Some athletes earn millions of dollars over the course of their careers only to blow it all. Others, however, look back on their salaries from their time in the pros as mere pocket change. Even some of the greatest athletes of all time launched second and third income streams that dwarfed their professional salaries.
Last updated: March 17, 2020
Carl Weathers: $6 Million
Carl Weathers was a standout college football player who went on to have an unremarkable professional career that lasted just one year in the NFL — the Raiders signed him in 1970 before releasing him in 1971 — and a few years in a Canadian league. His impressive physique, however, caught the eye of Hollywood, where Weathers would make his real money.
How Carl Weathers Made Most of His Money
Starting with an uncredited role in “Magnum Force,” Carl Weathers has amassed nearly 80 film and television credits between 1973 and today. He’s had several significant recurring roles in big TV series like “Chicago P.D.” and “Arrested Development,” but he’s best-known for the memorable characters he brought to life on the big screen. Most notably, he was Apollo Creed in the “Rocky” franchise, Dillon in “Predator,” and, showing his softer side, Chubbs in “Happy Gilmore.” Weathers is back in the spotlight today as one of the stars in the Disney+ streaming show “The Mandalorian.”
Jim Brown: $50 Million
During his NFL career, Jim Brown was the league’s leading rusher for eight of the nine seasons he played. He played in nine straight Pro Bowls, was named league MVP three times and was later named to both the college and pro football halls of fame. He entered a new and profitable chapter of his life and career, however, when the New York Times ran this headline on July 13, 1966: Jim Brown Quits Football for the Movies.
How Jim Brown Made Most of His Money
Jim Brown earned his reputation as a rough, tough, no-nonsense guy on the field, but he leveraged that persona to launch a prolific and profitable career on the big and small screens. From 1964-2014, Brown amassed more than 50 television and film credits, including “The Dirty Dozen,” “Mars Attacks,” “The Running Man” and “100 Rifles,” the latter of which starred Raquel Welch and is remembered as featuring the first interracial love scene in a major studio movie.
Michael Strahan: $65 Million
Michael Strahan was a career New York Giant who spent 15 years in the NFL, went to seven Pro Bowls and was voted into the Football Hall of Fame. He earned eight figures only two of those years, however, and earned $5 million or less for the vast majority of his career.
How Michael Strahan Made Most of His Money
Strahan parlayed his charisma, style and gift of gab into a remarkable second career in television. He co-hosts “Good Morning America” and “GMA3: Strahan, Sara, & Keke.” He provides analysis for “Fox NFL Sunday” as well as for Fox’s “Thursday Night Football Pregame Show.” Forbes consistently ranks him as one of the highest-paid television hosts, and he’s won two Emmys.
Tony Hawk: $140 Million
At the age of 51, Tony Hawk is still the most famous skateboarder in the world and is regarded as the central pioneering figure in the rise of vertical skateboarding. He turned pro at the age of 14 in 1982 and began earning about $100,000 a year. He would go on to win every award and competition worth winning in the sport. He’ll always be remembered, however, for becoming the first skateboarder ever to land a 900, which he did at the 1999 X Games.
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How Tony Hawk Made Most of His Money
Tony Hawk earned more in the business world than he ever could have by riding a skateboard. He created 900 Films, Hawk Clothing and Birdhouse Skateboards, all of which are successful companies. His real bread and butter, however, is video games. The first of his self-titled franchise came out in 1999, the same year he landed his fabled 900. Tony Hawk’s Pro Skater video game franchise has since done more than $1.4 billion in sales.
Steve Young: $200 Million
Steve Young was drafted by Tampa Bay in 1984, played two years with the Buccaneers, and then moved to San Francisco. With the 49ers, he rose to the impossible task of replacing Joe Montana and established his place as one of the greatest quarterbacks in NFL history. During his entire storied career, however, he earned only a combined $49.37 million.
How Steve Young Made Most of His Money
Many former athletes get into the finance industry only to find out after all their money is gone that it’s harder than it looks. Others lend their celebrity to established firms but don’t really do anything. Steve Young, however, displayed a real savvy with finance and in 2007 he co-founded venture capital firm HGGC, which specializes in securing majority stakes in software companies valued at between $300 million and $500 million.
