Ten years ago FORBES wrote, “While not in the same earnings league as Michael Jordan or Tiger Woods, top-paid soccer players are getting within touching distance of the better-paid U.S. pro sports stars.”
Then, Barcelona star Ronaldinho made $29.5 million in earnings to slightly edge out Real Madrid and global icon David Beckham ($29.1 million) to top our list of the world’s highest paid soccer players.
In the decade since, escalating payouts from domestic and international television agreements, kit deals, sponsors, Champions League, and an influx of wealthy ownership groups have resulted in surging soccer wages around the world.
Most importantly, Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi burst onto the scene, and have dominated the beautiful game – combined they have won 9 of the last 10 coveted global player of the year awards – and related story lines ever since.
Now, just like their performance on the pitch, their paychecks are in a class all their own.
For the fourth straight year, Real Madrid’s Ronaldo is the world’s highest-paid soccer player. The $93 million he banked in the last year also bests the earnings of every active professional athlete worldwide.
Of that, the reigning FIFA Player of the Year made $58 million from salary and bonus (before taxes) in the past year as he led his club in goal scoring on the way to a Spanish league title and back to the UEFA Championship final . For perspective, his playing wages alone would rank him No. 3 on our list of soccer’s highest-paid. In comparison, LeBron James, the highest paid NBA player and oft-compared modern day Michael Jordan, made $31 million playing for the Cleveland Cavaliers this season. (Combined with his endorsements, he took home $86 million.)
Thanks to a playing contract renewed last November to extend through June 2021, Ronaldo will continue to earn an amount close to that until June 2021 when he is 36-years old. When that’s up, the Portuguese star said he would like to sign one more contract and play until he is 41.
Professional athletes looking to come within touching distance of his earnings will also have to consider the additional $35 million Ronaldo made as a human billboard for a global portfolio of sponsors including, among others: Nike, Tag Heuer, Herbalife, Clear men’s hair products, PokerStars, Nubia, XTrade, Sacoor Brother, Pestana hotels, and his CR7-branded line of underwear, shirts, shoes, and namesake fragrance. That amount alone that would rank him No. 4 among soccer’s highest paid.
But a closer look also shows the most popular athlete in the world, with 275 million social media followers across Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter and an international airport bearing his name, is underpaid as a pitchman. Social media valuation company Hookit found that Ronaldo’s massive social media presence generated $176 million in earned media value for his sponsors in the 12-months ended June 2016 – a massive 449% return for their investment in him, before considering television, print and other media.
Nike gave him a raise in December with a lifetime endorsement deal worth as much as $1 billion. It’s only the third such deal for the $27 billion sports brand after James’ deal and Jordan’s Nike-owned iconic name brand deal. But considering Ronaldo generated $474 million in value for Nike in 2016 via 329 social media posts, it looks like the Swoosh got him for a bargain.
Barcelona’s record five-time global player of the year Lionel Messi pulled in $80 million in the past year to rank No. 2 on our list of soccer’s highest paid. He has one year left on his playing contract that paid him $50 million in salary and bonus. Having scored a La Liga-high 53 goals and assisted on 16 others in 52 club competitions this past campaign, the 29-year old Argentine seems due an extension to stay at Camp Nou, on par with the length and salary of his nemesis Ronaldo.
It was a no-brainer for Adidas to renew a lifetime agreement with Messi, just two months after Ronaldo’s massive Nike deal was announced. The German sportswear giant is responsible for half of Messi’s $27 million endorsement income. It became a bigger slice of his commercial pie after a lapse in a 5-year contract with EA Sports which featured the Barcelona forward four times on the cover of its worldwide FIFA video game.
Only one player from our 2007 highest-paid soccer players list remains on our list today: Wayne Rooney. The then 21-year old Manchester United striker debuted at No. 4 with total earnings of $17 million, or $20.3 million in today’s dollar. His staying power is a tale of endurance, albeit a cautionary one, of a pup star whom had gobs of cash and the global spotlight thrown on him without much guidance on how to handle it. He’s evolved from the days in his mid-20s as a poster child for saucy tabloid headlines into the proud family man, highlighting life with his wife and three young sons on social media.
