Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt is gunning to cement his legacy at the Summer Olympics as the greatest sprinter in the history of track and field. He is already the first to win consecutive Olympic gold medals in the 100- and 200-meter races, and he’ll attempt a three-peat in Rio. His quest kicks off Sunday night with the men’s 100-meter final (prelim heats are Saturday).
In addition to breaking barriers on the track, Bolt has made history off the track in recent years as the highest-paid athlete in the history of the sport. His $32.5 million in earnings over the last 12 months from appearances, prize money and sponsors is roughly 10 times what other track and field stars like Mo Farah and Ashton Eaton bank. Bolt is in a class by himself both on and off the track.
Bolt burst on the worldwide scene eight years ago at the 2008 Beijing Olympics, where he set world records in both the 100 and 200, while also leading Jamaica to a gold medal in the 4×100 men’s relay in another record time. Bolt’s only sponsors at Beijing were Puma and Jamaican mobile phone company Digicel. That changed quickly after his historic performance.
Gatorade , Hublot and Virgin Media VMED +% quickly snapped up the world’s fastest man to pitch their wares. Gatorade introduced Gatorade Bolt, a new lemon ice-flavored drink. Visa V -0.36% inked him to a deal and used him in ad campaigns extensively in Europe, where track has a much higher profile than in the U.S. Visa is no longer in the fold, but his current endorsement portfolio now includes 10 global partners, ranging in value from $1-4 million annually with Puma being in a class by itself at eight-figures (he also has seven regional partners). Bolt even has his own character in the Temple Run gaming franchise. The game has been downloaded more than one billion times.
Bolt has been busy off the track in 2016 leading up to the Rio Olympics. He signed deals at the beginning of the year with Japan’s All Nippon Airways and Australian telecom company Optus. He inked a deal with Enertor to be the face of the upstart sports insole brand, receiving an equity stake in the business. Bolt launched his new shaving company, Champion Shave, a week ahead of the opening ceremonies.
While Bolt handles the work on the track, his London-based agent Ricky Simms oversees everything off of it. Simms, a former Irish middle distance runner, has been with Bolt for more than a decade and manages roughly 50 track and field athletes as head of PACE Sports Management.
Puma remains Bolt’s biggest backer by far. The German footwear brand owned by Kering has redone its deal with Bolt multiple times since Beijing and the latest extension runs through 2025, long after Bolt will have hung up his spikes. Bolt’s current Puma deal nets him more than $10 million annually and includes bonuses for records and medals at major competitions. The Puma deal helped push Bolt’s total off-track earnings to an estimated $30 million over the last 12 months and No. 32 among the world’s highest-paid athletes.
Bolt moved passed comparables in track and field long ago. His comparables for endorsement deals are other global icons like Cristiano Ronaldo, LeBron James, Roger Federer and Lionel Messi. He ticks every box for corporate sponsors with a prolonged stay at the top of a global sport and a not a whiff of controversy off the track. A Hollywood director couldn’t create a better name than Usain Bolt for a world-class sprinter, and his “To Di World” pose, copied from a Jamaican tourism ad, is a trademark that follows him from meet to meet.
There is relatively little prize money in track and field. The biennial World Championships pay $60,000 per gold medal (he’s won 11 golds including relays in his career), while winning a Diamond League race is worth $10,000. But Bolt’s outsized personality and lightning speed make him a star attraction at track events around the globe. He typically runs up to eight events annually with appearance fees that can reach $400,000 per meet. It’s money well spent.
“With Bolt, we know that we will easily fill the Stade de France,” said meet director Laurent Boquillet, justifying the $300,000 fee for Bolt at the 2013 Diamond League event in Paris. Bolt earned $2.5 million in prize money and appearances over the last 12 months by our count.
The earnings gap between Bolt and the other top stars in track is unlike anything we’ve seen before in sports. Tiger Woods dominated golf throughout the 2000s, generating boffo TV ratings and higher attendance at tournaments he attended. His annual earnings peaked at $125 million, but even that was less than three times what the No. 2 earner in golf, Phil Mickelson, made. Floyd Mayweather sucked up all of the air in boxing and his biggest earnings year of $300 million in 2015 was twice what his rival Manny Pacquiao made. Michael Jordan made $78 million in 1997, which was three times Shaquille O’Neal’s take.
What’s next for track’s golden ticket? Bolt says Rio is his final Olympics and that he’ll retire after the 2017 World Championships in London. He turns 30 on the day of the closing ceremonies in Brazil. The sport and meet organizers will miss the excitement Bolt brings to every event. Enjoy it while it lasts. We might never see anything like the Bolt phenomenon again.