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LeBron And Jordan Can't Compete With History's Highest-Paid Athlete

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lebron james michael jordan
LeBron James, Michael Jordan.

It feels like every season there is a new '"highest paid athlete" out there. From the glamour of the NBA to the tradition of the PGA, the glitz of professional Boxing to the prestige of Premier League Soccer, athletes are signing bigger and bigger contracts.

Tiger Woods was the first ever athlete to make a billion dollars in late 2009. Floyd Mayweather made $32 million in one night in September when he defeated Andre Berto. LeBron James made headlines when he signed the biggest contract in NBA history this summer, $100 million over three years. Cristiano Ronaldo is no stranger to Highest Paid lists with consecutive $50-million-plus yearly contracts with Real Madrid -- which have historically been unrivaled, until rumors came out this week that Lionel Messi is about to sign a bigger contract with Barcelona.

Of course, all of the above athletes have the privilege of multiple revenue streams. Team contracts are just the beginning. Endorsements, ad campaigns, personal appearances, social media influencer opportunities, the list goes on and on.

With all this clutter, expansion teams, national/international leagues, longer careers, etc., how could one ever make the case for who the most valuable player in a sport's history is?

There is the ever-popular debate between Michael Jordan and LeBron James. Strictly speaking, dollars to dollars, they are quite comparable in a life-time value. LeBron has some great endorsements from Upper Deck, Nike, Coca-Cola, etc. on top of a hefty contract, but the Jordan Brand of Nike shoes makes up 10.8 per cent of shoe sales in the USA (more than double all of Adidas shoe sales). (See here for market reference.) Of course, there is Hanes and Gatorade on top of this.

For simplicity's sake, let's only look at their professional team contracts. In total -- for his entire NBA career -- Jordan earned $90,235,000. If you include LeBron's contract that runs into 2018, he will have earned a total of $269,500,969. So, LeBron will have made almost $180 million more than Jordan did. Clearly, LeBron is the more "valuable" player.

Or so it seems...

When comparing value over decades of time, especially in recent history, we must always take inflation and other market reactions into consideration to keep things level. One way to truly maintain an equal playing field when making such comparisons is to equate each value to a denomination that doesn't experience inflation, like the U.S. or Canadian dollars do; something that has a limited quantity and preserves its value. Something like gold. (For an explanation on gold value preservation, see here.)

Indeed, the highest-paid athlete of all time isn't of our generation, or even our century.

Jordan's two biggest contracts came in his last two seasons.

Up until the 1995 season, he had earned $25,475,000. In '95, gold was $387 per ounce. He made $30,140,000 when gold was $369 per ounce in '96; and $33,000,000 in '97 when gold was $287.05 per ounce.

He played two additional seasons for the Wizards where he earned $1 million (with gold at $276.5 per ounce) in 2001, and $1.03 million (with gold at $342.75 per ounce) in the 2002 season, for a career total of $90,785,000, all worth 269,097.28 ounces of gold (all salary stats taken from here, all historical gold prices taken from goldmoney.com/live-charts).

That amount of gold would be worth $319,082,100.95 on the day of this writing, November 24, 2016, which actually brings Jordan more than $49.6 million ahead of LeBron when gold adjusted (at least so far -- LeBron may sign another contract after 2018).

Whichever way the ball bounces, they have both earned a lot of money over the course of their professional athletic careers. All of the athletes mentioned in the second paragraph are well-paid athletes, but they don't even come close to the highest paid athletes of all time (outside of endorsements).

Indeed, the highest-paid athlete of all time isn't of our generation, or even our century. He didn't even compete in this millennium.

roman charioteer
MA Roman charioteer circa the 1st century A.D. (Photo:DEA / A. DAGLI ORTI/De Agostini/Getty Images)

Gaius Appuleius Diocles, the "Champion Charioteer," competed up until around 145 AD. When he finally retired, he had earned 35,863,120 sestertii.

Peter Struck, a classical studies professor at the University of Chicago, ran the numbers and came to the conclusion that this amount of currency would equate to roughly US$15 billion today.

(Read more about Struck's studies here.)

Diocles earned this over a long career in two- and four-horse chariot races, racking up over 1,100 race wins. Struck notes in the August 2010 Lapham's Quarterly "Greatest of All Time" Roundtable that the "staggering sum of 35,863,120 sesterces in prize money... is recorded in a monumental inscription erected in Rome by his fellow charioteers and admirers in 146 [AD], which hails him fulsomely on his retirement at the age of '42 years, seven months, and 23 days' as 'champion of all charioteers.'"

Diocles amassed his fortune through strategic race choices and skilled athleticism. He never earned a single sestertius in endorsement deals or advertising campaigns. It is likely that he was illiterate and was born into the lower order of society, not owning land or receiving any form of education.

So, even though almost every week there seems to be yet another economist or sports journalist reporting on "ballooning professional athlete contracts," I think it is fairly safe to say that it will be quite some time before an athlete comes along who can compete with Diocles.

But who knows? As I mentioned before, LeBron may sign another contract after the 2018 season, and Lionel Messi might also surprise us. Or maybe it could be another couple of millennia before the world values an individual's athleticism on par with Diocles.

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