Only a few things can build a company's brand as well as a celebrity endorsement. Many companies like to capitalize on people's respect and admiration for famous individuals in order to attract consumers. The definition of celebrity includes professional athletes as well, and they have become main targets for advertising because of their global following. Sports Illustrated recently released its annual "Fortune 50" list of the highest-paid athletes this year, and it's no surprise that the top 10 is filled with athletes who make substantially more from endorsements than they do from actually playing.
The golf superstar is one athlete who makes substantially more from endorsements than from his sport. In what was a down year for Tiger, he only made $1,940,238 from playing golf. This is paltry when compared to the staggering $54,500,000 he made from endorsements. Tiger's list of endorsements is not only long but also varied, ranging from his biggest backer Nike, to EA Sports, where its franchise golf video game is named after Tiger, to the obscure (following his infidelity scandal, Tiger landed an endorsement deal with Kowa - a Japanese company with a unique body rub cream).
Phil Mickelson is to many followers of golf, 1B to Tiger Woods' 1A. He is the player who is always being compared to Tiger Woods and his biggest rival on the course (currently fifth in the PGA Tour rankings to Tiger Woods' second) and is no slouch when it comes to endorsements as well. Mickelson may not currently have a leg up on Woods on the course as of right now, but what he does have is an advantage in his bank account.
Last year, Phil brought in $3,763,488 on the course and $57,000,000 off it. To make more than Tiger Woods on the course is one thing; he has been in a multi-year slump, but to do it off the course is another accolade entirely. Phil's primary backers are KPMG, Callaway and Barclays, all of whom pay him large amounts to wear clothes with their branding (and in the case of Callaway, to use its products as well).
LeBron James is coming off a dream season. He won what can be regarded as basketballs triple crown. In the 2011-2012 NBA Season, LeBron James won the NBA Championship as part of the Miami Heat and he was named the league MVP as well as the NBA Finals MVP.
To top it off, he also won an Olympic gold medal with Team USA. These achievements are sure to bring some more deals this year, but it's not as if he needs it. LeBron James is already one of professional sport's biggest cash cows.
In the second year of his deal with the Miami Heat, LeBron raked in $12,880,000. Nevertheless, he brought in almost three times as much ($33,000,000) by simply allowing his name and face to appear on products. LeBron James' endorsements are mostly from big-name brands that you wouldn't expect to really need an endorsement. These include such globally recognized brands as Nike (where he has his own namesake basketball sneaker), Sprite and McDonald's, just to name a few.
Often referred to simply by his first name, Bryant is arguably the most recognizable basketball player in the world after Michael Jordan. He's collected multiple championships and MVP awards throughout his career, so it comes as no surprise that his face is plastered on a variety of products.
On the back end of his career, Bryant is still bringing in the big bucks. Last year, Bryant made $20,286,000 on the court, but his basketball prowess does not outshine his marketability, as he made $28,000,000 in endorsements. Bryant's endorsement breakdown is similar to that of fellow NBA player LeBron James. Like James, Bryant has a Nike deal that comes with his own namesake sneaker, and he also has a deal with the Coca-Cola Company, the producers of Sprite.
The Bottom Line
As you can see, these athletes are all internationally known and have become one-person brands. Sports have the ability to go beyond what happens on the court and reach people in countries where the sport may not even be played. This is not to say that the rule only applies to athletes in international sports. Other athletes, such as Dale Earnhardt Jr. and Jimmie Johnson, bring in sizable earnings from endorsements, and they're professionals in a sport that does not have much reach outside of the U.S.