To appreciate just how mega and great someone is, sometimes you just need to look at the bottom line.
Last week an infographic went up on twitter tracking the highest-grossing sportspeople in the world over each of the last 30 years, according to Forbes magazine.
Michael Jordan owned the 1990s. From the moment he made his championship breakthrough in 1991, he was never outside the top two. Indeed, so huge was the shadow he cast over sport, he would remain in the top ten throughout the entire noughties. Heavyweight boxing (most notably Mike Tyson when he wasn’t behind bars), Formula One driving (including even Nigel Mansell), tennis (though, interestingly, never Pete Sampras), and particularly golf (even if it was golden oldies like Palmer and Nicklaus that were raking it in more than a great white shark like Greg Norman or Faldo) occupied most of the other top ten slots.
The noughties then was dominated by another Nike God, Tiger Woods, and Michael Schumacher; for eight straight years they’d tie up the two spots, usually in that order. Basketball would be the most common top-ten sport as Shaquille O’Neal and Kobe Bryant hoovered up huge deals as they did titles, though not quite as much earnings as Phil Mickelson.
David Beckham in 2004 would become football’s first entry, and would break into the top four upon moving to the MLS, which possibly explains why he chose the LA Galaxy over joining an Everton or the short-lived Keane revolution in Sunderland, though it wouldn’t have been John Giles’ preference for the lad. Ronaldinho would be the only other footballer to break into the top 10, scraping in towards the end of 2008 and 2009.
This decade, however, has seen football’s global pre-eminence and reach reflected in the Forbes list. By the end of 2011, Lionel Messi had edged his way into the top 10, a couple of spots behind fellow goal-machine Cristiano Ronaldo. By the mid-point of the decade, they had each broken into the top four where they have remained with only LeBron James and Floyd Mayweather intermittently earning more.
Other familiar names recur. Roger Federer. Neymar. Steph Curry, Kevin Durant, and James Harden, reaffirming how their sport has been the most frequent in this annual rich list.
Sadly there is no Serena; incredibly, Monica Seles, who scraped in at 10 in 1992, is the only woman to finish in the top-10 in any of the past 30 years. Notably, there is no one from athletics either, with not even Usain Bolt cracking the top 10. Not surprisingly then, there is no one from rugby; at this altitude the exploits of a Dan Carter or a Johnny Wilkinson, let alone those of O’Driscoll, O’Connell or Sexton, simply don’t register.
There are, though, two Irishmen in recent years who have mixed in this loftiest of company, sandwiched between a Steph Curry and a Neymar.
The world’s highest paid athletes (1990-2019) pic.twitter.com/E1q1pM7d7j— Kendall Baker (@kendallbaker) December 10, 2019
Twice Conor McGregor has been among the top-eight, including fourth just last year, more than LeBron, taking in over $150 million in the space of 24 months.
And then in 2017, Rory McIlroy was among the top seven, taking in over $47.5 million between his winnings, appearance money, and endorsements.
As the decade winds up, already McGregor seems as much of an imposter as an outlier in such company, his big payday coming courtesy of the Mayweather sham ‘fight’. But with McIlroy we’re talking about not just a ‘star’ but a genuine world talent, with the qualities and body of work of the most frequent and highest earners on this list. Such as consistency.
It’s a word we don’t usually attach to McIlroy – consistency. He’s tended to be perceived and portrayed as a more erratic performer than that, someone who, when he’s hot, ain’t no one hotter, but too cold too often for your or a green jacket’s liking.
But the stats show: while it would have been nice had he won a major this year or any of the last five seasons, he’s been the most consistent player in golf this past decade.
Since rocking up as a mop-topped, pudgy youngster at Quail Hollow and shooting a 62, right up to this year when he had an astonishing 19 top-10 finishes to be named golfer of the year, no one has won more often on the US PGA tour. Only Dustin Johnson, with 18, has won as many PGA tournaments. The nearest challenger to them has been Jason Day and Bubba Watson well back on ‘just’ 12. Tiger Woods and Jordan Spieth won 11.
No other US PGA player this decade had as many seasons in which he won at least two tournaments. Rory hit that benchmark five times.
His average of +1.67 strokes gained per round was also the best on the US tour this decade, with more than half of those strokes gained off the tee.
Of course, he could have won more majors. But he still won four of them, and a few in emphatic fashion. Along with Tiger Woods, he is the only player to win multiple majors by at least eight shots. In all, when the US PGA tour had to choose a golfer of the decade, McIlroy was their unanimous choice.
He has been more than just a golfer. He has been pretty much everything you would hope in a sportsman. He is a child of the social media, 24/7 news cycle age, a sporting Truman show like a LeBron, and while there has been the odd misstep – his excuse for not going to Rio, how he broke the bad news to Caroline, that round with the president – he has generally carried himself with a terrific grace, honesty and wit, not allowing anyone to be his Christof. Instead, to his self, he has been true.
That has meant he avoided attaching himself to any flag or identity, and yet in doing so, he has represented the best of any nationality or identity that would wish to attach itself to him. Any mistakes he’s made, he’s either owned or learned from them.
Ireland has had true global stars before. Best. Roy. Sonia. Harrington. It has even had stars that have broken America before in an Eamonn Coghlan. But McIlroy has done it, if not quite night in, night out a la a LeBron or Jordan, month after month, year after year, for a decade in the world’s largest sports market.
Others deserve consideration in any discussion as to who was the Irish sportsperson of the decade. Katie Taylor hasn’t just dominated her sport, she has elevated it to heights it or only she could have imagined. Stephen Cluxton’s pointed free, kickout and then captaincy turned a footballing decade.
Ten years ago Paralympic sport had little visibility or prominence in this country but a Jason Smyth along with good governance has changed all that. Thanks to the work of Gary Keegan and Billy Walsh, a high-performance mindset now permeates much of Irish Olympic sport, and not just boxing.
Johnny Sexton might not have featured in any international top-10 Forbes list like a Tom Brady or Peyton Manning would but his quarterback prowess in rugby would have been commensurate with theirs in gridiron.
But, as the Forbes list reminds us, there is a whole huge food chain, performance pyramid out there. When you play a major golf tournament, it’s not just you against another player or team in the opposite corner. It’s you against a whole field of up to 160 competitors, the best of the best, in one of the most technically-demanding sports in the world. And yet he has emerged as the best of that field more often than any anyone else among that best of the best.
He is by a distance the Irish sportsperson of the decade. And one of the international sportspeople of the decade, in that tier just below giants like Messi, Ronaldo and LeBron.