Even the most fringe of professional athletes have the potential to earn some good money—a golfer or tennis player could catch fire in a tournament and take home the grand prize worth millions or a basketball or football player could play well enough for a stretch and score a huge contract.
However, to truly be among the elite earners, an athlete needs the perfect storm of high-level talent, longevity, business acumen, and the right opportunities.
These 12 athletes have all reached that pinnacle of elite earning, each amassing more than $1 billion in total earnings. Note: All of these athlete earnings are adjusted for inflation, per Lev Akabas of Sportico.
Michael Jordan — $2.62 billion
Michael Jordan earns top billing, largely due to his Jordan Brand apparel line and massive sponsorship deals with companies like Nike, Hanes, and Wheaties. In fact, Jordan is among the bottom of this list in terms of actual salary. Throughout the course of his NBA career, he earned about $93.285 million in salary. For comparison, 54 active NBA players currently have contracts worth more than what Jordan earned during his entire career. Yet even if you don't adjust for inflation, Jordan has made north of $2 billion.
Tiger Woods — $2.1 billion
Tiger Woods has had a rough few years, but he's still perhaps the most popular golfer in the world. He's won 82 PGA Tour events (tied for first), 15 men's major championships (second all-time), and has achieved several golf records. Most recently, he was in a car accident in February 2021 and didn't compete in an event the rest of the year. But he's still looking to take aim at the major championships record, held by another player on this list. In the meantime, Woods continues to have major endorsement partnerships with companies like Nike and EA Sports.
Arnold Palmer — $1.5 billion
As far as we know, Arnold Palmer is the only person on this list who's also known as a refreshing beverage. While Palmer enjoyed sipping on a lemonade and iced tea, he was a darn good golfer in his prime, too. He racked up 62 PGA Tour victories and seven men's major championships during a career that spanned more than 50 years, from 1954 to 2006. Palmer died in 2016, but his legacy still lives on.
Jack Nicklaus — $1.38 billion
Jack Nicklaus is the guy Tiger Woods is trying to catch—Nicklaus's 18 major championships is the most by any golfer in history. He's also put together 117 career professional wins (73 on the PGA Tour) and is still an active participant on the senior circuit. Born in 1940 and beginning his career in 1961, Palmer has now spent 75% of his life as a pro golfer.
Cristiano Ronaldo — $1.24 billion
When both players were at their peak, the "who's better: Cristiano Ronaldo or Lionel Messi" question was one of the most hotly debated arguments you could find. At least financially, Ronaldo is the victor, both in terms of real career earnings and earnings adjusted for inflation. He's had an incredible career as a spokesperson, from his own mobile game and social networking app to deals with apparel and perfume companies. He's been great on the field, too, winning five Ballon d'Or awards and holding records for most appearances, goals, and assists in Champions League play.
Floyd Mayweather, Jr. — $1.2 billion
Floyd Mayweather and Cristiano Ronaldo were the two highest-earning athletes of the 2010s. Mayweather has retired from boxing on multiple occasions, currently sporting a 50-0 record, with 27 victories coming via knockout. However, he still comes out to participate in the occasional event—especially if the price is right. His last fight was in 2017 against Conor McGregor; Mayweather reportedly earned more than $300 million for that fight alone.
LeBron James — $1.17 billion
If you asked just about any (unbiased) basketball fan who the greatest NBA player of all time is, you'll likely run into a spirited discussion between Michael Jordan and LeBron James. Jordan has won more titles and MVP awards; James has reached the Finals more frequently and has scored more career points. Both have starred in Space Jam films, which is the real winning move. And both have built massive business empires. For James, that includes a lifetime endorsement deal with Nike, his own media company, and investments in several companies and even professional sports teams like Manchester United.
Lionel Messi — $1.14 billion
Though Ronaldo has earned a bit more during his career, Messi's earnings are nothing to sneeze at, either. Messi is also two years younger and has already won one more Ballon d'Or award, plus, he's scored some cool sponsorship deals of his own. He's the face of the EA Sports FIFA franchise (appearing on four covers of the video game) and has had deals with Adidas and Pepsi for several years.
Michael Schumacher — $1.13 billion
Our first racer on the list, Michael Schumacher held the records for the most wins (91), pole positions (68), and podium finishes (155) by the time he retired in 2012. Though those records have since been broken by Lewis Hamilton, Schumacher's name is synonymous with Formula One racing. He helped develop the lightweight carbon helmet, has a role in the movie Cars, and has donated more than $1.7 million to UNESCO. In December of 2013, Schumacher was in a serious ski accident that left him paralyzed, unable to speak, and with memory loss. Though he's made progress in his recovery, he was still struggling to communicate, according to a source close to him.
Roger Federer — $1.12 billion
Roger Federer is certainly no slouch on the tennis court. He's won 20 men's singles titles and has been the world's No. 1 player (per the ATP rankings) a total of 310 weeks, including 237 weeks in a row—a span of more than four and a half years! But Federer's business savvy has gotten him onto this list. The London School of Marketing named him the most marketable person in sports, and he has global partnerships or endorsement deals with Mercedes-Benz, Uniqlo, Credit Suisse, Gillette, and more.
Phil Mickelson — $1.08 billion
Nicknamed "Lefty," Phil Mickelson has spent more than 700 weeks in the top ten of the Official World Golf Ranking. He's won 45 PGA Tour events and six majors and counts Callaway Golf, KPMG, and ExxonMobil among his biggest sponsors. In May 2021, Mickelson won the PGA Championship to become the oldest major champion at age 50.
David Beckham — $1.05 billion
We're not sure if "Bend it like Beckham" also has a double meaning of stretching your earnings to a billion dollars, but it applies here. Beckham made plenty of money on the pitch, though he signed a lifetime endorsement deal with Adidas in 2003 worth $160 million. He's co-owner of both Inter Miami CF and Salford City, and is also a fashion icon alongside his wife, former Spice Girl Victoria Beckham. Together, the pair have partnered with clothing designers, fashion magazines, and cosmetic companies.