NBA players are gearing up to do battle with the league’s owners this year ahead of the December 15 deadline for either side to opt-out of the collective bargaining agreement signed in 2011. The players argue that average salaries have barely budged, while team profits soared and franchise values tripled thanks to reduced player costs and $24 billion in new TV contracts with TNT and ABC/ESPN . Management sees a rising tide lifting all boats with the $5+ million average salary already the highest in sports and heading north of $8 million when the cap rises with the new TV deals.
Without question the top of the NBA food chain is flourishing thanks to maximum-level salaries and rich endorsement deals as companies clamor to get a piece of the U.S. sports league with the best global outlook. The NBA’s 10 highest-paid players will bank $391 million from salaries and endorsements this season with 46% of the total earned off the court.
Leading the way for the second straight year is four-time NBA MVP Lebron James at $71 million. James’ salary with the Cleveland Cavaliers is $23 million, third highest in the league. James opted out of his two-year Cavs’ contract last summer and signed another two-year year deal at a higher rate that again allows him to opt-out after the first year. It is a way to maximize his salary and take advantage of the rising salary cap.
James makes more than twice as much off the court as on with an estimated $48 million. Nike NKE -1.01% has been King James’ chief backer since he entered the NBA out of high school in 2003 with a seven-year, $90 million contract from the Swoosh. The $31-billion-in-revenue sportswear giant doubled down on James this season with the first lifetime contract in the company’s 44-year history. James’ final tally from the Nike deal will ultimately be determined by shoe sales going forward, but it is expected to soar past $500 million. James was the NBA’s top shoe salesman in 2014 with Nike selling $340 million of James’ signature kicks.
James has expanded his empire with a series of deals outside the traditional NBA space. He launched a production company, SpringHill Entertainment, in 2008 with business partner Maverick Carter (it signed a deal with Warner Bros. Entertainment last year). In 2011, James joined forces with Fenway Sports Management, which netted him a seven-figure payout, and a stake in soccer club Liverpool. James invested in assembly-line pizza franchise Blaze in 2012 and secured franchise rights for the Chicago and south Florida markets. James currently has seven franchises in Chicago and four in Florida with more on the way.
The lifetime Nike deal and outside business interests keep James climbing the ladder towards his stated goal of becoming a billionaire. James’ career earnings are approaching $600 million, including endorsements.
Oklahoma City Thunder forward Kevin Durant ranks second with earnings of $56.2 million, including $36 million from sponsors. Durant will be a free agent after this season and will have his pick of suitors lining up to lavish a maximum-level contract on the 2014 NBA MVP.
KD launched his own underwear line last year in partnership with Neff and Foot Locker FL +0.41%. Durant’s money deal though is with Nike, which signed the four-time scoring champ to an extension in 2014 worth as much as $300 million over 10 years. Durant toured Europe last summer for a Nike basketball marketing tour that included stops in Madrid, Paris and Berlin. Other Durant sponsors include American Family Insurance, BBVA, Orange Leaf, Panini, Sonic, Sparkling Ice, Beats and 2K Sports.
Kobe Bryant is No. 3 with earnings of $50 million. His $25 million salary with the Los Angeles Lakers is the NBA’s top paycheck for the past six seasons. Bryant and Michael Jordan are the only two NBA players to earn at least $30 million for a single season. Bryant announced in November that he would retire after the season via a poem onDerek Jeter’s Players’ Tribune website. His $680 million in total earnings during his career, including endorsements, is the most ever by an athlete in team sports. The only athletes to earn more: Tiger Woods, Michael Schumacher and Floyd Mayweather.
Bryant began his transition from NBA player to business in 2013 when he set up Kobe Inc. His first target was a mid-seven figures investment for more than 10% of emerging sports drink BodyArmor. Bryant told Forbes at the time that he wanted Kobe Inc. to “redefine the sports industry while inspiring the world.” In October, Bryant made a “significant” investment in The Players Tribune. Bryant also reached a wide-ranging deal last year with Chinese e-commerce giant Alibaba that included the release of his documentary “Kobe Bryant’s Muse”; plans for a series a Kobe-branded products; and a new social media platform.
Rounding out the top five earners are Derrick Rose ($34.1 million) and James Harden($32.8 million).
Harden made the biggest jump with his off-court income quadrupling to $17 million. The MVP runner-up cashed in over the summer with a new 13-year deal with Adidasworth up to $200 million and included a signing bonus. Harden’s unique style and strong play has made him one of the NBA’s most marketable players. Other partners include Beats, Foot Locker FL +0.41%, BodyArmor, NBA 2K (he shares the cover with Steph Curry) and a half-dozen more.