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1991 To Now – What’s Changed?

Forbes Magazine posted an excellent article last week highlighting the difference between the highest paid athletes of 1991 and today. To say the make up of the list has changed would be an understatement.

The number 1 highest paid athlete in 1991 was a Boxer, Evander Holyfield, making $60 million. In fact, in 2nd place was another boxer, Mike Tyson. Boxers also took up the 4th and 7th places. Compare that to today where not one Boxer falls inside the top 20, with only Floyd Mayweather or Manny Pacquiao likely to make the cut in the next year. This highlights two things. First, Boxing’s decrease in popularity. The sport doesn’t have the same clout it used to, with only the aforementioned Boxers bringing in the bucks. Second, it highlights just how much pay-per-view impacted the industry in 1991, which provides hope for the UFC for the future.

Another huge difference is the amount of athletes who play team sports. In 1991 there were only 4 players who played team sports in the top 20, with Michael Jordan at number 3 being the most notable. Fast forward to now and it is an entirely different landscape. With the significant increase in areas such as TV rights and stadium deals, players plying their trade in the big leagues are now coveting most of the top spots. This is also helped by large off-field deals in the endorsement arena. Kobe, Lebron and A-Rod all headline the list of team sport players making the top 20 today.

Following on with team sports, there’s one sport that has seen a meteoric rise by having an abundance of players breaking into the top 10. Possessing no players in the top 20 in 1991, Soccer now occupies three spots in the top 10 with Beckham, Ronaldo and Messi taking those spots. This increase can be attributed to the globalization of Soccer and its players. These players are now household names worldwide, and the increase in audiences in markets such as Asia has helped line the pockets of these stars.

Golfers still rank as high as they did in 1991, with Tiger filling the number 1 spot and Phil Mickelson at 5. Arnold Palmer was the highest paid golfer, and despite the endorsement dollars skyrocketing since 1991, he would not be short of cash with his beverage line of Arizona doing very well. Jack Nicklaus and Greg Norman rounded out the golfing fraternity.

Formula 1 drivers remain just as well paid as 1991, with three drivers at each juncture.

With only Federer and Nadal charting this time round, Tennis has lost some steam. In 1991 the likes of Becker, Edberg, Agassi, Seles and Graf¬†were all featured. The endorsement dollar has certainly stagnated since these times, with only the true champions contending with the world’s athletic elite. Is it that companies are losing their luster for Tennis, or is it just other sports have moved ahead?

An alarming stat is that at present there are no female athletes featured in the Top 20. With Tennis and Golf the most likely to appear, Seles and Graf made the cut in 1991, however not even the highly endorsed Maria Sharapova could crack the list this year. Alas, there is some hope for the future. Li Na, the Chinese born Tennis player, has signed a multitude of contracts including a lucrative deal with Mercedes. She is the star that the world’s biggest country has been looking for, and if she has continued success there is no reason why she can’t upset the ‘Boy’s Club’ that has become the top 20.

So what, if any, changes can we expect in the future? With the increased popularity of Soccer worldwide and the subsequent commercialization, there is no reason why in the near future half of this list cannot be Soccer players. Team sports’ athletes in general should steadily increase their rankings as TV rights deals continue to break records. Golfers will always feature heavily due mainly due to it’s popularity. One area that doesn’t feature, which may soon, is the UFC. The sport has exploded over the past few years, and with pay-per-view it is possible it can reach Boxing like levels.
As previously mentioned, Li Na is the best hope for female athletes to crack the top 20. Others that could sneak a place include Danica Patrick (If her move to NASCAR proves successful), Maria Sharapova (By continued growth in endorsements) and Caroline Wozniacki, who at 21 appears to have a long career ahead of her.