Beckham, Ronaldo are top-paid soccer players

David Beckham arrived to play for the Los Angeles Galaxy four years ago amid much hoopla of turning the U.S. into a soccer-loving country. His American summer debut was a media circus with stars like Tom Cruise, Eva Longoria, Mary-Kate Olsen and Arnold Schwarzenegger turning out to catch a glimpse of Becks on the field.

Alas the soccer explosion in the U.S. didn’t happen. Major League Soccer has had success, but it continues to appeal to a niche audience with games averaging 249,000 viewers on ESPN2 last season. The Galaxy failed to make the playoffs during Beckham’s first two seasons and he scored only nine goals in his first four years with the Galaxy as injuries slowed his game.
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Yet the move to the U.S. was a huge success financially for Beckham. Despite being in the twilight of his career (he turns 36 next month), Beckham continues to be the highest-paid soccer player in the world with total earnings of $40 million last year.

“Beckham is more analogous to a Hollywood star than a footballer,” says Michael Stirling, CEO of Global Sponsors, which manages sponsorship properties worldwide. His appeal as a player has diminished as he enters the final season of his Galaxy contract (he intends to keep playing after this year), but he is a global celebrity that everyone knows.

Beckham added Electronic Arts and Diet Pepsi to his endorsement stable over the past year (he also inked a short-term agreement with Yahoo!). His Adidas contract is the biggest in the sport thanks to royalties from soccer apparel and cleats as well as lifestyle lines like ObyO. He also has a cologne deal with Coty and pitches Go3’s Omega-3 line of products.

The Beckham marketing juggernaut shows no sign of slowing down. Later this year Beckham plans to launch his own underwear label and line of grooming products. He will also be a sought after partner for companies looking to advertise in the run-up to the 2012 London Olympic Games, where he’ll serve as an unofficial “host” for his hometown Games (Beckham was a bid ambassador when London won the rights to the Games).

The economic downturn had companies around the world scrutinizing expenses the past few years and athlete endorsements were no different. Gillette let deals with Thierry Henry, Ricardo Kaka and Lionel Messi expire. Coca-Cola did not re-sign Manchester United striker Wayne Rooney when their agreement ran out at the end of 2010.

While a few deals have expired, the sponsorship market is still strong for the top players according to Stirling. Sponsors are seeking bigger time commitments from athletes in some cases or flexibility in the deal terms, but deals are still getting done.

Ranking No. 2 on our list of the highest-paid soccer players is Cristiano Ronaldo who made $38 million in 2010 (our earnings figures include salaries, bonuses and endorsement income). Ronaldo’s earnings are split evenly between his Real Madrid salary and endorsement income from Nike, Armani, Castrol and others.
Ronaldo is able to reach a massive audience through social media. His 24 million Facebook fans are twice as many as any other athlete (Michael Jordan is second with 10 million fans). His Facebook audience is split evenly between men and women, which makes Ronaldo attractive to a wide range of companies as a pitchman. His 2.4 million Twitter followers are topped only by Shaquille O’Neal, Kaka and Lance Armstrong amongst athletes.

Another athlete looking to social media is Lionel Messi who ranks No. 3 on our list with earnings of $32 million in 2010. Messi launched a Facebook account this month and quickly signed up more than seven million fans. The two-time Player of the Year has beefed up his endorsement portfolio in recent years. Current sponsors like Adidas, Lay’s, Konami, Audemars Piguet, Chery and Air Europa net Messi $16 million annually on top of the $16 million he earned last year from Barcelona in salary and bonuses

The top five:
1. David Beckham
2. Cristiano Ronaldo
3. Lionel Messi
4. Ricardo Kaka
5. Ronaldinho

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