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In Review: 30 Years Of The World’s Highest Paid Athletes

As we reach the end of the decade, we take a look at the highest earning sports stars of the past 30 years.

We’ll start with this animated timeline, which shows how Forbes’ annual list of highest paid athletes changed between 1990 and 2020.

The mid to late 90s were dominated by Michael Jordan, while golf’s Tiger Woods cashed in during the 00s.

Boxer Floyd Mayweather, and football’s top stars Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi banked big over the past 10 years.

Here’s a full rundown of the sports stars who topped Forbes rich list over the period:

forbes highest paid athletes by sport chart

  • Tiger Woods, 11 (2002, 2003, 2004, 2005, 2006, 2007, 2008, 2009, 2010, 2011, 2013)
  • Michael Jordan, 6 (1992, 1993, 1994, 1995, 1997, 1998)
  • Floyd Mayweather, 4 (2012, 2014, 2015, 2018)
  • Mike Tyson, 2 (1990, 1996)
  • Michael Schumacher, 2 (1999, 2000)
  • Christiano Ronaldo, 2 (2016, 2017)
  • Evander Holyfield, 1 (1991)
  • Lionel Messi, 1 (2019)
  • Roger Federer, 1 (2020)

Which Sports Had Most Athletes In The Top 10?

Boxing and the NFL were tied at the top here. Both sports had 16 athletes who made Forbes top 10 list of highest paid athletes at least once between 1990 and 2019.

highest paid athletes by sport

The Rapid Growth In Sports Star Pay

The earnings of the world’s top sports stars have grown exponentially over the past 30 years, with the combined pay of Forbes top 10 list surpassing $1bn for the first time in 2018.

In the same year, top earner Floyd Mayweather earned $285m, which was almost 10x the figure earned by Forbes’ first high earning athlete – Mike Tyson.

floyd mayweather vs mike tyson

About The Forbes List Of Highest Paid Athletes + Thanks

Forbes has published an annual list of the world’s highest paid athletes since 1990. The figures are estimates and include salaries, bonuses, prize money, endorsements and appearance fees.

To prepare this review, we collated data from the following sources:

All athlete images licensed under Creative Commons. Animated charts created with Flourish.

Sharing Our Data/Visuals

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If you have a website and would like to share any of the visuals above, please credit as the source. Embed code is provided below for the animated timeline and combined earnings graph.


Combined earnings:

Note: we used a number of sources to ensure the information in this review is accurate, however, if you believe we have made any errors, then please contact us for correction.

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