Through a mix of savvy branding and salary-cap intricacies, Kobe Bryant is still able to make more money than LeBron James.
There's the perception that sports is a meritocracy—that a player's financial compensation will be commensurate with his on-field success. By that logic, the four-time MVP at the peak of his powers should have the biggest paycheck, while the aging great should be a cut below.
That logic holds even truer when it comes to celebrity endorsements. In a field where present-day likability drives everything and clients on the downturn can be moved from the spotlight or outright dropped, the rising star ought to hold a significantly larger market share than the old vet.
After these two legends, it's not even close. Derrick Rose comes in third on the list at $32.4 million, which is just $400,000 more than what Bryant makes in off-court earnings alone.
It's pretty obvious why James is in his own financial sphere: He's an otherworldly talent who is eminently recognizable and naturally charismatic. Considering the work he does for both the Miami Heat and his sponsors, he deserves every cent he's getting and then some.
So why is Bryant—still an All-NBA player at age 34 but definitely past his prime—anywhere close to LeBron in this list, let alone above him?
The easiest place to start is with on-court earnings, where Kobe's $27.8 million salary this year is $7 million more than anyone else in the league and gives him an eight-digit edge over James.
Remember that LeBron, despite his unparalleled ability, did not actually receive a max contract from the Heat.
Due to a certain ballyhooed arrangement James made with Dwyane Wade and Chris Bosh, he is currently in the middle of a six-year, $110.1 million deal when he could have signed for as much as $125 million.
Incidentally, that amounts to a difference of $2.5 million per year. All other things being equal, James would eke out Bryant by a few hundred thousand dollars if he hadn't passed up max money.
Meanwhile, Kobe has re-signed with the Los Angeles Lakers three times—for $70 million over six years in 1999, $136.4 million over seven years in 2004 and a three-year extension worth $87 million in 2010.
Though Miami's Big Three took pay cuts to accommodate the salary cap, Bryant has not needed to do so with the Lakers. Even when Shaquille O'Neal was in L.A., Kobe was always the top priority when he was looking for a new deal.
And since he always re-signed with the Lakers rather than head elsewhere, Bryant could keep signing max contracts for 105 percent of his previous salary, pushing his total windfall to such preposterous levels. Los Angeles could go over the cap to sign Kobe due to Bird rights and was not concerned about the luxury tax, so its superstar could get all the money he wanted.
That gave Bryant the exorbitant salary necessary to out-earn James, but it also set the groundwork for his off-court staying power to keep pace with LeBron's $40 million in off-court earnings.
Even after The Decision torpedoed his appeal, James didn't lose any love with his sponsors. With three years of distance from that public relations nightmare, he is back to appearing in half the commercials shown during nationally televised NBA games.
James was the one destined to take over as the league's most famous player as Bryant aged, but there were others who could have also passed Kobe—Rose, Wade, Kevin Durant and Carmelo Anthony, to name a few stars on the periphery of that type of mega-celebrity.
Yet none of them did.
The credit goes to Bryant for expertly managing his brand through the rise of social media. Suddenly, a player who never seemed interested in connecting with fans or sharing his life off the court was embracing hashtags and self-deprecation alike.
While LeBron's widespread appeal essentially defies the idea of a local market, Kobe benefits from the adoration of the people of Los Angeles. That expansive fan base has been drinking Sprite and wearing Nikes for 17 years now; he's also beloved in China, where he has led jersey sales for six straight years, per ESPN's Brian Kamenetzky.
That gives him a firm fan base with strength in numbers, making Bryant a reliable endorser as well as an effective one.
Wade can't match that in Miami (his appeal is not nearly as expansive as his teammate's), nor can Durant in Oklahoma City or even Rose in Chicago. The only one who stood a chance was Melo once he was traded to the New York Knicks, but he simply wasn't likable enough to command a wider audience.
Kobe's consistent greatness on the court has translated into his lucrative accomplishments off of it. He has spent his entire career working to stay in the spotlight of the highest echelon, and it's his tenacity that undoes the sense of the meritocracy.
He might not be the best player or pitchman anymore, but Bryant has fought for his money. Yes, he's an unexpected presence atop Forbes' list, but he has earned it.