What Sport Makes the Most Money: A Revealing Analysis

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By Jacob Maslow

In the competitive world of professional sports, various leagues and athletes vie for the title of highest earners. Determining which sport generates the most revenue can be complex, with billions of dollars at stake. Diverse sources of income, including television rights, sponsorships, merchandising, and ticket sales, contribute to the financial success of different sports leagues.

The National Football League (NFL) has consistently ranked as one of the top revenue-generating sports leagues in the world. In 2020, the NFL generated a staggering $16 billion in revenue, making it a clear frontrunner in profitability. On the other hand, the National Basketball Association (NBA) boasts an average player salary of around $8.32 million, higher than its counterparts in other sports industries.

While the NFL dominates overall earnings, other sports, such as tennis, also showcase impressive numbers. Tennis star Roger Federer, for example, earned a total of $106.3 million in 2020, with endorsements accounting for nearly $100 million. As the landscape of the sports industry continues to evolve, new opportunities for revenue growth are bound to emerge.

Highest Earning Sports


Basketball is a significant source of revenue, thanks mainly to the NBA, which dominates the sport worldwide. The NBA generates immense revenues from media rights, merchandise sales, and sponsorships. The league’s popularity extends beyond the United States and has a massive worldwide following, especially in Asia and Europe. High player salaries, inflated transfer fees, and considerable endorsements further solidify the NBA’s financial might.


American football earns substantial revenue, primarily through the NFL. With annual attendance rates of over 18 million people, it is a lucrative sport. The NFL’s popularity is mostly concentrated within the United States, but its financial success stems from media rights deals, lucrative sponsorships, and stadium luxury suite sales. High player salaries and endorsement deals also contribute to the overall wealth of American football.


Baseball is another high-earning sport, particularly Major League Baseball (MLB). While it may not be as globally popular as basketball or soccer, the MLB still generates significant revenue. Examples of top-earning teams include the New York Yankees and the LA Dodgers. The league’s income comes from media rights, sponsorships, and merchandise sales. The high payrolls of teams and players further emphasize baseball’s strong financial standing.


Soccer, also known as football outside the United States, is the world’s most popular sport and a financial powerhouse. The top European leagues, such as the English Premier League, Spain’s La Liga, and Germany’s Bundesliga, generate billions of dollars in revenue. Soccer clubs’ and leagues’ income sources include media rights, sponsorships, ticket sales, and merchandise. Soccer’s global popularity, high player transfer fees, and endorsement deals contribute to its financial success.

In summary, basketball, American football, baseball, and soccer are among the highest-earning sports globally. These sports generate revenue through media rights, sponsorships, merchandise sales, and game attendance. The financial success of leagues like the NBA, NFL, MLB, and top European soccer relies heavily on their popularity, athletes’ salaries, and endorsement deals.

Factors Contributing to Sports Revenue

Ticket Sales

Ticket sales are crucial in generating revenue for sports leagues and teams. High-demand games, such as championship matches or rivalry contests, can increase ticket prices, significantly increasing overall revenue. Additionally, some of the most prestigious clubs in the world, like Real Madrid and Manchester United, have massive stadiums and large fan bases, which contribute to higher ticket sales and greater revenue.

Sponsorship Deals

Sponsorships also make a substantial contribution to a sport’s revenue. Companies often strike million-dollar deals with teams or leagues in exchange for advertising and promotional opportunities. Some prominent examples include ESPN and NBC, which have broadcast rights deals with various sports leagues, leading to millions in ad revenue. Sponsorship deals extend to teams such as Real Madrid and Manchester United, which partner with international brands, further fueling their financial success.


Athletes can earn substantial income from endorsements, which boosts their sport’s revenue. Companies pay top athletes to promote their products, increasing exposure and sales. These deals can be worth millions of dollars, with sports stars often earning more from endorsements than their actual salaries. According to Forbes, top athletes can significantly impact their sport’s revenue through lucrative endorsement deals.

Prize Money

Prize money is another major factor contributing to sports revenue. Athletes and teams receive monetary rewards for winning or placing in competitions, with the most prestigious events offering significant payouts. This financial incentive motivates participants to excel in their sport and helps generate interest from fans.

Media Rights

Lastly, media rights have become a significant revenue source for sports. Networks like ESPN and NBC spend large sums of money to secure broadcasting rights for major sporting events, ultimately driving up the value of these rights. As fans consume more sports content on various platforms, the demand for media rights increases, leading to higher revenue for the leagues and teams involved.

Highest Paid Athletes

Basketball Players

In basketball, some of the highest-paid athletes are NBA stars. Notably, LeBron James and Michael Jordan have both been among the top earners in their time. In addition to their on-court salaries, they have also made significant earnings from endorsement deals, product lines, and franchises such as the Air Jordan brand.

Some other high-earning basketball players include James Harden and John Wall, who was tied as the NBA’s highest-paid players by average annual value on four-year deals worth $169,344,000 each.

Football Players

In American football, players such as Patrick Mahomes and Dak Prescott have been among the highest-paid NFL athletes. Their earnings come from contract salaries, bonuses, and endorsement deals.

Baseball Players

Major League Baseball has its share of high-earning athletes as well. Contract values in MLB have continuously risen, with players such as Mike Trout and Gerrit Cole commanding substantial contract values.

