There’s a new number one on the Forbes List
of the World’s highest paid athletes!
Not Ronaldo or Messi, not Federer, Woods or
Mayweather but an athlete of Mixed Martial
Arts: Conor McGregor.
Overtaking Ronaldo is especially noteworthy,
because the two bantered about their position
on the list back in 2016.
McGregor already assured Ronaldo back then
that he’d go past him on the rankings eventually.
He kept his word despite having just one fight
in this year’s period of Forbes – which
McGregor still banked an estimated 22 million
dollars in the ring.
But that didn’t bring him to the top of
He made most of his money outside of the ring
with one of Ireland’s most famous commodities:
Welcome to Athletic Interest – this is the
story of how Conor McGregor defied the odds
and became the highest paid athlete in the
Conor McGregor was born and raised in Dublin
Ireland, in the working-class section of Crumlin.
Besides playing soccer in his youth, he began
boxing at a local club aged 12 to defend himself
against bullies and raise his confidence.
He showed his talent early on by winning a
Dublin Novice Championship during that time.
In his later teen years, McGregor began training
in the still little-known sport of mixed martial
He also worked as an apprentice plumber but
left his job, despite his parents’ objections,
to pursue his dream of becoming a professional
At age 18, McGregor made his mixed martial
arts debut and won via technical knockout
in the first round.
Following the fight, he turned professional
and started making a name for himself in the
Irish MMA scene.
He had a solid 12-2 record, but what made
him stand out was his entertaining character
and self promotion skills.
McGregor was so renowned that when UFC president
Dana White made a trip to Dublin, he was bombarded
at local pubs with requests by fans to sign
Conor McGregor to a UFC contract.
White himself recalls that he didn’t even
know who McGregor was at that point:
But White listened to the fans and signed
McGregor days later.
The decision would impact the future of not
only McGregor, but also the whole of UFC.
A few weeks later McGregor won his first UFC
fight after just 67 seconds via technical
He netted 60.000 dollars for that knockout,
but the real money started to flow with his
second fight, when the UFC changed their broadcasting
The company introduced the UFC Fight pass,
its own digital streaming service.
This allows the UFC to broadcast its own events
from anywhere in the world, at any time of
the day, without being regulated by programming
schedules of domestic broadcast partners.
As the main event of a Fight Night in Dublin,
McGregor quickly sold out the event of his
But the enthusiasm was not only with his home
crowd, but was also seen in the viewership
numbers on Fight Pass.
Through their own streaming service, the UFC
executives had all the analytics on who and
where their viewers were.
And the data was proof that McGregor had immense
McGregor became the biggest pay-per-view draw
in MMA history, having headlined six out of
the seven highest selling UFC events.
That doesn’t only mean big money for the UFC,
but also for McGregor himself.
Because he gets a share of every Pass that
is sold for one of his fights.
The UFC is said to pay him at least 7 dollars
for every pass sold.
His most recent fight sold 1.6 million times,
which is why he reportedly made more than
10 million dollars just from his pay per view
Let’s put that into perspective to other sports.
Broadcasting income is almost always the biggest
income stream for any sport.
But in football or basketball, the revenue
from selling broadcasting rights is distributed
among a whole league with multiple teams and
even more players.
McGregor, on the other hand, gets a share
of the broadcasting money just for himself
– because the whole show depends on him.
The UFC realized the marketing potential of
McGregor early on and sent him on a tour around
It was a promotional effort on a scale that
the company had never done before.
Even long-reigning champs didn’t get this
kind of treatment.
But most didn’t draw these kinds of crowds
just to hear them talk.
That promotional investment in McGregor made
him an even bigger star and in turn made the
UFC very dependent on him as their best selling
McGregor almost became bigger than the sport
As a result, McGregor felt that he could disregard
For example in regards to when to defend his
He immediately abandoned the featherweight
title he had just won in order to challenge
for the lightweight title.
An unprecedented leap for such a new champion
– but the UFC readily agreed.
He also started asking for far fetched things
that probably would have been denied in any
other sport and if asked by any other athlete.
The best example is his push for a boxing
match against Floyd Mayweather.
That idea seemed completely impossible at
First, because McGregor was locked in a deal
And secondly, Mayweather was unbeaten in 49
fights, one of the greatest in a sport that
McGregor himself had never even competed in
Against the odds, McGregor got what he wanted
– and it paid off.
The match drew 4.3 million PPV buys in North
America, the second most in history.
Despite McGregor getting a share from every
pay-per-view for his fights, the vast majority
of his 180M dollar income that put him on
top of the Forbes list was made outside of
Look at this comparison of the top 100 highest
paid athletes in the world.
McGregor completely stands out, making more
than 87% from his activities outside of his
What’s behind that figure?
How does McGregor manage to break the norm
created by his fellow athlete millionaires
like Cristiano Ronaldo or LeBron James?
As with any other big athlete, sporting success
also brings sponsorship money.
Companies want to be associated with successful
and famous athletes to transfer their image
onto their product or brand image.
Red Bull is the most popular example.
McGregor has some sponsorship deals as well,
but that’s not his secret.
Instead of using his name to promote the product
of another company like Red Bull, he instead
created his own drink: the Proper No.
Twelve Irish-Whiskey, named after the Crumlin
neighbourhood in Dublins’ district number
12, in which he grew up.
The company generated around 1 billion US
dollars in revenue just in its first year
McGregor successfully bundled his image and
publicity into the drink and created an extremely
Proper No Twelve quickly became one of the
most popular Irish whiskey brands in the world.
So it was time to cash in.
In April 2021, McGregor sold his majority
stake in Proper Twelve and earned approx.
150M dollars (according to Forbes).
If you’ve paid attention to the numbers, you’ll
realize that 150M of the total 180M that put
him on top of the list came from one single
That also means that it is very unlikely that
McGregor will defend his title of highest
paid athlete in the future.
But he managed to climb on top of the list
once, just as he predicted to Cristiano Ronaldo
a couple of years ago.
That feat was probably only possible in a
relatively young sport like the UFC, that
focuses more on the entertainment and show
elements than the performance and regulatory
side of the sport.
It is unlikely that organizations like FIFA
or the NBA will ever become so dependable
on one athlete as the UFC has become with
The rise of UFC and McGregor are strongly
That might be a reason why the UFC hasn’t
really tried to replicate their promotional
push for McGregor with any other fighter.
They would now rather spend their time, energy
and money on building multiple fighters who
bring in much smaller paydays, but are much
easier to manage.
But that shouldn’t detract from the fact
that McGregor has achieved unprecedented success
in his sport and proved great instinct in
the business world.
Although UFC might be dependent on McGregor,
they probably don’t mind the increase in pay
per view prices that every McGregor fight
Despite all the trouble he might carry with
him, McGregor means money in the bank.
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