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Tiger and LeBron: In the billion-dollar club
Only two professionals still playing their sports have become billionaires: Tiger Woods and LeBron James. While their success on the course and court respectively has made them rich, what’s really swelled their bank accounts over the years is product endorsements.
The year was 2009. For the first time in history a sportsperson saw their personal wealth hit the billion-dollar milestone. The individual in question was golfer Tiger Woods, who was just 34.
In the noughties, Tiger had such an aura of invincibility that being paired with him on the weekend of a major tournament would routinely result in seasoned pros falling to bits. Between 2000 and 2008 the 47-year-old won 12 majors. Like Michael Jordan in basketball or Ayrton Senna in F1, he was one of those rare individuals to transcend their sport and become a cultural icon ─ and everyone wanted a piece of him as a result.
After he took the world by storm as a 21-year-old in 1997 by winning the Masters by nine shots, Tiger Wood’s status as the premier sportsperson of his generation, his youth, affability and pearly white smile, coupled with a glass-ceiling-shattering story as a young black golfer in a rich white guy’s world, made him a marketer’s dream. At the height of his success and popularity, Tiger was endorsing many of the biggest brands in the world, including Nike, FedEx, EA Sports, Pepsi and General Motors, which helped him earn a billion dollars just 13 years after turning professional.
Yet as momentous as his rise was, his fall from grace was every bit as dramatic. Later in 2009, he made headlines for the wrong reasons when news broke that he had cheated on his wife, Elen Nordegren, on multiple occasions.
LeBron James is part-owner of the Fenway Sports Group, whose portfolio of professional teams includes the Boston Red Sox, the Pittsburg Penguins and Liverpool FC
Amid the fallout which included a car accident and his wife leaving him, Tiger Woods’ form on the fairway deserted him – as did a number of high-profile sponsors. EA Sports even yanked him from the cover of their best-selling video game in 2013, although this was more to do with his fading prowess on the golf course than his tarnished public persona.
After a decade in the relative wilderness, Tiger roared back into the public consciousness with a fairytale win at the 2019 Masters. And while he continues to be plagued by back injuries, his star power is as strong as ever, as evidenced by the fact that the Saudi-backed LIV Golf Tour offered him a cool $700 million to defect from the PGA Tour, an offer he declined.
Nothing but net for LeBron
Michael Jordan and LeBron James are often compared on and off the court. The former Chicago Bulls star and the current LA Lakers small forward are both billionaires. The difference? Jordan passed the milestone in 2014, 11 years after retiring, while James achieved the feat in 2023 while still draining three-pointers. Not bad for a boy from Akron raised by a single mother who had him when she was 16.
While James owes his fame to his prodigious ability with a basketball, his mega-fortune can be attributed to the commercial partnerships he has signed over the past two decades since being selected first overall by the Cleveland Cavaliers in the 2003 NBA Draft.
The Saudi-backed LIV Golf Tour offered Tiger Woods a cool $700 million to defect from the PGA Tour
Similar to Tiger Woods, LeBron registers highly on the marketability scale – he married his high-school sweetheart in 2013 – and his ability to accrue sponsorship dollars is unrivalled. Like Tiger, he is a spokesperson for Nike, and other high-profile companies. Businesses that pay him to promote their products include Kellogg’s, Coca Cola, McDonalds and State Farm.
In recent years he has distinguished himself as an astute businessman, particularly in the business of sport. He is part-owner of the Fenway Sports Group, whose portfolio of professional teams includes the Boston Red Sox, the Pittsburg Penguins and Liverpool FC.
At 38, his years of making millions in playing contracts may be drawing to a close, but if he’s anything like his illustrious forebear from the Chicago Bulls, his earnings are unlikely to fall off a cliff once he eventually does retire. Rumor has it James has his sights set on becoming the owner of an NBA franchise in the near future, possibly in Las Vegas. The Nevada city, long known as a gambling and entertainment mecca, is fast becoming a major sporting destination too, with Sin City recently welcoming the (reigning NHL champion) Las Vegas Knights ice hockey team in addition to the Las Vegas Raiders, who decamped from Oakland in 2020.
As Woods and LeBron go to show, maximizing your prodigious talent can take you into the financial, as well as sporting, stratosphere.
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