Soccer Players

Lionel Messi was the highest-paid athlete in soccer in 2022, with on and off-field earnings of around $130 million. Other soccer superstars like Cristiano Ronaldo and Neymar are among the top earners, with their incomes generated from club contracts, national team appearances, and endorsement deals.


Tiger Woods was once the highest-paid athlete globally, mainly due to his numerous endorsement deals. Although his earnings have decreased in recent years, he remains one of the highest-paid golfers, along with players like Rory McIlroy and Phil Mickelson.

Tennis Players

Tennis sees high earnings for top players, with Roger Federer being the highest-paid athlete in 2020. He earned $106.3 million, with endorsements making up about $100 million. The average tennis player’s salary is estimated at $38,800 per annum.


Successful boxers can garner substantial earnings from fight purses, pay-per-view sales, and endorsement contracts. Boxers like Floyd Mayweather and Mike Tyson have boasted impressive earnings throughout their careers, with Mayweather reportedly racking up over $1 billion in total career earnings.

Impact of Covid-19 on Sports Revenue

Suspended and Cancelled Events

The Covid-19 pandemic has significantly impacted the sports industry, leading to the suspension and cancellation of numerous events worldwide. These disruptions have significantly reduced revenue streams for leagues, teams, and venues. The global value of the sports industry was estimated at $471 billion in 2018, and the pandemic has adversely affected this upward trajectory1.

Lower Attendance and Sales

As a result of the pandemic, sporting venues have experienced lower attendance and decreased sales. Social distancing measures, travel restrictions, and lockdowns have limited the fan base’s ability to attend in-person events. This decrease in attendance has led to a reduction in ticket sales, concessions, and merchandising revenues.

Further, the pandemic has also affected the sports industry’s media revenue. With fewer events, media contracts have been impacted, resulting in a significant loss of income for Leagues.

Challenges Faced by Athletes

Athletes have also faced challenges from the Covid-19 pandemic, both professionally and personally. With suspended or canceled events, athletes have lost the opportunity to compete and earn their livelihoods. In addition, these disruptions have affected their training routines, physical condition, and mental well-being.

Travel restrictions have limited the ability of athletes to move between countries and participate in international competitions or training camps. This has also prevented athlete exposure to diverse competition and stunted overall development.

The Covid-19 pandemic has substantially influenced sports revenue through suspended and canceled events, lower attendance and sales, and the many challenges athletes face, but sports have recovered significantly since then.

The Future of Sports Revenue

Growing Popularity of Emerging Sports

Emerging sports such as mixed martial arts (MMA) and cricket are attracting audiences from around the globe. MMA competitions like the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) have gained rapid popularity recently, resulting in lucrative broadcasting deals and pay-per-view events. Cricket, popular in countries like India, Australia, and England, has witnessed tremendous growth, especially with the introduction of shorter formats like the Twenty20. Global events like the Cricket World Cup bring together diverse audiences and generate substantial revenue through ticket sales, broadcasting rights, and merchandising.

Role of Technology and Media

Advancements in technology and media have played a significant role in increasing sports revenue. Broadcasting deals and streaming partnerships have widened the reach of various sports like Formula 1, La Liga, and the English Premier League. These deals have led to an increase in net worth for sports entities globally. Additionally, social media platforms and mobile apps offer opportunities for more personalized experiences and interactions between fans, teams, and athletes. Virtual, esports, and augmented reality also transform how sports are consumed by providing immersive, tailored experiences to fans.

Global Market Expansion

The expansion of sports into new markets drives revenue growth. For example, the NFL has introduced regular-season games in London and Mexico City, while the NBA has explored games in China. Moreover, leagues like La Liga and the English Premier League have garnered worldwide attention, with TV rights sold across continents. Formula 1 has expanded its presence globally in motor racing, while NASCAR seeks to tap into international markets. This market diversification is not only an opportunity to boost revenues but also a way to develop and nurture new fan bases.


What sport brings in the most money worldwide?

According to recent data, the sport that generates the most revenue globally is the National Basketball Association (NBA) – Basketball, with an estimated annual revenue of around $8 billion. Following the NBA, the National Football League (NFL) – American Football, and Major League Baseball (MLB) generate billions of dollars in revenue yearly.

Which athletes are the highest paid?

In boxing, Tyson Fury was the highest-paid boxer in 2020, earning more than $57 million. Basketball players earn an average of $8.32 million in the NBA annually. However, salaries are inconsistent across all sports – for example, the highest-paid player in the National Hockey League (NHL) is Shea Weber, earning around $14 million annually.

Do other countries have similarly high paying sports leagues?

Yes, Major League Baseball (MLB) is popular in the United States and countries like Japan. Additionally, various European soccer leagues, such as the English Premier League and La Liga, have high-paying contracts, attracting talented athletes worldwide.

How do athletes make most of their money?

Athletes’ incomes come from various sources such as salary, prize money, endorsements, appearance fees, and licensing. The proportions of these income sources can differ significantly depending on the athlete’s popularity and the sport they play.

Why do some sports pay more than others?

Factors like popularity, audience size, and marketability contribute to the revenue generated by a particular sport. These factors affect the overall money available for athletes’ salaries and compensation in that sport. Sports with larger audiences and more significant global appeal tend to have higher revenues, leading to higher salaries for players in those sports.

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