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What Sport Makes the Most Money?

We’ve talked before about which athletes make the most money, but what about the sports that pay athletes the most on average? 

The top 10 sports leagues in the world combine for an annual income of $54.53 billion. That’s a lot of cash lining the pockets of executives and athletes all across the world. 

So suit up. 

Lace up your gloves. 

Grab a nine iron. 

Play ball. 

Start your engines. 

And let’s take a look at what sport makes the most money and how much the top-paid athlete in each sport can take home in a year.

The 10 Sports That Pay the Most

In this post, I’ve ranked the top sports for average athlete salaries. As a bonus, I also spotlighted the highest-paid athlete in that sport for 2020, including how much they earn from endorsements (which, it turns out, is usually an absolutely insane amount). 

So, if you’re thinking about quitting your current 9-5, completely dedicating yourself to the pursuit of a new sport, and then practicing until you’re good enough at it that you can go professional, here are some very important numbers to consider.

10. Boxers: $37,501

Boxing is one of the oldest sports in which man continues to compete. In fact, the earliest evidence of this pugilistic pastime dates back to 3000 BC in Egypt

While momentous Pay-Per-View fights can bring in big bucks from advertisement and sponsorship deals, professional boxers still must generally pay for their own travel, management fees, and training sessions

After all these fees and expenses, on average, boxers can take home around $3,125 per month, or $37,501 per year. 

Once a boxer hangs up their gloves and retires, though, they can venture into the world of coaching and training, professions that may actually double their salary.  

The Highest-Paid Boxer Made $57 Million in 2020

In 2020, the highest-paid boxer, Tyson Fury, earned more than $57 million

That’s almost 1,520 times more than the average boxer makes, thanks in part to an income from fights on ESPN generated by his promotional contract with his promoter, Top Rank.

Fury packs a powerful punch in the list of top paid athletes. Not bad for a man who’s always one big fight away from retirement.

9. MMA Fighters: $68,500

A Mixed Martial Arts (MMA) athlete can make almost twice as much money as a boxer. With an average annual salary of $68,500, many MMA fighters must also rely on sponsorships and big fights if they want to make the injury-prone sport more lucrative.

Experience matters for MMA fighters. The number of previous fights, the frequency of their fights, and, of course, their overall popularity all factor into how rewarding the ruckus in the cage can be for fighters. 

The top-dollar matches and marquee matchups (for fighters like Conor McGregor) typically bring in millions of dollars for each athlete, but this isn’t true for all of them. 

Without big name agents or a fighter’s union, MMA fighters find themselves at the mercy of whatever payouts the promotion offers. 

The Highest-Paid MMA Fighter Made $48 Million in 2020

It’s no surprise that on top of the MMA pecking order is Conor McGregor.

McGregor amassed more than $16 million in endorsements and $32 million in salary and winnings for a grand total of $48 million in 2020 - around $10 million dollars shy of boxer Tyson Fury’s earnings.

8. NASCAR Drivers: $1 million

For a shot at the grand prize, NASCAR drivers hit speeds well over 200 mph for a total of 200 laps around the track. 

Since 2016, however, the amount written on that jumbo check has become one of the sports world’s most secretive numbers, as NASCAR has ceased publishing the specific amounts

Still, on average, NASCAR drivers can round up close to $1 million per year. With an average base salary of around $200,000, supplemented by bonuses for top finishes, drivers also rely on endorsement deals and sponsorships.

By only holding on to about 40% of their earned prize money throughout the year, though, drivers hope for a slew of top finishes to boost their annual earnings.

Still, the best of the best NASCAR drivers average $10.6 million per year.

The Highest-Paid NASCAR Driver Made $18 Million in 2020

Exceeding that average is Kyle Busch, who raked in $18 million in 2020. 

With a fanbase dubbed the “Rowdy Nation,” Busch has capitalized on his popularity and is even foraging into the world of refreshments by investing in his newest creation: Rowdy Energy drinks.

