Skip to main content

See also:

Which sport makes professional athletes the most money?

Which sport makes professional athletes the most money?
Which sport makes professional athletes the most money?
Photo by Ross Kinnaird/Getty Images

Do you know which sport makes professional athletes the most money? By that I mean the sport that has the highest number of players on the Forbes top 100 list of professional athletes who earn the most money.

The sports league with the highest average salary is the NBA, where the average player makes around $5 million in salary per year, but $5 million does not come close to getting a player on the list of top 100 athletes who earn the most money. There are a number of NBA players on the list, but basketball is not the sport that has the most number of players on the list.

The list includes money earned from salary, bonuses and endorsements. In some sports, like golf and tennis, most of the highest earning athletes make far more money from endorsements than from actual earnings on the court or golf course.

I've listed the sports where professional athletes make the most money in reverse order, from last to first. Earnings on the list are from June of 2012 to June of 2013.

Which sport makes professional athletes the most money?

10. Track - 1

Usain Bolt earned $24.2 million to take 40th place on the list of professional athletes who made the most money in 2013. Almost all of Usain Bolt's earnings, $24 out of $24.2 million, came from endorsements.

9. Cricket - 2

Two cricket players, Mahendra Singh Dhoni ($31.5 million for 16th place), and Sachin Tendulkar ($22 million for 51st place) make the list. Both cricket players made most of their money from endorsements.

8. Boxing - 3

Floyd Mayweather ($34 million tie 14th place), Manny Pacquiao ($34 million tie for 14th place), and Wladimir Klitschko ($24 million for 41st), all make the list. Most of the money boxer's make comes from prize money, though Pacquio ($8 million) and Klitschko ($5 million) make pretty good money from endorsements.

7. Golf - 5

Tiger Woods made the most money of any professional athlete on the list at $78.1 million ($65 million from endorsements). Phil Mickelson ($48.7 million for 7th), Rory McIlroy ($29.6 million for 21st), Ernie Els ($19.5 million for 78th), and Brandt Snedeker ($19 million for 81st) also make the list for five golfers.

At 44, Ernie Els is the oldest player on the entire list. Tiger Woods, Phil Mickelson, and Ernie Els made most of their money from endorsements, while Rory McIlroy was split about even from prize money and endorsements, and Brandt Snedeker made $17 million of his $19 million from prize money and bonuses.

6. Tennis - 6

Six tennis players, including the only three women on the list in Maria Sharapova ($29 million for 22nd), Serena Williams ($20.5 million for 68th), and Li Na ($18.2 million for 85th), make the list. The three male tennis players are Roger Federer ($71.5 for 2nd), Novak Djokovic ($26.9 million for 28th), and Rafael Nadal ($26.4 million for 30th).

All six tennis players made most of their money from endorsements. Roger Federer is an endorsement machine, as he made $65 million that way in 2013, the same amount as Tiger Woods.

5. Motor Racing - 8

Four NASCAR drivers, Dale Earnhardt, Jr., Jimmie Johnson, Tony Stewart, and Jeff Gordon, made the list. Three Formula 1 drivers, Fernando Alonso, Lewis Hamilton, and Sebastian Vettel, made the list. And motorcycle racer Valentino Rossi also made the list.

4. NFL - 13

Thirteen NFL players made the list, with Drew Brees ($51 million for 5th) topping the list for NFL players. The top six NFL earners, Brees, Aaron Rodgers, Tom Brady, Joe Flacco, Peyton Manning, and Tony Romo, are all quarterbacks.

Seven of the 13 NFL players on the list are quarterbacks. The highest earning non-quarterback is Calvin Johnson ($26.3 million for 31st place). While most of the quarterbacks earn decent endorsement money, all the NFL players made more of their money from salary and bonuses.

3. Soccer - 14

Some people might be surprised that 14 soccer players made the list, but soccer is big business, especially in Europe. The popular soccer players like Cristiano Rinaldi and Lionel Messi get paid big salaries and also get big endorsement money.

2. NBA - 21

Led by Kobe Bryant ($61.9 million for 3rd) and LeBron James ($59.8 million for 4th), there are 21 NBA basketball players on the list. That is the second most of any sport in the world.

The economics of the NBA favor players making lots of money. That's because there are far fewer NBA players than there are players in most of the other major sports. So it's much harder to be an NBA player than a NFL player or a soccer player, so the NBA players make more money at the top than all but one other sport.

1. Major League Baseball - 27

There are 27 major league baseball players who make the top 100 list of highest earning athletes. That is easily tops among all the sports, but the first baseball player to make the list is Alex Rodriguez ($30.3 million) at 18th (obviously A-Rod won't make the list in 2014).

The vast majority of money that baseball players make comes from their salaries. Most major league baseball players make very little from endorsements. Baseball players make big money because they play 162 games a season, with each game generating revenues to fuel their high salaries.