Why does Tom Brady make so little in endorsements?

Brady's 'Deflategate' punishment
Brady's 'Deflategate' punishment

The National Football League suspended Tom Brady for four games for his role in the deflation of footballs last season. The New England Patriots quarterback will lose his salary for those first four games, and there might be some impact to his endorsement deals. Here's the thing though: He only makes an estimated $7 million in endorsements annually, according to Forbes.

While a lot of athletes make more off the field than they do on it, it turns out that NFL players are the exception to that rule. At $7 million, Brady is almost at the very top in terms of NFL players' off-field earnings. His endorsements include Movado, Under Armour and Ugg.

Peyton Manning leads the sport at about $12 million in endorsements. Contrast that with a sport like golf, for example, where several players—many not even household names, are making more than $7 million from their sponsors. The median income of golf's top 50 players was $5.2 million away from the course—almost what the NFL's golden boy makes. The top two golfers in endorsements, Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson, each make about $50 million from sponsors—not even in the same ballpark as what Brady and Manning get.

That's a huge disparity, and begs the question: Why do players in the NFL, America's No. 1 sport, make so little in endorsements?

The helmet theory

"It's simply the helmet theory. Football is a sport behind pads, which makes it very hard to relate and market the players," one NBA co-owner told CNBC. He also pointed out that "the lack of major shoe sponsorships also plays a part, considering how much weight Adidas, Nike and now Under Armour put behind their top-tier endorsed players."

Consider that in a sport like basketball, consumers can wear in real life the same shoes the players wear on the court. That doesn't work in football, since wearing football cleats to school or work isn't so practical.

"Among team sports, basketball and soccer players make more in endorsements because the stars in those sports truly stand out," said Patrick Rishe, director of the sports business program at Washington University in St. Louis. "They are visible during play, not wearing helmets, exude greater athleticism and those sports have greater international appeal."

Rishe also noted that athletes in individual sports like race car drivers, tennis players and golfers make more in endorsements because "they are the team." The NFL is "the least transportable of the top U.S. sports leagues" across the globe, and a top star like Brady only plays half the game anyway.

"No matter how thorough the research, these lists are still best guesses and estimates and can't by nature reflect the total size of some deals," said Whistle Sports President Jeff Urban, who once headed sports marketing and sponsored major athletes at Gatorade.

"NASCAR, boxing and the PGA Tour, among other sports, gives the athletes the opportunity to wear their sponsors very visibly while competing and thusly more opportunity for sponsorship fees. Football players can't."

So far no sponsors have left Brady. Requests for comment from Brady's sponsors and his agent, Donald Yee, have not been returned.