7. Golfers: $2 million

Golf is one of the most peaceful, serene sports in the world, with athletes competing on sprawling courses of luscious greenery, pristine ponds, and thousands of eager fans awaiting each swing and putt. 

Regardless of a golfer’s finish in a PGA tournament, he will earn some form of compensation, ranging from a minimum of $25,000 to a championship payday of over $1.5 million

Some golfers can earn more by participating in made-for-TV events, while others participate in corporate tournaments.

On average, a pro golfer can earn $2 million per year as a competitor.

That, of course, doesn’t include the additional opportunity to earn big bucks through sponsors who stick their label on everything from shirts the golfers wear to the balls they hit.

The Highest-Paid Golfer Made $62 Million in 2020

It should come as no surprise that sitting atop the golf empire is one of the world’s most famous athletes: Tiger Woods. 

Woods, who went pro in 1996, earned $62 million in 2020. $60 million of that is from sponsorships, with a measly $2 million coming from salary earnings. 

Not too bad for a few days of swinging clubs in beautiful weather.

6. Hockey Players: $3 million

Hockey players may run the biggest risk of losing a tooth during a game, but that risk is very much worth the reward, as hockey players earn an average of $3 million per year.

Before the COVID-19 pandemic, NHL players took to the ice for 82 games in a season. That means these ice-skating gladiators earned about $36,585 per game.

However, the NHL shortened the 2020-2021 season to 56 games. With fewer games, both the league and the athletes saw a decline in earnings, as more than 70% of NHL revenue comes from ticket sales, concessions, and sponsorships in arenas.

In fact, the NHL even asked players to defer 10% of their total compensation until the 2024 year. 

The Highest-Paid Hockey Player Made $16 Million in 2020

With $13 million in salary and bonuses, combined with $3 million in endorsements, memorabilia, and licensing, Toronto Maple Leafs center, Auston Matthews, is the top earning NHL athlete with close to $16 million. 

Matthews’ partnership with the likes of Nike, and most recently Verizon and CCM Hockey, helped him solidify this top spot and may keep him there for years to come.

5. Football Players: $3.3 million

With 37% of Americans reporting that football is their favorite sport to watch, the sport is arguably the most popular one in the country.

Compare that number to 11% who reported basketball and just 9% who said baseball was their favorite sport to watch on TV.

So, it makes sense that NFL players are well-compensated for their popularity.

During the 2019-2020 season, NFL players earned an average of $3.3 million dollars.

Players on the Atlanta Falcons averaged the most with $4.7 million, while the Miami Dolphins were at the bottom of the list with $2 million. 

That’s by no means a small amount, of course.

Salaries for NFL players have been on the rise for decades, too. In the early 1980s players only earned about $90,000.

Furthermore, professional football players have ample opportunities to make more money through sponsorships each year. 

The Highest-Paid Football Player Made $60.5 Million in 2020

Minnesota Vikings quarterback Kirk Cousins claims the top spot for the highest-paid football player in 2020, eclipsing the $60.5 million mark. 

By signing a two-year contract extension worth $66 million (which included a $30 million signing bonus), Cousins takes home a paycheck that is well beyond what most professional athletes will ever see. 

The 32-year-old also earns over $2.5 million in endorsements - not bad.

4. Soccer Players: $3.9 million

While not as popular in America as it is throughout the rest of the world, soccer is one of the highest-paying sports on the planet with a long list of athletes who are household names in hundreds of countries.

With this fame comes fortune, too - lots of it. 

The average salary for soccer players depends a lot on what league they play in. There are dozens of them all across the globe. Nonetheless, if you’re a professional soccer player, you’re usually doing quite well for yourself.

For example, in China, top soccer players in the Chinese Super League can earn over $1 million a year. On the other hand, the average Chinese person only makes about $6,500 per year. A player in the Chinese Super League will make that much in just 2 days, 6 hours, and 43 minutes.

