Being a superstar athlete remains a popular (although difficult) way to become a multi-millionaire. The money in the sports industry continues to explode upwards. Everything is constantly going up — television deals, ticket prices, prize money, and play contracts. This list will reveal which athletes raked in the most dough in 2021. It’s probably not a surprise that the list is filled with NBA, NFL, and international soccer stars. However, there are a couple of unlikely additions that we hope catch you off guard. Read on to find out who was the highest paid athletes in 2021.
How We Determined This List
Trying to figure out an athlete’s exact earnings is not an easy task. While there may be some public information about prize money earned or contracts signed, there are still plenty of unknowns. Some performance or signing bonuses are kept secret. In particular, NFL contracts are often over-reported for being worth much more than the player actually ends up being paid.
When it comes to endorsement deals, things get even murkier. It’s hard to pinpoint exactly how much LeBron James makes to be in Pepsi’s latest Super Bowl commercial (or whatever). We used educated guesses and standard market rates to try and determine the approximate amount of money these athletes made from their own private business dealings.
Athletes who were technically not active in 2021 did not make the list. That means retired stars like Michael Jordan, who still rakes in lots of cash, were not considered. We also ignored taxes and agent or management fees.
12. Naomi Osaka
Estimated Earnings: $60 million
Remarkably, Naomi Osaka is the only female athlete on this list. While the pay gap between male and female athletics continues to be an issue in many sports, Osaka has more than made the most of her breakthrough performances. She won back-to-back Grand Slam tournaments, claiming the 2020 U.S. Open and then the 2021 Australian Open. However, that only netted her about $5 million in prize money.
The rest of Osaka’s earnings came through endorsement deals and sponsorship opportunities. Her sponsor list is more than 20 companies long, and earned her more than $50 million. Notable companies that pay Osaka for advertising are Airbnb, All Nippon Airways, BodyArmor, GoDaddy, Levi Strauss, Hennessy, Louis Vitton, Mastercard, Nike, Nissan Motors, Panasonic, Tag Heuer, and Workday.
It certainly helped that Osaka is making huge waves in her native Japan. She is the first Japanese player to ever win a tennis Grand Slam event and the first Asian player to hold the No. 1 spot in the singles ranking. It’s no wonder that dozens of companies — especially those based in Asia — are anxious to secure her endorsement services.
11. Stephen Curry
Estimated Earnings: $74.5 million
Stephen Curry has it all. The two-time MVP has already won a trio of NBA championships and effectively changed the game of basketball forever. His precision as a long-range sharpshooter saw every team in the NBA try to increase their reliance on the three-point shot — some with more success than others. Curry’s performances earned him the NBA’s first $200 million contract, which will pay him almost $45 million in 2021 alone.
Outside of basketball, Curry spends his money wisely, in the hopes of further returns. He founded his own company, SC30, which manages investments, brand partnerships, and his charitable efforts. He also bucked the trend of superstar athletes having to pick between Nike or Adidas, by signing a major endorsement deal with Under Armor. Curry also dabbles in film and TV production via his Unanimous Media company and even owns a share of Oxigen, a beverage startup company.
Curry is also sponsored by Callaway Golf (he’s almost a scratch golfer), CarMax, Panini, and Rakuten.
10. Kevin Durant
Estimated Earnings: $75 million
After seeing championship success with the Golden State Warriors, Kevin Durant signed one of the richest contracts in NBA history. His four year, $160 million deal with the Brooklyn Nets sees him earn roughly $40 million every year, just to play basketball. Unfortunately, his debut in Brooklyn was delayed by a serious Achilles injury, and then further hampered by hamstring injury. However, Durant still led the Nets to an Eastern Conference Final appearance, barely losing in Game 7 overtime to the Milwaukee Bucks.
In August 2021, Durant signed another four-year contract extension with the Nets — this one worth $198 million. So expect him to continue being on this list for years to come. Off the court, Durant has multiple business interests to pad his income. He’s the co-founder of Thirty Five Ventures, an investment firm that spans multiple industries. The company produced the short film Two Distant Strangers, which won an Oscar.
Durant was also an early investor in Postmates, so he cashed out big time when the company was bought by Uber. Sticking with sports, Durant recently purchased a minority share in the Philadelphia Union, an MLS club.
9. Tom Brady
Estimated Earnings: $76 million
Tom Brady might be 44 years old now, but being the best quarterback in the history of the NFL still pays extremely well. Not to mention he can still get it done on the field, winning Super Bowl LV in early 2021 in his first season with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. His base contract, signing bonus, and any playoff bonuses amounted to roughly $45 million in 2021 earnings.
Off the field, Brady is also incredibly active. He has endorsement deals with eyewear company Christopher Coos, FTX (a cryptocurrency trading company), and sports apparel giant Fanatics. He also charges top-tier dollars for motivational speaking appearances. He’s not just pitching for other companies, though. Brady has his own TB12 wellness brand, recently launched a film production company, and has dabbled in NFTs — launching his own NFT platform called Autograph, for digital sports collectibles.
8. Lewis Hamilton
Estimated Earnings: $82 million
In a list dominated by mostly NBA, NFL, and international soccer stars, Lewis Hamilton is a refreshing inclusion. Driving for Mercedes in the ultra competitive Formula One racing circuit, Hamilton has won six of the last eight world driver championships. He narrowly missed out on titles in 2016 and 2021, finishing second both times. His incredible winning prowess on the track earn him a massive salary from Mercedes, which includes additional bonuses for winning races.
Hamilton has used his star power — bolstered by Netflix’s Formula One: Drive to Survive reality series — to secure a handful of high-paying sponsorship gigs. He has deals with Tommy Hilfiger, Monster Energy, and Puma. Hamilton also founded his own racing team in the Extreme E circuit — electric SUVs racing through “extreme” terrain.
