billion), F1 legend Michael Schumacher ($1.13 billion), tennis great Roger Federer ($1.12 billion), golfer Phil Mickelson ($1.08 billion) and retired soccer player David Beckham ($1.05 billion). You can read Sportico’s fascinating full analysis of the 25 highest-paid athletes of all time here.

If you’re looking for a lesson to take from the list, it’s pretty simple: Be one of the greatest to ever do something and you just might get paid.

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