How Michael Jordan Became The Richest Athlete Of All Time

This weekend sees the release of “Air,” the hotly anticipated and critically acclaimed film about Nike’s desperate attempt to sign the then largely unknown Michael Jordan to an endorsement deal that would go on to change the world of athletic sponsorships forever.

Produced and directed by Ben Affleck, who also plays Nike CEO Phil Knight, the film stars Matt Damon as Nike marketing exec Sonny Vaccaro, who is looking to change the Oregon-based company’s image by signing the NCAA All-American First Team recruit and National Player of the Year. Vaccaro’s idea was to outpace their main rival Adidas by making Nike an extension of the future GOAT’s persona. But before he gets there, Vaccaro has to convince Jordan’s skeptical and protective mother Deloris, played by Oscar-winner Viola Davis.

“Air” was written by Alex Convey, a young screenwriter, and former assistant on ESPN’s Emmy-winning documentary series “30 for 30,” who was inspired by a brief mention of Nike’s courtship during the documentary miniseries “The Last Dance.”

Jordan, as a character, barely appears in the film, as “Air” is more about the creation of Nike as we know it, as well as the cultural myth that is Michael Jordan.

To use the language of a popular meme, “Air” is about How It Started. So…How’s It Going?

Michael Jordan Is Richest Athlete of All Time. How’d He Get There?
Is Michael Jordan the best athlete of all time? Or does that title rightfully belong to LeBron James? Or is it really Serena Williams?

That’s a (likely resolvable) debate for some other time. But what isn’t really up for debate, because there’s numbers and math involved, is that Michael Jordan is the Richest Athlete of All Time. As reported by Sportico’s list of the 25 Highest Paid Athletes of all time, Jordan earned $2.77 billion throughout his career, which can be adjusted to$3.54 billion when accounting for inflation.

While Jordan, a six-time NBA champion, was one of the most highly paid players in NBA history, only about six per cent of this total came from Jordan’s playing contract notes Fox Sports, “the remainder is based on endorsements, licensing and memorabilia sales.”

So how’d he make his millions? Er, billions? Some canny partnerships and a lot of hard work. Here’s just some of the highlights:

  1. Jordan finally retired in 2003. He continues to receive over $100 million a year in Nike royalties.
    As far as actually playing basketball goes, he made $90 million in salary during his NBA career, including two stints with the Bulls (1984–1993, 1995–1998) and one with the Washington Wizards (2001–2003).
  2. He started his Jordan Brand fashion line in 1997. It has taken in $19.4 billion in revenue over the last five fiscal years.
  3. Among the most notable collaborations Jordan has made was the upscale Jordan 1 collaboration with Dior, which sold for $2,200 after its release in 2020 and has resold for $12,000.
  4. His 1996 film “Space Jam,” is a hallmark of many millennial childhoods. It earned $250 million worldwide, and he was reportedly paid $20 million for his services.
  5. Sales of Jordan memorabilia are a big business for him. A pair of sneakers he wore during his infamous “Flu Game” in the 1997 finals were sold for $104,675 at auction in 2013 and his jersey from the 1998 NBA Finals sold for $10.1 million.
  6. He owns 97% of the Charlotte Hornets, having purchased them in 2010, a move that eventually made him a billionaire. When he sold a minority stake in 2019, it was reported the team was valued at $1.5 billion. He also owns 23XI Racing, part of the NASCAR Cup Series.
  7. In 1991, after Jordan won his first NBA championship, he signed a a ten-year endorsement deal with Gatorade, averaging $1.4 million annually.