F. Scott Fitzgerald once said the very rich are different from you and me. When it comes to the very richest athletes, it turns out they are even different from each other.
That's one lesson to be learned from SI's list of the 50 Fortunate -- the best-compensated athletes ranked by current annual income. Since the list combines salary or winnings with endorsement and appearance fees, the results can be confounding, while pointing out the quirks of the economics of sports.
"It's a really interesting mix of people because the discrepanices between salary and endorsement income are sometimes so huge," says Jim Andrews, the editorial director of IEG Sponsorship Report, which tracks corporate sponsorships and endorsements for athletes and entertainers. "Since I concentrate on the endorsement side of it, I'm wondering what some of these people are doing on a list like this. But when you make the salaries some of these guys make, you're on the list."
Some of the Fortunate 50 are more fortunate than others. Take No. 37 Grant Wistrom, a defensive end who has collected 41.5 sacks in six solid, if unspectacular, seasons. Wistrom is considered a high-effort player, who is a positive influence in the locker room.
But it's shocking to see him landing a total compensation of $15.6 million -- all but $100,000 of it due to the hefty free-agent deal he signed with the Seattle Seahawks in March. Wistrom's deal is $33 million over six years, a tidy total but certainly not the stuff of the 50 Fortunate. The catch is that the Seahawks guaranteed $14 million, which counts as a signing bonus in NFL parlance and thus settles in the first year of the deal.
So Wistrom shouldn't get too cozy on this list. As Marc Ganis, the president of Sportscorp Ltd., a Chicago-based sports business consulting firm puts it, "You look at a Grant Wistrom ranking higher than Donovan McNabb [No. 47], and you wonder what's wrong with this picture. It's just because his contract is so front-loaded. He wouldn't sniff this list next year."
Some teams may already be holding their noses when they sign hefty paychecks for the likes of Anfernee"Penny" Hardaway (No. 22), Andre Miller (No. 28), Allan Houston (No. 32), Damon Stoudamire (No. 43), Antonio McDyess (No. 44) and Shareef Abdur-Rahim (No. 47).
Those players generally make the list because of fat salaries, not endorsement millions, underscoring the risk of signing players to long-term, back-ended deals. Injuries have undermined the careers of Hardaway, Houston and McDyess, while the others have simply failed to live up to their billing.
Denver, remember, was lauded for inking rising star McDyess to a six-year, $67.5 million deal in early 1999. McDyess actually could have re-signed with Phoenix for as much as $20 million more. For a while, as McDyess became a breakout star and key member of the 2000 Dream Team, it seemed the Nuggets had made a smart move. Then, serious leg injuries robbed McDyess of his explosive hops.
This season, McDyess was considered valuable trade bait primarily because his contract is about to expire. Now the Suns, who own McDyess yet again, are practically counting the days before they can wipe that albatross off their books.
Andre Miller, like Wistrom, is likely another one-year wonder. The Nuggets lavished the restricted free-agent Miller with a $10 million signing bonus as part of a six-year deal worth as much as $55 million last summer, front-loading the contract to scare off parsimonious Clippers owner Donald Sterling from matching the deal. (It worked.)
Some athletes make the list, however, more for their earning power away from the court, field or track. Sportscorp's Ganis points to the disparity between the revenue streams of golfer Phil Mickelson, at No. 36, and Wistrom at 37.
Mickelson won $1.8 million on the course last year. That's not shabby, but it represents just 13% of the $14 million he earned in endorsements and appearance fees. Wistrom, meanwhile, earns just $100,000 in endorsements, a mere 0.6% of his salary.
"Sponsorships and appearance fees are much more important to athletes in individual sports," says Ganis. "It's a huge percentage of their overall income, while for most athletes in team sports, it's a relatively small portion."
NBA players typically strike the mother lode in terms of salary and endorsements, accounting for nearly half (24) of the list. Even in such rarified company, though, LeBron James is a freak -- just as he is on the court. The Rookie of the Year ranks third on the list thanks to a whopping $35 million in off-court deals, second only to Tiger Woods' $70 million. Sports marketers say that's unprecedented for such a young player in a team sport.
Longevity is generally a big plus in bowling for endorsement dollars. Take 34-year-old Andre Agassi, No. 7 on the list compliments of $24.5 million in off-court earnings. Mike Piazza's (No. 14) career may be on the downside at age 35, but his $6.5 million in endorsements ranks first among baseball players.
If retired athletes were eligible for the list, old reliables such as alltime endorsement king Michael Jordan and golf legends Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus would likely find themselves in solid position.
"You usually see guys make more money in endorsements as they get older even if their skills are diminishing," says IEG's Andrews. "By then they're known quantities, not just to the public but to corporations. These corporations are very risk-averse, and they like to know that they can trust these guys. Athletes who have already had long careers without scandals are safer, whereas a 23-year-old is seen as more likely to get into trouble."
That is the situation faced, of course, by 25-year-old Kobe Bryant, No. 8 on the list with a salary of $13.5 million and $12 million more in endorsements. If Bryant can avoid a guilty verdict in his upcoming rape trial, he may well stay high on the list, even if his endorsers aren't likely to use him anytime soon. That's the beauty of long-term endorsement deals.
Consider the case of oft-injured Orlando Magic forward Grant Hill, who has barely played in three seasons but still clocks in at No. 10. By staying squeaky clean, Hill has held onto his endorsement contracts even if he's not often used as a pitchman these days.
"Hill's standing is testament to the power of long-term deals," says Ganis. "And good lawyering."
Colts quarterback Peyton Manning might also want to send a shout-out to his representatives at IMG. Manning ranks fourth on the list, thanks to his $26.9 million salary from a fat new contract plus his $9.5 million in endorsements, more than twice as much as the next highest football player.
"That's a little higher than I thought, but not that surprising," says Nova Lanktree of Lanktree CSMG, which matches athletes to commercial opportunities. "IMG has tremendous corporate relationships and knows how to structure multi-year deals for its clients."
Manning's endorsements make him somewhat of an anomaly among non-NBA athletes in team sports, who generally lag behind individual athletes such as top tennis players, golfers, NASCAR drivers and cyclist Lance Armstrong (No. 26). Even Yanks third baseman Alex Rodriguez (No. 16), who seemingly graces the back page of New York tabloids every day, can't crack the top 20 in endorsements with a mere $4 million.
If A-Rod comes off as, believe it or not, somewhat undervalued, that's certainly not the case with most of the 50 Fortunate. Indeed, "fortunate" might be an understatement for these Gatsbys of sport.