Among the thousands of mostly cash-strapped athletes heading to Tokyo are professionals like Djokovic, Durant and Osaka, who are some of sports’ top earners.
Billions of viewers. The moral support of nations. Weeks of gushing coverage from media outlets around the world. Olympic glory is a heady dream-come-true for almost every athlete who makes it, but few are doing it for the money, and it’s certainly no easy way to get rich.
Paying for trainers, facility time and state-of-the-art equipment that can cost tens of thousands of dollars can turn the chance to compete on the world stage into a money pit. For some, the cost of a trip to the Olympics can be so high that they turn to GoFundMe campaigns to help pay their way. In 2016, thousands of donors donated $750,000 to help fund the trips of more than 140 athletes. Winning also helps defray some of the costs, with each U.S. gold medalist bringing home $37,500, silver medalists $22,500 and bronze $15,000. But most fall short.
While some champions are backed by lucrative endorsement deals—including two returning Olympians, U.S. gymnast Simone Biles and swimmer Katie Ledecky—and arrive with the possibility of landing even more in victory, the surest way to leave Tokyo this summer with a windfall is to arrive with one. Thanks to a decision made decades ago that allows professional athletes to compete, this year’s Games will once again host not just struggling hopefuls but also some of the world’s top-paid athletes.
Among the top earners set to be in Tokyo: three professional tennis players, a golfer and five NBA players (two fewer than last week, with an injury and Covid-19 protocols already forcing a pair of Team USA to drop out; the NBA finals, still being played out, might knock out a few others before the Games even start).
Here is a look at the nine highest-earning Olympians headed to Tokyo, who together made a combined $353 million in the past year.
Brooklyn Nets star forward Kevin Durant, who already has two Olympic gold medals under his belt, has seen his investments off the court rival his prolific play on it. The two-time NBA champion is the league’s latest multimedia mogul with breakout media network Boardroom, a stake in MLS’s Philadelphia Union and his own venture capital firm, Thirty Five Ventures. This is Durant’s second time leading Team USA without LeBron James or Kobe Bryant, who last went to the Olympics in 2012. It’s Durant’s third Olympic appearance in all as he hopes to lead Team USA to a fourth consecutive gold with several first-time Olympians on the roster.
For the second straight year, Naomi Osaka has shattered the earnings records for female athletes, surpassing veteran top-earner Serena Williams and former record-holder Maria Sharapova. The 23-year-old—regarded as the new face of tennis—earned $55 million in endorsements and $5 million in prize money in 12 months. With more than 20 endorsement partners—including newcomers such as Google, Louis Vuitton, Workday and Levi’s—Osaka ranks No. 12 on Forbes’ highest-paid athletes list for 2021, with Williams coming in at No. 28. The four-time Grand Slam champion clinched her first Barbie collaboration this year as part of the brand’s Role Model doll line, which is currently sold out because of high demand.
Portland Trailblazers point guard and six-time NBA All-Star Damian Lillard has shown the sports world that he is not just a clutch scorer, but a marketing magnet. The 31-year-old has racked up endorsement deals with Adidas, Gatorade, Hulu and 2K Sports, among others. In 2014, Lillard renegotiated a new ten-year deal with Adidas worth $100 million for his top-selling shoe line, Dame. Lillard, also known by his rap alias Dame D.O.L.L.A (Different On Levels the Lord Allows), has released three studio albums under his self-owned record label, Front Page Music. The first-time Olympian appears both on the Space Jam: A New Legacy soundtrack and in the movie (playing the role of Chronos).
The world’s top-ranked player is the only member of men’s tennis’ Big Three set to appear at the Tokyo Olympics, following the recent withdrawals by Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal. Novak Djokovic kept tennis fans on the edge of their seats this month with his Wimbledon comeback victory over Matteo Berrettini, drawing him even with Federer and Nadal for the most career Grand Slam wins with 20—a tie he plans to break by completing a calendar-year Grand Slam at the U.S. Open in September. Tennis’ career prize money leader took home $2.4 million in prize money from his Wimbledon win to add to an already-impressive earnings total. The 34-year-old Serbian star made $30 million of his earnings total off the court, with endorsement deals with companies like Lacoste, Peugeot, NetJets and Austrian tennis equipment maker Head.
Rory McIlroy, regarded as one of golf’s biggest names alongside Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson, has become one of the sport’s most marketable players as well. The 32-year-old collected $29 million off the course over 12 months, partnering with brands such as Nike, Omega and UnitedHealth Group. McIlroy’s largest on-the-course payday to date was his $15 million prize for winning the 2019 FedEx Cup. He also scored big that year after founding GolfPass with NBCSports, a digital, $10-per-month subscription streaming package with exclusive instruction from the golf star himself.
Budding NBA superstar Devin Booker has taken the basketball world by storm, catapulting the Phoenix Suns to the league’s top ranks with help from a rejuvenated Chris Paul. However, Booker’s first championship chase could dash his Olympics dreams: If the NBA finals go to a seventh game on July 22, it would give him a tricky choice between resting up and extending an already-long season. The 24-year-old showstopper, who has been compared to the late Kobe Bryant, became the highest-paid player in the Suns’ history by signing a five-year, $158 million deal in 2018. The two-time NBA All-Star earns $7 million off the court, with his sponsors including Nike and Call of Duty.
At the Rio Olympics in 2016, Kei Nishikori claimed the bronze, giving Japan its first tennis medal in 96 years (a drought not quite as bad as it looks given that the sport was dropped from the Olympic program after 1924 and didn’t return until 1988). That followed another major achievement at the 2014 U.S. Open, where he became the first Asian player in history to make a men’s Grand Slam final. The 31-year-old earns $30 million in endorsements from brands like Japan Airlines, Lixil and Nissin—all of which are listed as official Olympic partners. Playing on his home turf in Japan, Nishikori should be one of the faces of the Tokyo Games.
Like his NBA finals opponent Devin Booker, Milwaukee Bucks swingman Khris Middleton has said he intends to play in the Olympics and is listed on Team USA’s roster. But his status could change if the NBA finals extend to seven games, which would leave the series wrapping up on July 22, just a day before the opening ceremony in Tokyo. Middleton re-signed with the Bucks in 2019 on a five-year, $178 million contract after solidifying his spot as the team’s No. 2 option behind Giannis Antetokounmpo. The 29-year-old two-time NBA All-Star has partnerships with Nike, Verizon, Panini and Unilever but makes almost all of his money on the court.
A dozen years after his NBA career began, Jrue Holiday is set to represent Team USA for the first time in Tokyo. The only thing standing in his way is the Bucks’ NBA finals battle with the Suns. The 31-year-old guard has a $2 million endorsement portfolio, which includes deals with Nike, Microsoft, ONYX, Momentous, Amp and Panini. He agreed to stay in Milwaukee earlier this year on a four-year contract extension worth at least $134 million.
To compile this list, Forbes tracked income collected between May 1, 2020, and May 1, 2021, based on conversations with industry insiders. The earnings figures, which are rounded to the nearest half-million, include both on-the-field income (from prize money, salaries and bonuses) and off-the-field income (from sponsorships, appearance fees and licensing deals). Figures for the NBA reflect a 20% cut to players’ base salaries to account for the league’s pandemic escrow adjustment for the current season. More information about the methodology can be found here.