Every kid who plays sports dreams about growing up and becoming a professional athlete. And hey, why not? The headlines are loaded with huge player salaries in baseball, football and basketball, as well as enormous payouts for elite sporting events like the Masters (golf) and Wimbledon (tennis). (For related reading, also take a look at How Salary Caps Changed Sports.)
But while the chances of making it big are slim, participants in what some consider fringe sports are also earning substantial incomes that don't make the front-page news.
After an unprecedented seven Tour de France wins, Lance Armstrong has become an icon in the cycling world. But most of the double-digit millions he pulls in every year (he made $28 million in 2005 alone) come from endorsements and as a spokesperson. The average first-year neo-professional cyclist for a European team makes about 24,000 euros, or roughly $33,000 a year in salary. (Learn more about cycling in Tour De France: Cash On Wheels.)
The popularity of the game has grown in leaps and bounds, thanks mostly to its inclusion in the Olympics and media coverage of some of the beautifully tanned and very fit athletes who play. But aside from tour winnings, the money is mostly made in fringe benefits, like product endorsements and modeling gigs (photo editors can't help but notice those bikinis worn as uniforms). To date, Kerri Walsh of the United States is one of just a handful of women players who have surpassed the $1 million mark in career earnings. However, since the Association of Volleyball Players filed for Chapter 11 protection in October 2010, the likelihood of players earning prize money in AVP Tours is slim.
Commonly known as ping pong, table tennis regular-season matches carry prize money that ranges between $3,000 and $35,000. However, a championship win in an International Table Tennis Federation event can earn a player up to $40,000. Six of the top-10 men's table tennis players in the world are from China, where the sport is a national pastime. The Chinese women are just as successful, with five in the top rankings.
Pro skateboarders can earn anywhere between $1,000 to $5,000 a month, but the industry is really driven by product sales, so many pro skateboarders sign contracts that offer a set percentage of sales of boards and equipment with their names on them. They also are offered photo incentives if their image is used in magazine or advertising art.
Tony Hawk, however, capitalized not only on his talent but his appeal to an entire generation of extreme sports fans. Hawk's multi-million dollar empire has been built on everything from video games, clothing, equipment and his likeness in ads and commercials.
Most American's may not know much about the rules of cricket, but the game is so popular all over the world that the top players' earnings rival those of the NFL, NBA, MLB and PGA.
Case in point: Mahendra Singh Dhoni earns $2 million a year in salary as top cricketer in the India Premier League, but tack on endorsements from global companies like Pepsi and Reebok and the 29-year-old batsman takes home a cool $10 million annually.
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Don't laugh. The invention of the flying disc, which was trademarked as a Frisbee in the late 1950s by Wham-O, has spawned all kinds of activities, including football and "ultimate" competitions worldwide. Today there are more than 2,600 courses nationwide, with 11 to 14% annual growth. The Professional Disc Golf Association had more than 14,000 active members in 2009, as well as men and women pro players, who are sponsored by equipment companies. In 2010, worldwide tournaments offered nearly $2 million in prize money.
Florida is home to more Jai alai frontons than anywhere else in the world. So it's no surprise that the Sunshine State also attracts the biggest money makers in the sport. Top players of this racquetball-esque sport typically play for prize money and a percentage of pari-mutual wagering, much like in horse racing.
The Bottom Line
Not every athlete will command salaries like those of David Beckham or Lebron James. But sports considered on the fringe are not only increasing in popularity but are also drawing more sponsors and advertisers, making potential payouts worth the players' hard work. (For additional reading, see 5 Top-Paid Sports Commissioners.)