Lebron James entered the NBA in 2003 out of high school and within three years established himself as the most dominant force in the game. He’s racked up four MVP awards and 11 first-time All-NBA selections.
But it was not until the 2016-17 season that James had the NBA’s top salary. James signed a three-year, $100 million contract extension with the Cleveland Cavaliers in July after leading the club to their first NBA title in franchise history a month earlier.
His $31 million salary this season made him just the third NBA player after Michael Jordan and Kobe Bryant to earn $30 million. The salary bump pushed his total earnings, including endorsements and playoff bonuses, to $86.2 million.
James has become a global icon in a sport with massive worldwide appeal, but he still can’t quite match the earnings of the biggest star in the most popular sport on the planet. Real Madrid’s Cristiano Ronaldo banked $93 million over the past 12 months to retain the crown of the world’s highest-paid athlete for the second straight year. James moves up one spot to second this year with his career-high haul.
Ronaldo had 12 months for the ages. He was named FIFA’s best player in the world for the fourth time, scored his 600th career goal and secured a contract extension with Real that will pay more than $50 million annually for the next four years. Ronaldo inked a lifetime deal with Nike worth upward of $1 billion, and on Sunday he led Real to a second straight Champions League title. Real is the first team to win back-to-back Champions League titles.
Ronaldo earned $58 million from Real in salary and bonuses, while sponsors kicked in another $35 million. The Portuguese forward has endorsements deals with Nike, Tag Heuer, Herbalife, Abbott Labs and others. Meanwhile, his growing line of CR7 branded products now include shoes, underwear, fragrance, jeans and a line of hotels.
Sponsors get a good bang for their buck from Ronaldo thanks to a social media presence with 277 million followers across Facebook,Twitter and Instagram. His 121 million Facebook fans are more than any other person in the world. Ronaldo posts actively with mentions or logos of his sponsors displayed. His posts highlighting Nike generated $500 million in media value alone for the sportswear giant during 2016, according to Hook it, which tracks the social engagement of athletes.
James’ salary jumped $8 million this year and his off-court income is up slightly to $55 million. He replaced Samsung and Tencent in his endorsement portfolio with Intel and Verizon. Other sponsors include Nike, Coca-Cola, Beats by Dre and Kia Motor. His business empire is growing through his production company, SpringHill Entertainment. He is also part of an investment group in the fast-growing Blaze Pizza with 17 franchises in Chicago and South Florida. James has made $680 million during his 14-year NBA career with only 29% from his playing salary.
Rounding out the top five highest-paid athletes are Lionel Messi ($80 million), Roger Federer ($64 million) and Kevin Durant ($60.6 million). The top five is the same as last year with only James and Messi swapping places.