Note from BBT: Sometimes I find it hard to believe how much money professional athletes are paid these days. Since I don’t really follow sports like I did in my childhood, teen years, and early 20s, my jaw often drops when I see the numbers in black and white.
Earlier this year, a friend of mine back in the US and I were having a discussion via WhatsApp about sports and salaries. For the sake of comparison, I dug up a salary report of NBA basketball players from 1986. When you look at the numbers and compare them what superstars are making today, you can kind of understand my reaction.
In 1985-1986 season, Los Angeles Laker guard Earvin “Magic” Johnson was the highest-paid player earning $2.5 million a year. In that season, only three players made more than $2 million dollars per year and another 10 made between $1 million to $1.8 million. That was considered big money back then.
If we were to go just a decade before that, we would see that what was considered a lot of money to dribble a basketball would have been almost a joke for athletes by the mid-80s. In the mid-1990s, basketball legend Michael Jordan made a comeback to the sport. After having won three straight titles with the Chicago Bulls in the early 90s, Jordan shocked the sports world when he suddenly retired and re-emerged in the following year accomplishing his dream of playing another sport, baseball.
Starting with the 95-96 season, Jordan would lead the Bulls to three more titles before retiring again. For millions of basketball fans, MJ is considered the greatest basketball player in history, and by the time he retired from the NBA, he had taken basketball salaries to the stratosphere. For the 1997-1998 season, Jordan was paid an estimated 33 million dollars by the Bulls. It is a well known fact that Jordan had been vastly underpaid by the Bulls for several years, so one could argue that he clearly deserved a huge payout for the 1996, 97 and 98 seasons.
Even so, it is still astonishing that in one year, MJ earned more money than an entire contract signed in 1981 by Magic Johnson. Johnson’s deal with the lakers at that time was the biggest in professional sports history and would pay him 25 million dollars over 25 years. Comparing this to Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes’ 2020 deal that would pay him $450 million over the course of 10 years and this figure is totally laughable.
In fact, even Jordan’s elevated salary from 23 years ago is matched or surpassed by 21 current NBA players and this salary standard goes across the board in professional sports. This year, 10 NFL players will make 30 million dollars or more, while in Major League Baseball, 8 players reached this mark in salaries.
Within the United States, we know that the NBA, NFL and MLB are considered the big three in team sports, but this isn’t the case globally. Step outside of the US and look into the world of futebol, or soccer, and you see that top athletes in that sport make salaries that are nothing to sneeze at. Keep in mind, I’m only considering the salaries these athletes are paid by their teams not including the sometimes even more lucrative deals they sign to endorse products.
Need examples? Let’s go there. According the reports, Paris Saint-Germain forward Lionel Messi took home over 97 million dollars in 2021 alone. The second highest paid soccer player in the world in terms of only on-field salary was Manchester United forward Cristiano Ronaldo, who earned 70 million dollars. So, considering these numbers, Messi and Ronaldo made 52 million and 25 million more that the NBA’s higest paid player, Stephen Curry, who took in a ‘measley’ 45 million dollars in the same year.
So what’s going on here? How is it that these soccer stars in European leagues are making so much more money than the NBA’s highest paid player? Well, in reality, the salaries of both Messi and Ronaldo for 2021 include huge signing bonuses, which is also the case with Dallas Cowboy quarterback Dak Prescott, whose new contract which would pay him an average of 40 million dollars per year for four years was inflated even more by a signing bonus of 66 million dollars.
My whole point here is that today’s pro athletes are making sums of money that were simply unimaginable 40 years ago. Which brings me to my next point and question. If superstars such as Lebron James, Neymar and Francisco Lindor are clocking 30-40 million per year not even considering signing bonuses, how much would old school legends be earning if they were playing today? I’ve often pondered this question when I think of the greats I grew up watching.
Fifty years ago, the great Pelé, Edson Arantes do Nascimento had just come off of winning Brazil’s unprecendented third World Cup championship out of its previous four attempts in a period of 12 years. By then, Pelé had already secured his place in soccer history as one of the greatest, if not THE greatest, of all-time. On October 23rd, ‘The King’, who has gone through a number of health issues in recent years, turned 81. Considering his legendary career and the insane amounts of money earned by today’s athletes, several months ago, experts speculated on how much money Pelé would be earning if he were still playing today. The figures that they came up with were astounding. Read on.
Would Pelé be better paid than Cristiano Ronaldo and Messi if he played today?
How much would Pelé earn if he played today? In 1961, the annual salary of the King of Futebol at Santos was revealed by the newspapers of the time: 2 million cruzeiros, which would be worth about BRL 70 thousand (Brazilian reais) in current values. And how would it be today, in a futebol with higher salaries and big sponsorships? Forbes magazine listened to marketing experts Amir Somoggi and Duílio Fabbri for an estimate. See what Pelé’s position would be on Forbes‘ list of the highest paid players per year in 2020.
5th place: Kylian Mbappé, Paris Saint-Germain striker – Salary of US$42 million per year
Sum of Mbappé’s annual revenues: 28 million dollars in salary + 14 million dollars in sponsorships
4th place: Neymar, Paris Saint-Germain striker – Salary of US$96 million per year
Sum of Neymar’s annual income: 78 million dollars in salary + 18 million dollars in sponsorships
3rd place: Cristiano Ronaldo, Juventus striker – Salary of US $117 million per year
Sum of Cristiano Ronaldo’s annual earnings: $70 million in salary + $47 million in sponsorship
2nd place: Lionel Messi, Barcelona striker – Salary of US$ 126 million per year
Sum of Messi’s annual income: 92 million dollars in salary + 34 million dollars in sponsorships
1st place: Pelé, ex-striker for Santos and New York Cosmos – Revenue of US$ 223 million per year if he were playing today.
Sum of Pelé’s annual revenue if he were still playing today: $126 million in salary, image rights and sponsorship + $20 million in individual sponsorship + $77 million in sponsorship loyalty quota.
Suffice it to say, according to these estimates, if Pelé were still playing today, he’d still be ‘The King’