Today he ranks No. 6 on our list with $23.6 million in total earnings, of which $17.6 was earned on the pitch and the other $6 million from sponsors including Nike. Although he became United’s all-time leading scorer (253 goals) this campaign, he played a bit-part for the club putting his playing future at Old Trafford and continued inclusion on this list in peril.
Our top 20 highest-paid footballers collectively made $413 million in salary and bonus and another $162 million in endorsements for total earnings of $575 million. English Premier League players number the most (8) followed by La Liga players (7). Among the most popular soccer leagues in the world, these clubs also have the top two highest average salaries per first team player. Per Sporting Intelligence’s annual Global Sports Salaries Survey 2016, EPL salaries average $3.2 million and La Liga salaries average $1.6 million.
Manchester United led all soccer teams with the highest average salary of $7,616,400. Zlatan Ibrahimovic’s signing was one reason why. The Swedish striker left Paris Saint-Germain last summer and earned $27 million in salary and bonus this past campaign. Combined with his income from sponsors including Volvo, Vitamin Well and his personal line of training wear, A-Z, the 35-year old earned $32 million last year to rank No. 5 among our highest-paid soccer players. Joining the oldest on our list was teammate and youngest entrant, 24-year old Paul Pogba. He left the storied Italian club Juventus for Old Trafford and a heavily incentivized playing contract. He took home $17.2 million for playing in 49 games and scoring 9 goals while assisting on 6 more. Adidas inked him to a 10-year deal worth an estimated $45 million that helped the French midfielder bank $21.2 million to debut at No. 10 on our list.
While our list typically has a European feel, football, more than any other sport, has thrived on globalization. China’s President Xi Jinping’s plan to make the sport a national priority and turn the country into a superpower capable of qualifying for, hosting, and winning the World Cup has resulted in an influx of government and state-owned company cash into its major league. The result is the debut of two players from the emerging Chinese Super League on our list.
Brazilian forward Hulk was lured away from Zenit of the Russian Premier League by Shanghai SIPC with $19.1 million. His Mizuno boot sponsorship helps bring the 30-year old’s total earnings to $20.1 million to rank No. 11 on our list.
Graziano Pelle left EPL side Southampton for CSL’s Shandong Luneng . The 31-year old Italian’s two-and-a-half year contract paid him $17.1 million of his $18.1 million total earnings last year to rank No. 15 on our list.
With steady growth in attendance at matches and a 5-year television rights deal with state-backed China Sports Media that is pumping $1.22 billion into the league to televise Chinese Super League games over the next five years – 40 times more than the previous annual haul – expect transfer records and payroll ceilings to continue to be busted.
To compile our list of the world’s highest-earning soccer players, we looked through team filings and spoke with players’ agents, talent agencies, commercial sponsors and soccer experts in the U.S. and Europe. All figures are in U.S. $ and include soccer salaries, bonuses, and endorsements. Transfer fees are excluded. Earnings are for the period June 1, 2016 to May 31, 2017. Performance metrics are for all league competitions.
Top Paid List.
1. Cristiano Ronaldo
Earnings: $93 Million
Salary & Bonus; $53 Million
2. Lionnel Messi
Earnings: $80 Million
Salary & Bonus: $53 Million
3. Neymar Jnr
Earnings: $37 Million
Salary & Bonus: 15 Million
4. Gareth Bale
Earnings: $34 Million
Salary & Bonus: $23 Million
5. Zlatan Ibrahimovic
Earnings: $32 Million
Salary & Bonus: $27 Million
6. Wayne Rooney
Salary & Bonus: $17.6Million
7. Luis Suarez
Salary & Bonus: $17.3Million
8. Sergio Aguero
Salary & Bonus: $14.6Million