George Foreman: $300 Million
One of the most feared, most famous and most successful boxers in history, George Foreman squared off with the likes of Muhammad Ali and Joe Frazier during boxing’s golden age. He made enough to set aside $5 million, but he blew his nest egg on bad investments and returned to boxing after 10 years in retirement. In what is probably the greatest comeback in sports history, he became the oldest heavyweight champion in history when he won the title at the age of 45 in 1994. Although he made $12.5 million for his 1991 fight with Evander Holyfield, most of his second-act fights paid a pittance of between $2,000 and $5,000.
How George Foreman Made Most of His Money
In 1999, even the purses from his biggest prizefights would seem like child’s play to George Foreman, who leveraged his likable, affable persona into nine-figure profits on the back of the other thing he’s famous for. That year, housewares maker Salton Inc. paid the champ $137.5 million for the use of Foreman’s name on an inexpensive indoor grill. In 2007, the company agreed to pay Foreman $2 million a year to serve as a pitchman for the George Foreman Grill and also paid him a percentage of each sale. More than 100 million units have been sold to date.
Dwayne Johnson: $320 Million
Born into a wrestling family in California, Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson played college football for the Miami Hurricanes championship team in the early 1990s. A series of injuries kept him out of the NFL and a short-lived stint in the Canadian Football League earned him just $250 a week. He then turned to the family business of wrestling, where he spent years as one of the most popular and successful wrestlers in WWE history — but the payout was just nickels and dimes compared to what was on the horizon.
How Dwayne Johnson Made Most of His Money
The Rock’s popularity in the ring led to an opportunity to host “Saturday Night Live.” The episode was a ratings hit, and Johnson performed brilliantly, proving he had the chops for a career in show business — and what a career it’s been. In 2019, he was the highest-paid actor in the world and the No. 15 highest-paid celebrity in general — Forbes estimated his take that year to be $89.4 million. He regularly lands starring roles in huge blockbuster films and commands eight-figure upfront payments.
Jack Nicklaus: $320 Million
With a career spanning from 1962-2003 and including 73 Tour victories and a record 18 major titles, Jack Nicklaus is one of the greatest golfers in the history of the sport. His combined official career earnings, however, come in at just shy of $5.73 million, yet he commands a nine-figure fortune.
How Jack Nicklaus Made Most of His Money
Jack Nicklaus used his name, celebrity and golf knowledge to create one of the most prolific golf course design companies in the world, and the business earns him tens of millions of dollars per year. Nicklaus Design now has nearly a half-century of history and has designed more than 400 courses around the world with dozens of more projects currently in the works.
Vinnie Johnson: $400 Million
A longtime Detroit Piston, Vinnie Johnson exemplified the sixth-man position in the NBA. He earned millions during his career, which ran from 1979-92, but only single-digit millions. Today, however, he’s worth nearly a half-billion dollars thanks to an empire he built from a different Detroit industry.
How Vinnie Johnson Made Most of His Money
After his 12-year career ended, Johnson founded Piston automotive and the roughly $5 million Johnson made in the NBA would soon seem trivial. After landing a major contract with General Motors Co., Piston would go on to become one of the largest automotive parts suppliers in America. His company now supplies GM, Ford and Fiat Chrysler plus Nissan, Honda, Toyota and more.
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Arnold Schwarzenegger: $400 Million
Although other bodybuilders have since broken his record seven Mr. Olympia title wins, no name in the history of the sport has ever rung out louder than that of Arnold Schwarzenegger. Although his incredible physique earned him a godlike status in the bodybuilding world, it’s not the source of his massive fortune.
How Arnold Schwarzenegger Made Most of His Money
Arnold Schwarzenegger’s bodybuilding exploits in the ’60s and ’70s did earn him enough to purchase commercial real estate buildings, earning Schwarzenegger his first million dollars, which let him focus on a career transition that would soon make $1 million look like peanuts — acting. He would go on to become the biggest action star in the world, playing starring roles in blockbusters like “Predator,” “The Terminator,” “Total Recall” and “Conan the Barbarian.” Eventually, he would rise to the top of yet another career — politics — when he became the governor of California.
Junior Bridgeman: $600 Million
Although he was drafted by the Lakers in 1975, Junior Bridgeman was traded to Milwaukee right away. During his respectable 12-year career, he averaged 13.6 points per game, mostly as a sixth-man player off the bench. His peak earnings were $350,000 during his basketball career, but his massive fortune can be traced to his brilliant second career.
