Not even a pandemic could stop WrestleMania. The annual spectacle will air this weekend as scheduled, even as most of the sporting world is on ice because of the spread of coronavirus. Taped last week without a live audience in WWE’s training center near Orlando, the show will air Saturday and Sunday, minus the usual pomp and circumstance like the spectacular, stadium-size ring entrances.
This year’s event will also take place with a few of its top stars off the supercard, including some who are included on this year’s Forbes list of top-earning wrestlers. The ten who made the list pulled in a combined $38.5 million before taxes in 2019, up from $30.8 million in 2018, the last time the list was published.
The rising pay scale was helped by the launch of All Elite Wrestling, the first legitimate competition for WWE in two decades. Founded by Jacksonville Jaguars owners Shad and Tony Khan, AEW is leading to increases in payouts up and down WWE’s roster, with WWE’s record profits from new TV rights deals and a lucrative partnership to produce propaganda events for the Saudi government also pushing the numbers up.
WWE pays each wrestler a baseline income—called a “downside guarantee”—that it negotiates with each performer, plus additional payouts when events do well and a cut of merchandise sales that use their image. Guarantees have escalated well past the $1 million ceiling that existed before the arrival of AEW last year.
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The most noteworthy inclusion on this year’s highest-paid list: Becky Lynch, the first woman to make the list strictly as a wrestler. (Stephanie McMahon has made it based on a combination of her pay as both a performer and an executive.)
Wrestlers get paid like a cross between prize fighters and entertainers, including performance fees based on a formula tied to where they appear in each event. Main event matches naturally pay more than those on the undercard. As spelled out in publicly available contracts, talent also gets a piece of merchandise sales, including 5% of direct sales at venues and on the WWE website, plus 25% of revenue from the sales of products from third-party licensees. Performance fees vary wildly by the size of the event and the profile of the match, with non-televised events paying the lowest ($500) and bouts in stadium supershows, such as WrestleMania, paying well into seven figures.Forbes tallies gross pay before taxes using WWE filings, an analysis of individual wrestler performance and sales metrics, and interviews with industry experts and analysts.
The list includes only active members of the WWE roster, which eliminates those on leaves of absence, including John Cena and Ronda Rousey, and those who left WWE mid-year, like Dean Ambrose and Jon Moxley. Likewise, heavyweight boxing champion Tyson Fury, who was not shy about flaunting a reported $15 million payday for one performance in Saudi Arabia, is not included.
See the ten highest-paid wrestlers below:
1. Brock Lesnar: $10 million
The former NCAA wrestling and UFC heavyweight champion has reportedly been wrestling on a flat rate per appearance since he returned eight years ago, and his appearances have only become more frequent since then. The South Dakota farm boy turned Canadian resident is an anomaly among the attention-hungry wrestling crowd, shunning social media and marketing a static slate of T-shirts. Having signed his current contract when AEW was rumored but had yet to launch, he will surely see his guarantee rise even more when his deal is up for renewal.
2. Roman Reigns: $5 million
The handpicked star of the current WWE generation, Leati Joseph Anoa’i signed a contract extension in August, coming off an emotional return shortly before WrestleMania from a hiatus to treat a relapse of leukemia. Even with him missing almost the entire first quarter and then working a part-time in-ring schedule in the summer, he kept the cash flowing with a steady slate of royalties and high-profile matches. But as with any top WWE star in this climate, signing a new contract, which he did in August, is going to be the biggest moneymaker.
3. Randy Orton: $4.1 million
This part-timer veteran also signed a new contract—in his case, it was at the start of November—and made no secret about his strategy to use AEW as leverage for a better deal. That deal, which was no doubt helped by the planting of seeds about Orton’s long-standing relationship with AEW EVP and top star Cody Rhodes, doesn’t factor in for much of his earnings in 2019. But he could be earning as much as $6 million in 2020 and beyond.
4. Seth Rollins: $4 million
The Quad Cities native, whose real name is Colby Lopez, served as a key Raw brand headliner for most of 2019. He was the face of WWE’s flagship, holding the Universal Championship for about half of the year and battling Brock Lesnar at the company’s two biggest shows, WrestleMania and SummerSlam. Repositioning himself on Twitter and in interviews as a corporate mouthpiece of sorts hurt his standing with fans outside the WWE-centric bubble, but he’s still one of the top merchandise sellers in the company, and his loyalty should prove fruitful for years to come.
5. Triple H: $3.3 million
As a WWE executive, Paul “Triple H” Levesque has his exact pay reported in the latest WWE proxy filing, including his $706,019 executive salary, $502,146 in stock awards and $102,950 in incentive plan compensation. The majority of his annual income still comes from his pay as a performer, though, as Levesque made just over $2 million in the “other” category, which, per the proxy, “consists principally of performance fees and royalties.” That comes from working just a handful of events, including a WrestleMania match with Batista, a one-off match with Randy Orton at Super ShowDown in Saudi Arabia and his non-wrestling role hyping up the talent from the NXT brand for Survivor Series.
6. Becky Lynch: $3.1 million
While she was inexplicably de-emphasized in story lines for several weeks coming off her double world title win in the main event of WrestleMania, Lynch, whose real name is Rebecca Quin, rebounded before long, appearing in key matches on major events throughout 2019 as WWE’s top female star. “The Man” also moves plenty of merchandise, with her WWE Shop lineup being one of the best-stocked of anyone in the company.
7. Bill Goldberg: $3 million
Goldberg, the legend of WWE’s defunct rival World Championship Wrestling turned ageless real-life superhero, returned after more than two years off for a pair of special attraction matches in 2019. The bigger of the two, a dream match with The Undertaker at Super ShowDown in Saudi Arabia, netted the muscle-bound animal rights activist a reported $2 million one-night payday; the other was a quick night’s work with Dolph Ziggler at SummerSlam. Uniquely beloved by fans, the 53-year-old Goldberg will likely continue to duck in and out for big matches and big money here and there as long as he’s physically able to, including this year’s WrestleMania.
8. Shane McMahon: $2.1 million
The son of WWE founder, chairman and CEO Vince McMahon, Shane McMahon has been an in-ring performer on and off for two decades, still wrestling even though he no longer has a behind-the-scenes role or even stock in the company. He wrestled only 15 matches in 2019—appearing more as a non-wrestling character—and is not a massive merchandise seller, but he turned in the best work of his career during the year. With McMahon starting as the tag-team partner of The Miz, the tension built around the mystery of when exactly he would turn on the former Real World cast member. His actual pay, reported in WWE’s latest proxy filing, is disclosed because he is a family member.
9. Stephanie McMahon: $2 million
The daughter of Vince, younger sister of Shane and wife of Levesque, McMahon is tightly woven into the family business, serving as chief brand officer. She’s a character on TV, too, albeit not very often in 2019. WWE’s latest proxy has her making $716,133 in the “other” category that’s mainly wrestling pay, earning $707,534 via two months on a $500,000 per year contract and the rest on a $750,000 guarantee; the $8,599 difference consists of 401(k) and life insurance payments.
10. Braun Strowman: $1.9 million
Strowman, real name Adam Scherr, is one of WWE’s biggest new stars of the last few years, having signed a new contract in July that was later reported to guarantee him $1.2 million. Recently, he tweeted that he’s not being paid by WWE while he’s not working because of the pandemic, which is entirely possible in the likely event that his payoffs since July equaled or exceeded said guarantee. While this might not be the most sensitive thing to say right now, it was a rare public comment from a WWE performer that gives a direct window into what they’ve been making.