How many people in the world can actually make a living solely from their athletic endeavors.
In other words, how many paid professional athletes are there who do not need to supplement their income with other jobs or sources of revenue?
This is not an easy question to answer, as there are many factors and variables involved, such as the definition of professional, the level of competition, the type of sport, the location and market size, the sponsorship and endorsement opportunities, and the personal expenses and lifestyle choices of each athlete. However, using some publicly available data and reasonable assumptions, we can try to estimate a rough number based on some criteria.
First, we need to define what we mean by a paid professional athlete. For the purpose of this analysis, we will use the following definition: a paid professional athlete is someone who competes in an organized sport at the highest level of their discipline or league, and who receives a regular salary or prize money that is sufficient to cover their basic living expenses and taxes.
We will exclude athletes who are amateurs, semi-professional, or who compete in lower divisions or minor leagues. We will also exclude athletes who rely on other sources of income, such as endorsements, appearances, licensing, or business ventures, to support themselves. These sources of income are often variable, uncertain, and dependent on factors beyond athletic performance, such as popularity, marketability, and personal brand. Therefore, we will focus only on the income that comes directly from playing or competing in a sport.
Second, we need to determine what is the minimum amount of income that an athlete needs to be considered economically viable. This is a subjective and relative measure, as different athletes may have different standards of living, costs of living, and financial obligations. However, for simplicity and consistency, we will use the following benchmark: an athlete needs to earn at least $50,000 per year (before taxes) from their sport to be considered economically viable.
This amount is based on the median household income in the United States in 2020, which is one of the largest and most developed sports markets in the world. We acknowledge that this amount may be too high or too low for some athletes in different countries or regions, but we believe it is a reasonable approximation for a global average.
Third, we need to collect and analyze the data on how many athletes meet these criteria in each sport. This is the most challenging and uncertain part of the estimation, as there is no comprehensive and reliable source of information on how many athletes compete and how much they earn in every sport and every country in the world. Therefore, we will rely on some secondary sources, such as Forbes' annual lists of the highest-paid athletes , Statista's statistics on sports salaries and revenues, and various reports and articles from reputable media outlets and organizations. We will also make some assumptions and estimations based on available data and common sense.
We will focus on the most popular and lucrative sports in the world, such as soccer (football), basketball, baseball, American football (NFL), tennis, golf, boxing, MMA (mixed martial arts), cricket, Formula 1 (F1), and esports. We will exclude sports that are not widely played or followed globally, such as hockey (NHL), rugby, cycling, skiing, etc.
Based on public sources and assumptions, we can estimate how many paid professional athletes are there in each sport who earn at least $50,000 per year from their sport.
- Based on FIFA's estimate of 265 million players worldwide, assuming 1% are professional and 10% of them earn at least $50k.
- Based on NBA's 450 players, WNBA's 144 players, EuroLeague's 288 players, CBA's 540 players, plus 500 players from other leagues
- Based on MLB's 750 players, NPB's 360 players, KBO's 270 players, plus 120 players from other leagues, Based on NFL's roster limit of 53 players per team for 32 teams
- Based on ATP's ranking of top 1,000 men's singles players plus WTA's ranking of top 1,000 women's singles players Based on PGA Tour's 250 players, European Tour's 250 players, LPGA Tour's 250 players, plus 250 players from other tours
- Based on BoxRec's ranking of top 500 men's boxers plus top 500 women's boxers, assuming half of them earn at least $50k
- Based on UFC's roster of 600 fighters, Bellator's roster of 200 fighters, plus 100 fighters from other promotions, assuming half of them earn at least $50k
- Based on (Cricket) IPL's 169 players, PSL's 150 players, BBL's 96 players, CPL's 90 players, plus 100 players from other leagues and national teams
- Based on F1's grid of 20 drivers Based on Esports Earnings' ranking of top 500 esports players by total prize money, assuming they earn at least $50k per year
Adding up these numbers, we get a total of less than 20k paid professional athletes in the world who earn at least $50,000 per year from their sport.
This is our best estimate based on the available data and assumptions. However, we acknowledge that this estimate has a large margin of error and uncertainty, and it may change over time as new data and information become available. Therefore, we do not claim that this is the definitive or final answer to the question, but rather a reasonable approximation that can be refined and updated in the future.
The purpose of this analysis is to provide some insight and perspective on how many athletes are able to live solely off of their professional earnings (including endorsements) as opposed to athletes who are professional in name, but either are not paid, or aren't making enough to support their lifestyle, forcing them to hold jobs in other fields.
We hope that this analysis can help sports fans and aspiring athletes understand the reality and challenges of pursuing a career in sports, as well as appreciate the achievements and sacrifices of those who do.