Jonah Freedman
Wednesday July 1st, 2009

The untouchable twosome who usually dominate the top of Sports Illustrated's Fortunate 50 list of the top-earning American athletes don't look so untouchable anymore.

Sure, Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson still earn more annually in winnings, endorsements and appearance fees than any of us could ever dream of. But both men have seen decreases in their earnings this year that may herald the first signs of the slumping economy in pro sports.

Tiger is still No. 1 with a total of $99.7 million (down 22 percent from last year) and Mickelson is again No. 2 (with $53 million, down 15 percent). But this marks the first time in three years that Woods has earned less than $100 million -- no surprise since he spent the majority of last year off the course recovering from knee surgery, which not only denied him PGA winnings, but also millions in appearance fees at invitational tournaments.

More telling is the fact that their lesser earnings also reflect the loss of major auto-manufacturer endorsement deals in the past few years (Tiger ended his nine-year relationship with Buick by "mutual consent," while Phil has been without an auto sponsor since Ford killed his deal in 2006). And as far as the endorsement game is concerned, that's a bellwether for the entire economy: The hard-hit automotive industry and financial sector have been pulling back in a big way in the endorsement game, according to Doug Shabelman of Burns Entertainment & Sports Marketing, a company that matches celebrities with corporate sponsorship deals.

Across the board, corporate America is cutting back on devoting hundreds of millions of dollars toward hiring athletes to peddle their products. According to IEG Sponsorship Report, the amount of money companies are spending to sponsor sports is up less than 1 percent from 2008, the first time in three years there hasn't been a double-digit percentage increase. That comprises all the bread-and-butter industries that normally hire athletes: auto-makers, snack-food and sports-drink manufacturers and, most of all, shoe companies.

Lesser endorsement earnings for Woods and Mickelson explain most of the reason the average earnings of the sportsmen on the Fortunate 50 fell -- down $1.5 million per athlete to $23.6 million -- for the first time in the six years we've compiled the list.

However, the economy has yet to hit athletes at their day jobs. As usual, NBA players make up the biggest proportion of athletes on the list, and a record nine of them earned in excess of $20 million in salary this past season. Some are the names you'd expect: Kobe Bryant (No. 7 with a total of $31.3 million), Shaquille O'Neal (No. 5, $35 million) and Kevin Garnett (No. 6, $34.8 million), to name a few. But many are aging veterans who are playing out the final years of huge deals they signed during their prime: Allen Iverson (No. 8, $28.9 million) and Jason Kidd (No. 20, $22.9 million), for instance.

In fact, of the 22 hoopsters on the list, 12 either played out the final years of their contracts this past season or are entering their walk years in 2009-10. Some will be rewarded handsomely, like LeBron James (No. 3, $42.4 million), while some -- like Jermaine O'Neal (No. 21, $22.1 million) and Mike Bibby (No. 46, $15.2 million) -- may be forced to accept less than half of what they've earned during their peak years.

Of the 14 baseball players on the list, five are Yankees. The Bronx Bombers' three premier offseason signings make their debuts on the 50: No. 14 Mark Teixeira, No. 19 CC Sabathia and No. 38 A.J. Burnett, whom the team wrapped up for a combined near-half billion dollars. That's in addition to the ever-present duo of Alex Rodriguez and Derek Jeter (Nos. 4 and 9, respectively, at $39 million and $28.5 million). In fact, the highest-ranked non-Yankee baseball player on the list is San Francisco Giants pitcher Barry Zito at No. 26.

The rest of the list is made up of nine NFL players, two NASCAR drivers and a third golfer (endorsement machine Jim Furyk). Globally, however, the rest of the world is making sports an ever bigger sell: The average earnings of the athletes on the International 20, our list of the top-earning foreign athletes, are at an all-time high of $29.5 million. Of those 20, only four play in U.S.-based leagues, including David Beckham (No. 1 at $45.2 million), who is back in Major League Soccer with the Los Angeles Galaxy at least through the end of this season. Soccer is still the biggest ticket, with six Europe-based footballers in addition to Becks making the list.

The retirement of money machine Michael Schumacher in Formula 1 four years ago has left plenty of cash to go around the sport, which has made the biggest gains on list: Four drivers earn in excess of $20 million, while another racing icon, Italian MotoGP star Valentino Rossi, checks in for the fourth consecutive year. They join tennis' top earners: Roger Federer and Maria Sharapova (once again, the only woman on either list). The rest of the 20 comprises two golfers, two NBA stars, a Japanese baseball icon and Philippine boxing sensation Manny Pacquiao, who hauled in $40 million from his three high-profile fights with Oscar De La Hoya, Ricky Hatton and David Diaz.

In all, it seems that even in tough economic times, being at the top of your game is recession-proof.

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