How Junior Bridgeman Made Most of His Money
Bridgeman used his NBA earnings to create Bridgeman Food, which he built from the ground up into a franchise restaurant empire that includes Chili’s, Fazoli’s and Wendy’s locations. He showed intense dedication, even working at a Wendy’s to learn the trade while still playing in the NBA. When he retired, he owned three Wendy’s locations. Today, he’s the second-largest Wendy’s franchisee in the world with more than 160 locations. He owns more than 120 Chili’s locations.
Magic Johnson: $600 Million
In 1981, Magic Johnson signed an NBA contract that would seem peculiar by today’s standards. His extension deal was for $25 million, lasted 25 years and made him a Laker for life. He earned a place among the all-time legends of basketball during the course of his career, which was cut short in 1991 when Johnson shocked the world and humanized the AIDS crisis when he announced he was diagnosed as HIV positive.
How Magic Johnson Made Most of His Money
In 1981, the same year he signed his quarter-century contract, Johnson opened a retail store and invested in two Colorado radio stations. It was the beginning of a vast and sprawling business empire that would reach into sectors like fast food, candy, staffing, sports franchises, media and publishing, restaurants, sneakers, healthcare, insurance and soda. In 1987, he formed Magic Johnson Enterprises, which is now worth more than $1 billion. In 2010, he sold 105 Starbucks franchises and his stake in the Los Angeles Lakers for more than $100 million.
Roger Staubach: $600 Million
When Roger Staubach joined the Dallas Cowboys in 1969 as a 27-year-old rookie, his salary was $25,000 a year, which was roughly the league average. Knowing that a single injury could cut off his income, he did something that would go on to earn him a fortune that even today’s highly compensated athletes would covet — he worked as a real estate broker in the offseason.
How Roger Staubach Made Most of His Money
In 1977, two years before he retired from the NFL as one of the most accomplished quarterbacks in history, he earned enough to launch his own real estate firm, the Staubach Company. He built a massive client base in the 1990s and 2000s, amassed 50 offices in North America and, in 2008, he sold his company for $640 million.
Arnold Palmer: $875 Million
When Arnold Palmer died in 2016, he left behind a legend that will forever loom large over the sport of golf. He spent 52 years on the PGA Tour and Championship Tour, racking up an astonishing 62 PGA Tour wins and seven major championships. During more than a half-century in the sport — his last PGA Tour win was in 1973 — he won only $3.6 million in prize money. He earned 240 times that amount, however — well over $1 billion when adjusted for inflation — off the fairways and greens.
How Arnold Palmer Made Most of His Money
Arnold Palmer changed the way athlete endorsements were structured and paved the way for giants like Lebron James and Michael Jordan to wring every dollar out of their celebrity status. He earned hundreds of millions of dollars in course design and licensing fees, endorsements and appearances. He pioneered modern sports marketing and helped launch the Golf Channel. In 2017 — the year after he died — his estate earned $40 million.
Michael Jordan: $2.1 Billion
Micheal Jordan is widely regarded to be the greatest basketball player of all time, and he was rewarded handsomely for his efforts on the court. He earned $90 million in salary and many, many millions more from corporate endorsement deals. Today, however, the man known as Mike is a member of the elite billionaire club and the most successful post-career athlete in history.
How Michael Jordan Made Most of His Money
Nearly two decades after his retirement, Michael Jordan still has endorsement deals with Upper Deck, Gatorade and Hanes. He bought a majority stake in the Charlotte Hornets in 2010 for just $175 million — today, the franchise is worth $1.05 billion and Jordan owns 90%. He added $350 million to his net worth — nearly four times his entire career salary — in 2018 alone. In 2019, the Jordan Brand earned Nike $3.14 billion in revenue.
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About the Author
Andrew Lisa has been writing professionally since 2001. An award-winning writer, Andrew was formerly one of the youngest nationally distributed columnists for the largest newspaper syndicate in the country, the Gannett News Service. He worked as the business section editor for amNewYork, the most widely distributed newspaper in Manhattan, and worked as a copy editor for TheStreet.com, a financial publication in the heart of Wall Street’s investment community in New York City.