It will endure as one of the most iconic images in sport – Tiger Woods hunting down a major tournament during Sunday’s final round bedecked in a red Nike t-shirt.
That will sadly now be a thing of the past, because even if the ‘Big Cat’ can battle back from a catalogues of injuries and surgeries, he will no longer have the brand’s famous ‘swoosh’ logo on his chest.
Tiger and Nike have confirmed that they have parted company after 27 years; a run that saw him win 15 majors, 82 PGA TOUR titles all told and confirm himself as one of the greatest players ever to pick up a club.
It’s a partnership that has also bolstered Tiger’s bank account to the tune of $500 million (£392 million) – making it one of the longest-lasting and richest sponsorship agreements in sporting history.
The reasons for the parting of the ways are not known, although Tiger’s decision to wear FootJoy rather than Nike shoes at The Masters in 2023 – in a bid to ease the pressure on his metal plate-laden limbs – was perhaps one factor.
Tiger’s near-enough retirement from golf is not thought to have contributed – Nike have continued to pen the richest sponsorship deal in sport with an athlete that hasn’t competed in two decades….but more on that later.
Tiger On the Prowl
There is a popular misconception in sport that an athlete will get better with age – that maturity and experience will make them a more-rounded and enhanced performer. The truth, in reality, is that some simply peak as teenagers; the fearlessness and naivety of youth enabling them to perform without pressure, which remains the Valhalla state for a sporting star.
So it was something of a surprise when Nike took a huge gamble on Tiger Woods back in 1996, signing him up to a five-year sponsorship deal worth $40 million (£31 million) – at the time, the single-largest endorsement made to an athlete.
Woods had literally only just turned pro at the age of 20, winning three U.S. Amateur titles and the much-vaunted NCAA college golf event. He was already becoming a household name, but there’s no doubt that Nike’s huge outlay was a considerable gamble.
They needn’t have worried….
Following an iconic ‘Hello, World’ TV advertisement that only served to quicken the hype train surrounding Tiger, the young Woods set to work torching professional golf – within that first five-year span as a Nike athlete, he’d already completed the career grand slam of majors (winning The Masters and PGA Championship twice each) and become the only player to win four consecutive majors.
So by the end of his first Nike deal, Tiger could have named his price to join any other sportswear brand – but he stayed loyal to his original backer, penning a $100 million extension in 2001 for another five years.
The silverware kept on coming and so too did the Nike extensions – in 2006, Tiger put pen to paper on another deal that would net him $240 million over the next eight years.
But then Tiger’s on and off-course woes began. In 2008, he underwent knee surgery that would see him miss much of the season, before lurid allegations about his private life would become public in 2009 – his then-wife divorcing Woods over infidelities that he later admitted to, before embarking on a period of absence from the sport.
He returned but not before firing his swing coach and caddie, while repercussions from his knee injuries continued to haunt Tiger’s career – soon, his long-standing agreement with Nike was up for renewal.
The brand wanted to keep Tiger on board, but his change in public perception – from supremely-talented youngster to tainted philanderer – saw his new contract with Nike fall to $200 million over a ten-year period; still, not too shabby.
Back surgeries and a horrific car crash have only served to undermine Tiger’s career further, but in true Tiger fashion there has still been time for one of the most remarkable renaissance stories in the history of sport – his 2019 triumph at The Masters as incredible as it was unexpected.
— The Masters (@TheMasters) November 8, 2020
In December 2025, Tiger will turn 50 and qualify for the Champions Tour. That will likely be his next golfing destination – he just won’t have Nike on his back or on his feet when he tees up there.
How Much Does Nike Pay Michael Jordan?
Although Tiger Woods has fared rather handsomely from his link-up with Nike, his earnings pale in comparison to those of Michael Jordan.
Like Woods, Jordan was a fresh-faced phenom when he burst onto the scene with NBA outfit Chicago Bulls in the early 1980s, and it wasn’t long before his exploits on the court earned him a sponsorship deal with Nike.
But this was no ordinary agreement. Rather than simply wearing a generic Nike shoe, Jordan helped in the design process of a new product line – Air Jordan – which he would wear on the court. Many kids and adults alike wanted to emulate his genius, while Air Jordans also became something of a fashion statement in their own right. Soon, Nike had a monster on their hands.
The ‘Jumpman’ logo became synonymous with Air Jordan, and as Michael’s performances on the court continued to reach new stratospheres as part of the all-conquering Bulls, sales of the sneakers bearing his name also hit new heights.
Back in October 1984, Jordan signed his first contract with Nike for a relatively small $2.5 million over five years – it should be said that that was a 300% increase on the previous highest sum paid to an NBA pro by a sportswear brand.
Less than a year later, the first pair of Air Jordans was ready to hit the shops. The trainer, featuring a red-and-black colour palette to match that of the Chicago Bulls, flaunted NBA rules, which declared that all shoes worn must be at least 51% white. They fined Jordan every time he wore his Air Jordans, but Nike agreed to pay the $5,000 fine every single game – they knew this was priceless marketing promotion.
