One week ago, American soccer history was made with the stunning debut of Lionel Messi in the MLS (Major League Soccer). The international star came on the pitch in the second half of a match between Inter Miami and Cruz Azul. Messi, playing for Inter Miami (owned by another soccer legend, David Beckham), scored the game-winner off of a free-kick. Fans went wild and so did internet searches as many wondered just how much the superstar is making to play for a struggling team in a league struggling even more. Along with those searches, many asked, “Who are the richest athletes in the world?”

Iconic Players

The top five richest athletes in the world are made up of three golfers, a basketball player, and a soccer player. Interestingly enough, their earnings come more from the endorsement deals made along the way of illustrious careers, rather than just player contracts. Shoe deals, jerseys, drinks, and more helped these players rise above and beyond to capture a piece of the pie known as the richest athlete in the world.

Michael Jordan: The GOAT

Yes, apparently there are many GOATs running around professional athletics. Most recently, this title was attributed to Tom Brady (who, perhaps would have made this list if it wasn’t for a little cryptocurrency debacle).

However, if there is a GOAT among GOATs, that title goes to Jordan. Or, perhaps it should be said that the title actually belongs to Jordan’s mother. In the latest movie directed by Ben Affleck, “Air” depicts the story of the legendary contract negotiation that would forever change professional sports. The likeness of “His Airness” Jordan himself is only seen from the back in the movie, but front and center throughout is his mother, played by the incredible Viola Davis. Her business acumen, along with his late father’s, is put on display as they help negotiate a contract with Nike that would make Jordan the billionaire he is today. Apart from all the other endorsements, it is this contract that solidified his position as the richest athlete in the world worth a reported $3.3 billion.

Tiger Woods: The Tiger Slam

The only golfer in history to win all four major championships in a row (2000 – 2001 season), Tiger is famous for his play both on and off the course. Despite some of his troubles in later years, this professional golfer came out swinging from the very beginning and hit pay dirt. Tiger dominated the PGA and is worth an estimated $2.5 billion.

Arnold Palmer: More Than Just A Drink (But It Did Make Him Rich)

Continuing in the realm of golf (yes, golfers as shall be seen make quite a bit of money), Palmer comes in third behind Tiger with an estimated $1.7 billion. How did he earn his money? Through his signature drink, of course. A mix of lemonade and iced tea that is as refreshing as it is tasty, it was later licensed by Arizona Beverage Brand and still carries his image on cans today. Palmer made an estimated $875 million throughout his career via licensing deals, and only $3.6 million of that being prize money from tournaments.

Jack Nicklaus: The OG

Yes, in the arena of golf Jack Nicklaus outranks Tiger Woods in every category. He has won more major championships and runner-ups than Woods. However, Nicklaus still comes in fourth as one of the richest athletes in the world with an estimated, adjusted worth of $1.63 billion.

Interestingly enough, like Palmer, Nicklaus served as an ambassador for Arizona Beverage Company and made a good amount of his wealth through the company.

It seems that it pays to drink the tea.

Cristiano Ronaldo: CR7’s Billion Dollar Smile

Greater than the “La Pulga” (Little Flea) himself, Leonel Messi? It would seem so as Ronaldo is one of the most decorated footballers of all time. He has five Ballon d’Or awards (Messi does have seven), four European Golden Shoes (more than any other European player) and is known as one of football’s greatest forwards. He has an estimated worth of $1.58 billion (adjusted for inflation). Ronaldo has been smart with his money, investing in real estate as well as other ventures. He recently left European soccer to join the Saudi team Al-Nassr for a staggering $200 million-per-year deal.

Who Are The Next Richest Athletes In the World?

The appeal of professional sports and the money behind it paves the way for even greater victories by athletes, both on and off the pitch, field, track, or wherever it is they happen to compete. Who will be the next richest athlete in the world? Time will tell, and surely more will rise up to claim the title. But they will not do so without those who have gone before them and paved the way.