In 1984, a lanky shooting guard out of the University of North Carolina was beginning what would become arguably the most storied career the National Basketball Association had ever seen -- a career that would lead Michael Jordan to become not only a sports legend, but also a billionaire. Today, Jordan's net worth sits at $1 billion, a staggering figure for an athlete who earned $630,000 in salary in his rookie season.
Let's have a closer look at the surprising way that Michael Jordan the player evolved into Michael Jordan the billionaire.
A legend begins
Picked third in the NBA draft in 1984, shooting guard Michael Jordan showed plenty of promise -- but of course, all first-round draft picks are expected to excel. However, 30 years after Michael Jordan first stepped onto the court, he remains the standard by which all other NBA players are measured. In total, Jordan delivered six NBA championships to the city of Chicago, won a ridiculous 10 scoring titles, and proudly lived up to his two most common nicknames during his playing days: "His Airness" and "Air Jordan."
But here's what might shock you: Jordan's vast wealth didn't come from lucrative NBA contracts. In fact, Jordan is probably biting his tongue about the outrageous amounts of money thrown at NBA superstars these days. Over the first nine years of his career, Jordan earned no more than $4 million per year. By comparison, in the 2010-2011 season the average NBA salary was a cool $5.15 million.
Jordan racked up much of his salary-related wealth during his final two years in Chicago, earning $30.1 million in 1996-1997 and $33.1 million in 1997-1998. Considering His Airness' on-court performance and Chicago's six championships, it was a salary well-earned. By the time Jordan hung up his shoes for good, he had pocketed $90.2 million over his NBA career.
The surprising way Jordan accumulated his wealth
Yet $90 million is a far cry from $1 billion, so the question has to be asked: How exactly did Jordan get from point A to B so quickly? Part of the answer to that question is through endorsement deals.
Before Michael Jordan even stepped on an NBA court for his first official game, Nike (NYSE: NKE) had swooped in -- or should I say "swooshed in" -- and signed the rookie athlete to a five-year contract worth $500,000 per year -- a pretty substantial deal at the time for a rookie. Even though the NBA banned Michael from wearing Nike shoes on the court, Michael did anyway, and Nike covered the cost of Michael's fines and reaped the benefits of his quick rise to stardom and the controversy surrounding his Air Jordan shoes. Thus began the Air Jordan shoe empire.
Last year alone, Air Jordan sales totaled $2.7 billion for Nike within the U.S., up 11% from the previous year. A player who retired more than a decade ago still has enough clout and social-media buzz that his name can generate a double-digit increase in year-over-year sales for Nike! Jordan's continuing partnership with Nike is where a majority of the $90 million he is estimated to have earned in 2013 came from. Per Forbes' estimates, Jordan's cut of Air Jordan sales brought him $75 million last year.
However, Nike isn't MJ's sole advertising partner. Michael also has longtime partnerships with Gatorade, Hanes, Upper Deck, and Five Star Fragrances, as well as more recent deals with 2K Sports and Novant Health.
Jordan becomes "Air Investor"
In addition to accumulating wealth through endorsement deals, Jordan also became quite the investor right before his first retirement in 1997-1998 and after the close of his storied NBA career. Jordan currently owns seven restaurants, which, shockingly, don't focus on Michael Jordan's basketball accomplishments but instead highlight His Airness' business achievements. Jordan also owns a car dealership and holds a majority stake (89.5%) in the Charlotte Hornets (previously known as the Bobcats).
Of course, one thing Michael Jordan understands better than most investors is that it can take time for an investment to mature. When Jordan put up an additional $175 million of his own money in 2010 to buy a majority stake in the Charlotte Hornets (he first became an investor in the franchise in 2006), many investors likely scratched their heads in disbelief. The Hornets were not a particularly good team at the time, and even I believed it took some brass for Jordan to make the purchase, considering the Hornets' historically bad performance. But the team has turned into a gold mine for Jordan.
Earlier this year the Milwaukee Bucks, another NBA franchise, were sold for for $550 million. Prior to this sale the Hornets were believed to be one the NBA's least valuable teams, with a market value of around $400 million. Following the high-priced Bucks sale, however, Forbes re-estimated the Hornets' value to be in the range of $600 million to $625 million. Given that valuation and the Hornets' $135 million in debt, Jordan's 89.5% stake in the Hornets is worth about $416 million. Furthermore, Dallas Mavericks owner and self-made billionaire Mark Cuban believes all NBA teams will be worth at least $1 billion within the next 10 years. In other words, Jordan's $175 million could be worth more than $800 million by 2025 if Cuban's estimates prove correct.
Based on the boost in the Hornets organization's value, Jordan has, according to Forbes, officially worked his way into the billionaires club.
What you can learn from Michael Jordan
You may not be able to dunk from the free-throw line or buy your own NBA team, but there are lessons for every investor in Jordan's evolution from premier NBA player into cunning businessman.
Most importantly, I believe the lesson here is to stick to what you know best. Michael Jordan was an NBA player who stuck to his roots with his investment in the Charlotte Hornets. This isn't to say that Jordan's foray into the restaurant or car industry won't be successful, but clearly Jordan's area of expertise is where he has spent his entire life.
Similarly, all investors have some degree of specialized knowledge and skills. Whether you're a physician with intimate knowledge of the healthcare industry or a server who understands the ins and outs of the restaurant business, you have unique knowledge of your industry that many other investors don't. If you "wanna be like Mike," all you have to do is apply this knowledge to your investing portfolio by purchasing companies you believe have superior potential within your sphere of knowledge.
Michael Jordan also understands the value of branding better than perhaps any other athlete. Consumers are easily influenced by brands they trust, and today's athletes can either boost or hinder to that trust.
You can apply this to your own situation by investing in companies that exhibit strong brand loyalty, which generally don't have to worry about discounting in order to keep their customers happy, ultimately resulting in beefier margins and potentially better long-term growth rates.
Finally, Jordan understands the value of taking risks and being wrong. As he put it best in the quote above, he has erred many times in his career, but he persevered through it all and came out well ahead because he stuck to his game plan.
The investment application of this quote is that you're going to pick some losers, and you won't be right all the time. The secret to success is in riding your winners to the finish line and never wavering from your unique game plan.
Sean Williams has no material interest in any companies mentioned in this article. You can follow him on CAPS under the screen name TMFUltraLong, track every pick he makes under the screen name TrackUltraLong, and check him out on Twitter, where he goes by the handle @TMFUltraLong.
The Motley Fool owns shares of, and recommends Nike. Try any of our Foolish newsletter services free for 30 days. We Fools don't all hold the same opinions, but we all believe that considering a diverse range of insights makes us better investors. The Motley Fool has a disclosure policy.