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Mike Conner discusses highest paid athletes on ESPN Radio

Forbes magazine recently released its list of the world’s highest paid athletes from last June 2012 through this April 2013. I had the opportunity to appeared on ESPN Radio to discuss my observations about the athletes who appeared on this most current list.

First, I was surprised.  Athletes from America’s pro sports leagues are not the only ones in Forbes’ list.  We would expect NFL, NBA, and Major League Baseball players to occupy most of the top spots.  They do not.  The first NFL player to make the list is Payton Manning at 10.  Only two NBA stars are in the top 10 of Forbes’ list.  There are no Major League Baseball players in the top 10, and only 1 in the Top 25 – Alex Rodriguez.

Admittedly, although NFL football players do not entirely dominate the list, they are well represented.  The NFL claims 7 of the top 25 from Forbes’ list.  By a large margin, NFL players are more represented in this list than any other league or sport.  That probably does not surprise us.  What might surprise us is the concept that NFL is a league of hundreds of players, and scores, not just 10 or 20, of those players make Forbes’ Top 100.  The NFL is synonymous with money, and its top athletes demonstrate that fact.

Second, athletes from the premier sports, or “mainline” sports do not occupy all the top spots.  There are more international soccer players in the top 20, than NBA players.  Three boxers are in the top 25, more than all of Major League Baseball.  The combination of professional golf and tennis accounts for more top-paid athletes in Forbes’ Top 20 than the competing combination of the NBA and MLB.

Third, the very top earners in Forbes’ list were individuals playing non-team sports.  Tops are boxers, golfers, tennis players and racecar drivers.  The highest paid athlete in sports, Floyd Mayweather, is a boxer.  He made $85 million last year, and all of it was based on his winnings.  The second highest paid athlete in sports, Manny Pacquio, is also a boxer.  He allegedly made $62 million.  The third highest paid athlete in sports is a golfer – Tiger Woods.  The first “team sport” player on the list is LeBron James, the NBA star, at fourth.  Roger Federer, the tennis player, is fifth on the list.   Another golfer, Phil Mickelson, is seventh.  In total, five of the top seven highest paid figures in sport are individuals that play individualized sports.

Fourth, the list also shows a wide variation of the source of athletes’ compensation.  While Floyd Mayweather’s $85 million was all earned fighting, Tiger Woods made $55 million of his total $59.4 million in endorsements.  He only made $4.4 million in tournament winnings.  Conversely, Cristiano Ronaldo, an international soccer star, made $42.5 million, with roughly half of that amount, $20.5 million, coming from his salary and another $22 million from endorsements.

Ultimately, when the entirety of the list is considered, endorsements generally, for most athletes, comprise the largest component of athletes’ compensation.  Endorsements really have nothing to do with playing the actual games, but as a society, we put a high value on athletes’ perceived ability to sell products.

I also observed that foreign sports personalities appear throughout the list.  There are two international soccer players in the Top 10, David Beckham and Ronaldo, and a third, Lionel Messi, is 11 on the list.  Both Federer and Rafael Nadal, who are tops in men’s world tennis, are both in the top 20.  Auto racing stars, especially foreigners in the Formula 1 and Indy Car circuits, represent well.  There are 5 racecar drivers in the Top 25, and only one of those, Dale Earnhardt, Jr., is an American.

My appearance on ESPN Radio ended with some conclusions from the data.  First, what we all know to be true is true – professional athletes do make a lot of money.  $85 million for two Mayweather fights is staggering.  Where does all of that money come from – ticket sales, pay-per-view buys and naming rights?  Second, athletes then make money largely because we do buy the things that they sell.  We buy tickets to their events (over $10 Million in gate sales at the last Mayweather fight), tune into broadcasts of their sporting events and buy their endorsed products. Third, individual effort and grit and individual excellence still do matter.  Highly paid athletes are highly paid, because one-on-one they are the best at what they do.  People love greatness.  Last, we love sports – all of us.  Life is hard, and we enjoy the outlet of sports.  The Forbes’ data shows us that we consumers spend more money on sports than many nations are able to spend on caring for their people.

Mike Conner is the Managing Partner of the Conner Law Group and legal analyst for ESPN Coastal Georgia, ESPN Savannah/Hilton Head and ESPN Waycross/Blackshear. During his career, Mr. Conner has distinguished himself as one of Georgia’s premier litigators while representing a diverse client base in south and coastal Georgia. He has consistently been recognized by peer-guided professional organizations such as Super Lawyers, Best Lawyers in America, U.S. News and World Report’s “Best Law Firms”, the National Trial Lawyers and Georgia Trend Magazine’s “Legal Elite” during his career.