We often hear about astronomical salaries in men's sports, but we hear little about the top female sports earners. The main reason is the greater popularity of men's professional sports leagues and the corresponding TV and merchandising revenue. There is no women's counterpart to the NFL or Major League Baseball. In sports where there are counterparts such as the WNBA in basketball, salaries lag far behind.
As a result, we find the majority of top female sports earners in the non-team sports of tennis, golf, and figure skating. In tennis, the prize money and sponsorship opportunities for women are nearly equal to that of men (and occasionally greater). Otherwise, equality is elusive — first place on the women's list of sports earnings only earns 34th place in the overall sports earnings list.
Accordingly, the Forbes list of the top ten highest paid female athletes for 2014 (using values from June 2013 to June 2014) features seven tennis players, one golfer, and one figure skater. The other sport represented is auto racing.
#1 - Maria Sharapova – The Russian-born tennis star (pictured above) does not earn the most on the court, but thanks to multiple endorsement deals, she was the top earner at $24.4 million. Sponsors include Nike, Porsche, Evian, Samsung, and Avon. She even created a line of gummy candies, appropriately named Sugarpova.
#2 - Li Na – This up-and-coming tennis star from China hauled in $23.6 million, with $5.6 million in prize money and the rest through multiple endorsements in worldwide markets.
#3 - Serena Williams – Propelled by $11 million in prize money, the younger of the Williams sisters earned $22 million in total income last year. Serena has earned the most in prize money over her career in women's tennis, nearly twice that of second-place Sharapova.
#4 - Kim Yuna – The top figure skater on the list, Korean star Yuna earned approximately $16.3 million on top of winning a silver medal in the 2014 Winter Olympics in Sochi.
#5 - Danica Patrick – Auto racing's entry into the top ten, Patrick earned $15 million despite having no Sprint Cup wins and limited top-ten finishes. She is arguably as well known outside racing for her sponsorship with GoDaddy (although that sponsorship recently ended, as will her contract with Stewart-Haas Racing in 2016).
#6 - Victoria Azarenka – Azarenka, the second ranked female tennis player in 2013, pulled in $11.1 million with $7.5 million in endorsements from Nike and Red Bull, among others.
#7 - Caroline Wozniacki – The tennis star and up-and-coming men's golf star Rory McIlroy ended their engagement last year, but it seemed to work out well for both. Wozniacki earned $10.8 million, propelled by $1.3 million in prize money and a lucrative deal with Adidas.
#8 - Agnieszka Radwanska – The Polish-born tennis star earned $6.8 million, with $3.8 million in prize money and a sponsorship from the Cheesecake Factory.
#9 - Ana Ivanovic – The "comeback kid" of sorts with respect to earnings, Ivanovic won three tennis tournaments in 2014 and earned $6.4 million total in 2014, buoyed by a lifetime contract with Adidas.
#10 - Paula Creamer – Golf's lone representative on the top ten list earned $5.5 million in 2014. The "Pink Panther" earned $1 million in prize money, with the rest in endorsements from the likes of Citizen Watches and Bridgestone Golf.
The future top-ten earners are likely to come from these same sports with one possible exception. Ronda Rousey, the best-known female fighter in the increasingly popular sport of mixed martial arts (MMA), may break into the fold before long. She's already broken into the entertainment field, co-starring in Expendables 3. We'll have to wait until the next Forbes list in August to see if Rousey makes the 2015 list. After all, who dares to tell her "no"?