There’s no denying it: sports stars are the new rock stars. High-profile athletes are among the world’s most identifiable individuals, as epitomised by the likes of Cristiano Ronaldo, Lionel Messi and Virat Kohli being three of the most followed people on social media full-stop.
With great fame comes great sponsorship opportunities, and like with any kind of renowned celebrity, there are a long list of companies lining up to hang on their coattails to bolster their brands. But sports sponsorship deals don’t always come cheap for brands, particularly when it comes to the most influential athletes. To demonstrate just how much businesses value this influence, we’ve broken down some of the biggest sports sponsorship deals in history.
1. Michael Jordan and Nike: $1.3 billion
The Michael Jordan and Nike partnership is one of the most famous and lucrative sponsorship deals of all time, let alone sports sponsorship deals. The story began in 1984 when Nike approached the then Chicago Bulls rookie to design his own unique sneakers: the now immortal Air Jordans. This famously involved flouting the NBA’s rules that stated players could only wear white sneakers, with Jordan donning the red, black, and white Air Jordans each game to the tune of a $5,000 fine a pop, each paid for by Nike. Fast forward to today and the sneakers are among the best-selling shoes in history, with Jordan reportedly earning over $1.3 billion from the Nike partnership.
2. Cristiano Ronaldo and Nike: $1 billion
Next up is football megastar Cristiano Ronaldo, who signed a $1 billion lifetime contract with Nike in 2016. While the Portuguese maestro has been contracted to the sports giant since 2003, he became just the third person to be awarded a lifetime contract with Nike after basketballers Michael Jordan and LeBron James — more on the latter in a moment. During his time as a Nike ambassador, Ronaldo has worn over 90 different types of football boots adorned with the famous swoosh, while he also sports the brand’s products off the pitch.
3. LeBron James and Nike: $1 billion
As you will have noticed, there’s a trend when it comes to Nike, as they are by far the world’s largest sponsor of athletes. Like Jordan and Ronaldo, basketball icon LeBron James has also signed a lifetime deal with the sports giant, a deal that is expected to net him $1 billion by the time he reaches his 60s. The contract, which was signed in 2015, includes a range of LeBron James signature shoes, apparel, and a line of accessories, in addition to marketing support from Nike. James has been a Nike athlete since he turned pro in 2003.
4. Lionel Messi and Adidas: $1 billion
Not to be outdone by his perennial rival Cristiano Ronaldo, football mega star Lionel Messi signed what is believed to be a similarly lucrative lifetime deal with Adidas in 2017. Worth an estimated $1 billion, the contract is the culmination of Messi’s long-standing relationship with the sports giant, with the Argentinian first partnering with Adidas back in 2006. He had been contracted to Nike prior to this but parted ways with them after a minor dispute. Messi will wear Adidas boots for the rest of his career, while the brand will also have exclusive rights to use Messi’s image and likeness in their advertising campaigns.
5. Roger Federer and Uniqlo: $300 million
Like Jordan, James and Ronaldo, Tennis legend Roger Federer was a long-time Nike athlete until Japanese clothing brand Uniqlo came calling in 2018. The 20-time Grand Slam winner has stated that Nike wouldn’t support him as he reached the end of his career, resulting in Federer signing a ten-year contract with Uniqlo — worth a reported $300 million. Rumours about the deal were swirling around long before the announcement, and Federer was sure to confirm the change in spectacular fashion by suddenly appearing on the Wimbledon court wearing Uniqlo gear.
6. Rory McIlroy and Nike: $250 million
The first golfer on our list is former number one Rory McIlroy, who penned a 10-year, $250 million deal with Nike in 2013 — the record for a British sportsperson. He has since signed a 10-year extension in 2017, thought to be worth another $100 million. Speaking about the contract, McIlroy stated: “I chose Nike for a number of reasons. It’s a company and a brand that really resonates with me. It’s young. It’s athletic. It’s innovative. They are committed to being the best, as am I. Signing with Nike is another step towards living out my dream.” Big words for a big deal.
7. Steph Curry and Under Armour: $215 million
Another NBA player — this time Golden State Warriors’s Steph Curry. The point guard signed a $215 million deal with sports brand Under Armour back in 2013, and is the only athlete to have launched signature shoes with the brand, releasing ten in his time there. Upon signing a contract extension with Under Armour, he stated: “We understand that it’s a mutually beneficial venture to do some great things, build a great roster, build more scale to the business and create great storytelling.”
8. Derrick Rose and Adidas: $185 million
From one point guard to another, this time New York Knicks’s Derrick Rose, who signed a 14 year $185 million deal with Adidas in 2011. At this point, he was one of the most exciting and dynamic basketball players around, however, his career unfortunately hasn’t quite gone to plan since then. Just a couple of months after becoming an Adidas ambassador, he tore his ACL and would miss the entire next season, the first of several injuries that would derail his career. Despite his dwindling stature, Adidas hasn’t reduced its financial obligations to Rose or terminated the contract.
9. David Beckham and Adidas: $160.8 million
Back in 2003, former Manchester United, Real Madrid and England football star David Beckham signed what was then an unprecedented lifetime deal with Adidas — believed to be worth an estimated $160.8 million. Two decades later and he is still a prominent ambassador of the brand, often posting Adidas adverts on his Instagram page. Beckham has become particularly associated with Adidas Predator football boots, donning them throughout his career.
10. Tiger Woods and Nike: $105 million
Rounding off our list is golfing legend Tiger Woods, who signed a $105 million, five-year contract with Nike in 2000. This was the biggest endorsement deal ever afforded to an athlete at the time, however, his earnings fell after his infidelity scandal of 2009. That said, Woods is still a Nike ambassador to this day, even if he was spotted wearing non-Nike golf shoes at the 2022 Masters, one of the only times he had done so since becoming a pro. However, this was put down to changing footwear needs after he was involved in a serious car crash in early 2021.
So there you have it: the top ten sports sponsorship deals in history! Although this blog has detailed deals worth hundreds of millions — if not billions — of dollars, rest assured that the everyday brand is certainly able to harness the various types of sports sponsorship to its benefit. As part of Pitch’s sports sponsorship service, we have helped businesses of all sizes embrace the power of this type of marketing, achieving impressive results each time. Check out some examples of our work here, and get in contact to learn more or make an enquiry.