We idolize professional swimmers for their performances in the water, and we know they work hard for their medals. But how much of that hard work translates into cold hard cash?!
From prize money to endorsement deals, it’s time to find out how much money pro swimmers really make!
Other Pros Bring Home Big Bucks
In the sports world, the top names make tons of money! In 2020, Swiss tennis legend Roger Federer was the highest paid athlete in the world, bringing in $106 million in pre-tax earnings, edging past Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi, who have swapped the No. 1 spot in three of the past four years. The two soccer icons earned a combined $209 million during the last 12 months.
Roger Federer’s sponsors pay between $3 million and $30 million annually.
If we hop over to basketball, the average NBA player earned a salary of $7.7 million in 2019, with many others, like Lebron James, earning much much more. In 2020, James’s NBA salary was $39.22 million, not including tens of millions of dollars in additional income from his sponsors.
How Swimmers Make Money
Swimming is the most watched Olympic sport in the entire world, so swimmers must be making bank, right? Wrong.
In fact, the average pro swimmer is making less than 1% of what a professional basketball or football player makes.
There are 10 primary ways swimmers make money. Let’s dive into the main 3: prize money, funding from a national governing body, and endorsement deals.
Winning an Olympic medal is a big deal! It takes tens of thousands of hours of work and dedication to make it happen.
Traditionally, an athlete’s country will pay out a specific amount of money for winning medals at the Games. At the 2016 Games in Rio, these bonuses ranged dramatically from $0 in the United Kingdom to $25,000 for a gold medal in the United States. Some countries are much higher. Italy paid out $189,800 for a gold medal, Australia shelled out $126,000, Ukraine paid $150,000, and believe it or not, athletes from Singapore got a whopping $1 million for winning gold.
Back at the 2016 Games, young Singaporian Joseph Schooling beat out Michael Phelps in the 100m butterfly to grab the gold and that cool $1 million bonus!
The reality is, most swimmers will never reach the podium and must look elsewhere for potential prize money.
There are a number of different international competitions that allow swimmers to compete for prize money including the International Swim League, FINA World Cup and FINA World Championships.
FINA World Championships
At the 2019 FINA World Championships in Guangzhou, South Korea, FINA Awarded $2.4 million to athletes. Winning a World Championship gold medal earns you $20,000. If you break a world record, you get a $30,000 bonus.
Related: The TRUTH About Masters Swimming
That sounds great, but again, just like the Games, this money often goes to the top athletes who end up winning multiple events. For example, in 2019, Caleb Dressel left South Korea with $110,000 in prize money.
FINA World Cup
At the FINA World Cup, the top male and female swimmers each win $150,000. In 2018, throughout the world cup circuit, Vladimir Morozov and Sarah Sjostrom walked away with over $250,000 in prize money each!
International Swim League
A couple years ago, the International Swim League was started to help grow the sport and change what it means to be a pro swimmer. This professional swim league gives swimmers a chance to earn a salary while competing for a team and win prize money during the championship season.
Totaling up all the prize money at the end of the 2020 ISL season, top swimmer Caleb Dressel earned $291,788. Not bad for 6 weeks of racing, but it’s nothing compared to Lebron’s $39 million salary. He earns $4.5 million in 6 weeks!
Only 8 swimmers made over $100,000 during the 2020 ISL season. A majority of the 300 or so participating athletes earned anywhere from $10,000 to $30,000.
National Governing Body Funding
If they’re not competing in the International Swim League or winning medals at the Olympics, swimmers can earn money through their country’s national governing body.
In the United States, the Athlete Partnership Agreement (APA) ensures that swimmers will receive a salary of roughly $40,000 per year. The only catch? You have to be ranked top 16 in the world in an Olympic event.
This program helps less than 100 men and women in the United States, but it’s higher than most other countries. Many nations around the world offer their top athletes a stipend of a few hundred dollars per month to help pay for pool time, training equipment and travel fees, and most of the time it’s not enough.
The third, and most common, way professional swimmers make money is through endorsement deals with brands. These deals can range from hundreds of dollars for a sponsored Instagram post to seven-figure, multi-year deals with swimsuit brands and clothing lines.
Brands often tie their compensation agreements to an athlete’s performance. In 2008, Michael Phelps got a $1 million bonus from his long-time swimsuit sponsor Speedo for winning 8 gold medals.
While that sounds like a lot, Michael Phelps accomplished arguably the most impressive athletic achievement in Olympic history and only made a few million dollars. A far cry away from Federer’s $100 million payout last year.
But don’t feel bad for Phelps. He’s reported to have already netted around $100 million in endorsement deals during his career and continues to work with international brands.
Most swimmers aren’t scoring big brand deals like Michael Phelps. In fact, the top pro swimmers rarely earn over six figures from endorsements. There are only a few dozen swimmers in the entire world who can say they’ve earned over $1 million in endorsements. A few of these include American swimmer Cullen Jones, who reportedly earned $2 million from Nike over a seven year partnership, and Katie Ledecky, who currently has a $7 million dollar, six-year deal with TYR.
Other Ways to Make Money
Beyond prize money, national funding and endorsements, pro swimmers have found seven other ways to rake in some cash.
- Donations: Swimmers who can’t make ends meet might rely on donations from friends, family and supporters who believe in their dream.
- Social Media Deals: Swimmers may leverage their social media audience for small, paid brand deals promoting products.
- Speaking: Some swimmers travel to different events and share inspiring stories from their swimming careers. Once they become established speakers, they could earn $10,000 or more per event.
- Modeling: It’s also common for athletes to start modeling for fitness brands. These shoots can bring in between $500 and $5,000 each.
- Private Clinics: Some pros host swim clinics for small groups of swimmers. While these events give young athletes a chance to get up close and personal with their idols, they often only net $1,000-3,000 in earnings.
- Coaching: Other retired swimmers become full-time coaches for age-group or university swim teams.
- Entrepreneurship: Some swimmers become business owners. Missy Franklin started the Swim Swag Store in 2020, selling swimming-themed hats and clothing.
While it’s great to make money, most swimmers aren’t in it for the cash. It’s about the journey, and achieving a lifelong dream to compete at the highest level.
What do you think? Are swimmers underpaid? Let us know what you think in the comments.