And so it proved. Nike officials had targeted sales of $3 million in the first year of the release of the initial Air Jordans. But thanks to the publicity of the NBA’s apoplectic stance, all 50,000 retail pairs sold out – netting Nike more than $150 million.
The trainer line continued to garner popularity year on year – aided by the success of the 1996 movie Space Jam, which sold another $1 billion of merchandise, so a year later Nike and Jordan announced a doubling-down of their partnership: Brand Jordan would add sportswear and other apparel to the ubiquitous Air Jordan. Even today, this subsidiary company nets Nike around $5 billion a year.
As for Jordan himself, he still takes a cut of Air Jordan and Brand Jordan sales to this day – despite not having set foot on a basketball court since his retirement in 2003. Although exact figures aren’t known, it’s thought that Michael Jordan personal banks around $200 million a year from Nike’s ongoing right to use his name and Jumpman image on their products.
Forty years, $200 million a year (minimum)….you’re probably already doing the math in your head. All told, with Air Jordan and Brand Jordan sales added to his previous endorsement deals, it’s believed that Nike have paid Michael Jordan a staggering $1.8 billion over the years – and counting.
Unsurprisingly, that takes the top spot as far as the largest sponsorship deal in sporting history is concerned….
LeBron Welcomes ‘New Jordan’ Comparisons
When Jordan finally called time on his playing career in 2003, Nike – not armed with a crystal ball – probably feared that sales of Air Jordans would fall off a cliff accordingly.
So they moved to sign up another young rookie who had a Jordan-esque knack for doing incredible things in college basketball: LeBron James.
He signed a seven-year deal worth $87 million in his maiden season as an NBA pro – despite the fact that Reebok reportedly offered him $115 million. The lure of emulating the great Michael Jordan proved too strong.
LeBron set to work emulating Jordan on the court. Two decades later, he’s a four-time NBA champion, four-time MVP and 19-time All Star, as well as a two-time Olympic gold medallist. When discussions turn to who’s the greatest basketball player of all time, James isn’t too far away in the conversation.
His footwear range can give Jordan’s a run for its money too. In 2012, LeBron’s Nike range enjoyed sales of $300 million in the United States alone – six times more than nearest rival Kobe Bryant.
And so, three years later, James was handed the gold star of sports sponsorship prizes: the lifetime contract, which will ultimately net the 39-year-old around $1 billion.
Who Has Nike Lifetime Contracts?
While most thought Tiger Woods would enjoy a ‘lifetime’ contract with Nike, it turns out that both parties were free to walk away from the agreement – as they did in 2024.
But that’s not the case for LeBron, whose lifetime deal means he cannot wear any other brand of trainer or sportswear for the rest of his life – but he’ll be paid a handsome stipend year on year for his troubles.
With Jordan and LeBron tied down to lifetime deals, the next athlete in Nike’s crosshairs was Cristiano Ronaldo. And they managed to persuade the Portuguese footballer to put pen to paper on an agreement that will last him until he leaves this mortal coil – again, although specifics are unknown, it’s thought that the contract will ultimately net CR7 up to $1 billion.
Ironically, Nike had reportedly looked into offering a similar deal to Ronaldo’s nemesis when it comes to being regarded as the best modern-day player: Lionel Messi. The Argentine legend had initially worn the swoosh during the early stages of his career, but a disagreement with the brand – apparently, they failed to satisfy the requirements of Messi’s father when it came to sending out free sportswear – saw the former Barcelona ace sign with rivals Adidas instead; his lifetime deal will also net him $1 billion.
Flush with the successes of Jordan and LeBron, Nike decided that they wanted to tie down another basketball rookie for the long term, so this time they settled upon Kevin Durant – offering him a series of deals from 2007 onwards before agreeing a lifetime contract in 2022. Details are scarce, but he too could earn $1 billion over the course of the partnership.
— Bleacher Report (@BleacherReport) April 28, 2023
A lifetime contract is exactly as the name suggests: the athlete will receive a payment each year for the rest of their life. In return, they will act as a global ambassador for the brand, while allowing their name and/or imagery to be used on merchandise and apparel – boosting sales and, in theory, enabling the brand to recoup their huge outlay.
Jordan Flying High
So with all of the above in mind, who is the richest athlete on the planet when it comes to a single sponsorship deal?
It’s impossible to include the lifetime contract crew into calculations because they won’t receive the full extent of their agreed payout for decades to come, so it’s only known revenue that can be used.
To that end, Jordan’s $1.8 billion is unstoppable – he will continue to make serious money for years to come, with the Air Jordan and Brand Jordan product lines continuing to sell in huge quantities.
Aside from LeBron’s lifetime pay, it has previously been reported that he gets paid around $32 million per season by Nike – that will have generated around $640 million in income over the course of his career thus far.
As we learned earlier, Tiger Woods has banked around $500 million from his Nike deals, while another NBA ace – Steph Curry – has trousered around $470 million from a partnership with Under Armour.
Former tennis ace Roger Federer agreed a $300 million sponsorship agreement with Uniqlo that saw out the remainder of his playing career and into retirement, while Durant is thought to have picked up $360 million so far from Nike.