7. Roger Federer
Estimated Earnings: $90 million
This is a bit of an oddity in our list. While Roger Federer is one history’s greatest tennis players, he barely played in 2021. A knee injury kept Federer from playing almost every major tournament last year, severely limiting his chances to win seven-figure prize money. Luckily, Federer has already parlayed his past career successes into lucrative endorsement and business opportunities.
Almost all of Federer’s estimated $90 million income last year came from sponsorship deals with brands like Rolex, Credit Suisse, Lindt, and Uniqlo. He’s also pitched products for Wilson Tennis, Mercedes-Benz, Gillette, and Barilla. Federer partners with Nike for his own clothing line, and he also owns a stake in On, a Swiss athletic apparel company. Not bad for a year where he didn’t even play.
6. Neymar Jr.
Estimated Earnings: $95 million
Brazil is one of the most soccer-crazed countries in the world, and Neymar Jr. is their marquee player. He made a big money move to Paris Saint-Germain back in 2017, where he continues to collect enormous wages. Depending on which reports you believe, Neymar’s annual pay just to play for PSG is worth between $50 and $70 million.
His off-field earnings are impressive too. After initially being a part of Nike’s Jordan brand, Neymar jumped ship to Puma in 2021 for a larger payday. He’s also appeared in ads for Red Bull, Beats, Mastercard, Electronic Arts, and Gillette. Neymar is a noted fan of video games, and even had his own likeness appear in Fortnite as a purchasable skin. We’re sure he got a cut of those revenues too.
5. LeBron James
Estimated Earnings: $96.5 million
LeBron James had a great year. Not only did his Los Angeles Lakers win the NBA championship in late 2020, he also signed a two-year, $85.6 million contract extension with the team. James is already one of the highest-paid NBA players (on an annual basis, at least), but his off-court earnings actually overshadow his playing contract.
James has a huge contract with Nike, along with a handful of high-profile endorsement deals. He’s been a pitchman for companies like AT&T, Beats, Blaze Pizza, GMC, Pepsi, Rimowa and even Walmart. He also owns a minority stake in Fenway Sports Group, the company that owns the Boston Red Sox and Liverpool FC. On top of all these other business interests, James became a Hollywood leading man in 2021 when he starred in Space Jam: A New Legacy.
4. Dak Prescott
Estimated Earnings: $107.5 million
Being the quarterback of America’s Team is certainly a lucrative gig. Dak Prescott, the next hope for the Dallas Cowboys to return to Super Bowl contention, got paid in a big way in 2021. He signed a four-year, $160 million contract to stay in Dallas until the end of 2024. However, it included a massive $66 million signing bonus, which propelled Prescott up into the top five of this list.
Close to $100 million of Prescott’s 2021 earnings coming from that contract (and most of that, from the signing bonus). However, there was still roughly $10 million more than he earned from endorsements and business opportunities. He’s been in ads for Sleep Number, 7/11, and Direct TV. He also announced a 20% investment in four Texas-based locations of the restaurant chain Walk-Ons.
3. Cristiano Ronaldo
Estimated Earnings: $120 million
Along with the next player on our list (no spoilers, but you can probably guess), Cristiano Ronaldo has been the most famous soccer player in the world for almost 20 years. While his highly successful run at Real Madrid came to an end in 2018, he’s still been earning top money at Juventus and — following a transfer in the summer of 2021 — back at Manchester United.
Off the field, Ronaldo collects a cushy paycheck by being one of Nike’s premier spokesmen. He also has the CR7 brand, which includes a clothing line and even a chain of hotels and gyms. You will also spot Ronaldo in ads for companies like Tag Heuer, Clear Haircare, Altice, DAZN, Herbalife, MTG, and Egyptian Steel. Forbes estimates that Ronaldo made more than $50 million in off-field earnings in 2021.
2. Lionel Messi
Estimated Earnings: $130 million
Lionel Messi has been arguably the greatest soccer player alive for close to two decades now. In fact, there’s a reasonable argument he might be the best of all-time. That kind of clout comes with big paydays. Leaked documents from 2021 showed that Barcelona — the only team Messi had ever played for — was paying him far more than anyone realized.
In fact, Messi’s massive wages were a big part of Barcelona’s growing financial issues. Those issues came to a head when Barcelona couldn’t afford to re-sign the club legend in 2021, seeing Messi leave Spain entirely and sign a big-money deal with Paris Saint-Germain in France.
While most of Messi’s income comes from his on-field exploits, he also makes a tidy sum off the pitch. He has a major endorsement deal with Adidas and his own clothing line. He’s also appeared in ads for Gatorade, Pepsi, Budweiser, Lays potato chips, and a score of lesser-known or international brands.
1. Conor McGregor
Estimated Earnings: $180 million
The days of Conor McGregor being a top-tier prizefighter appear to be over. He fought twice in 2021, though, suffering a pair of UFC losses to Dustin Poirier. Despite his waning skills in the cage, McGregor remains a top PPV draw. Those two bouts saw him earn somewhere close to $25 million. While those UFC paydays are nothing to sneeze at, there’s a big gap between $25 million and McGregor’s estimated $180 million total income. So where does the rest come from?
McGregor has multiple business interests. The most obvious one is his personal whiskey brand, Proper No. Twelve. He sold off a majority share of the company in 2021, accounting for the bulk of his earnings. He also has a stake in DraftKings, the daily fantasy sports company. There’s also his MacLife website, a clothing and lifestyle brand Roots of Fight, and even an investment in video game publishing.
McGregor may be a huge, polarizing personality — fans either love him or love to hate him. Regardless, the famed Irishman certainly knows how to turn his fighting dollars into larger investments.