But the highest salaries are in the England Premier League, where players make $3.1 million a year on average.

It’s safe to say that soccer players do what they do for more than just kicks. 

The Highest-Paid Soccer Player Made $105 Million in 2020

Three of the top spots on our list of Highest Paid Athletes are soccer players: Cristiano Reynaldo, Lionel Messi, and Neymar, who earn more than $304 million a year combined.

But Reynaldo is the current king of soccer salaries, earning a cool $105 million for the year. With a large portion of that amount ($45 million) coming from endorsements, Reynaldo’s earning potential is almost limitless.

3. Formula 1 Racers: $4.1 million

Though it may surprise many of you, Formula 1 Racing is actually one of the most profitable sports in the world.

It also commands one of the largest average salaries for its drivers who have to maintain control of their Formula 1 race cars through twists and turns as they reach speeds of more than 230 MPH.

Aside from keeping themselves alive, drivers are also paid to make the most of vehicles that can cost well over $100 million to build. For goliaths like Mercedes and Ferrari, the cost to develop and build these land rockets can be closer to $400 million. 

So, on average, Formula 1 racers earn $4.1 million for their superhuman abilities and the trust their employers put in them. 

But the driver at the head of the pack makes a lot more than that.

The Highest-Paid Formula 1 Driver Made $47 Million in 2020

Lewis Hamilton, a seven-time world champion, is the current highest-paid driver. 

In 2020, he earned close to $47 million, which comes out to about $2 million per race.

Even his sponsored Instagram posts earn him $70,000 apiece on average. That’s quite the profit-per-post.

2. Baseball Players: $4.36 million

Despite its decline in viewership, baseball sits comfortably at the number 2 spot because its athletes earn an average of $4.36 million per year

A big contributor to this is because - unlike the NFL, NBA, and NHL - Major League Baseball (MLB) is not bound by a salary cap — meaning teams have no limits imposed on the total amount they can spend on a player’s salary. 

Consequently, in 2020, even the lowest-earning baseball player took home MLB’s minimum salary of $563,500.

The most lucrative position? 

Pitcher. 

7 of the top 10 earners are starting pitchers who all make at least $31 million per year. 

Let’s just say that baseball players are set up nicely to not only play on the diamond but also to go buy the biggest, shiniest, brightest diamond at the jewelry store. 

The Highest-Paid Baseball Player Made $37.7 Million in 2020

Los Angeles superstar outfielder Mike Trout takes the cake for the biggest cut of the baseball pie.

With a 12-year contract that has an average annual value of $35.5 million, Trout will bank about $37.7 million during the 2020 season

100 years ago in 1920, baseball great Ty Cobb led the league in earned income with $20,000 (about $260,000 in today’s value). Trout will make almost 15 times Cobb’s paycheck. 

1. Basketball Players: $7 million

With only 30 teams in the league and an unrivaled system in place to make money through television, sponsorships, merchandising, and, of course, ticket sales, the NBA is the king of money-making in the sports world.

Each team has an average valuation of over $2 billion, and the league itself generates about $8.76 billion in revenue each year.

In the 2019-20 season, the Portland Trailblazers led the league in salaries with an average of $10 million per player, while the New York Knicks averaged just $7 million per player. 

Despite this, the Knicks — worth $4.5 billion — have been NBA’s most valuable team for five straight years. In fact, amongst North American sports franchises, only the Dallas Cowboys of the NFL are worth more.

The Highest-Paid Basketball Player Made $88.2 Million in 2020

With $88.2 million in earnings, Lebron James is king of the hill when it comes to NBA incomes— for now.

Most of this is actually from James’s endorsement deals, which more-than-double his salary. He earns $60 million in endorsements and only (“only”) $28.2 million in salary and performance bonuses. 

And yet, he still has a long way to go to catch Kevin Garnett, whose more than $334 million during his career makes him the highest-paid player in NBA history.

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