For the seventh time, SportsPro has produced its annual list of the world’s 50 most marketable athletes. Once again, the rankings point to a period of change in the three years ahead.
Since its conception in 2010, this ranking has never set out to list the planet’s most marketable athletes as many would have it. To do so would result in a list of the most celebrated or highest-paid individuals in sport; a list that, while compelling for some, would be as meaningless as it would be predictable.
Roger Federer, Serena Williams, Tom Brady, MS Dhoni, LeBron James, Tiger Woods: the same names, the same well-worn stories, year after year. Where would be the fun in that?
The real challenge – and the job of the vast majority of marketers out there – is in identifying value for money. It is in the art of unearthing potential and in the business of finding a human hook on which to hang a brand story. It is, more often than not, in the lottery of picking out that star of the future who can offer bang for a marketing buck, at a time when the cost of signing the most established names to an endorsement deal has grown so high as to be prohibitive for all but the wealthiest multinationals with the largest budgets.
But that is not say there is no room for greatness. This year’s list does include Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo, Novak Djokovic and Usain Bolt: four once-in-a-generation athletes who have raised the bar – and continue to raise the bar – in their respective sports. What sets them apart from their similarly distinguished peers who are omitted from this list, though, is the sense that their sparkling resumes are somehow incomplete, that their commercial peak has not quite been reached even when it seems they have achieved everything and more.
This always forward-looking list can also be considered a compilation of 50 personal stories. As ever, the criteria for compiling it places greatest emphasis on marketing potential over the coming three years. It rests on a single, fundamental question: which athlete would give brands the best return on their investment if signed to an endorsement deal over that period?
The answer to that question, as it is every year, is open to discussion.
That debate will occur is perhaps the only certainty of a list that exists, like so much of sport, somewhere in the echo chamber of informed opinion that separates objectivity from subjectivity. There is, after all, no industry-standard definition for marketability, just as there is no scientific, foolproof method for predicting the future.
The period under consideration this year begins, realistically, just beyond this summer’s Olympic Games in Rio but factors in the next winter edition in South Korea in 2018 and a Fifa World Cup in Russia the same year. Those two quadrennial mega-events are the standout occasions in a cycle that will otherwise see the usual helping of continental championships, Super Bowls, title fights, Grand Slams and other annual competitions come and go.
Mikaela Shiffrin's inclusion shows the importance of PyeongChang 2018 in this year's list
PyeongChang 2018 in particular represents a potentially career-defining showcase for the elite stars of winter sport, especially those hailing from the Games’ primetime markets in south-east Asia. Two of those appear in this list: Japanese ski jumper Sara Takanashi and Lee Sang Hwa, the long-track speed skater from Korea, will both have their sights set on topping the podium in a little under two years’ time. The same goes, too, for Mikaela Shiffrin, the world-beating American who also has a slalom title to defend when the FIS Alpine World Ski Championships take place in Switzerland next March.
PyeongChang 2018 in particular represents a potentially career-defining showcase for the elite stars of winter sport
In the battle of the major sportswear companies, meanwhile, it is Under Armour that leads the way. It is a testament to the company’s knack for trusting the right talent early. Three of the top five in this year’s list, not to mention several more further down the ranking, are signed to the burgeoning brand from Baltimore, whose formidable stable of endorsers includes all four of America’s major league MVPs. No prizes for guessing which of those was the unanimous choice to sit atop the list this year.
The outstanding players from the preeminent leagues in baseball, football and basketball are among 17 Americans in the list, the most of any nation represented. Soccer provides eight entries, the most of any sport represented, while tennis and golf, perhaps the most sponsor-friendly of all individual sports, come in second and third respectively. There is also a sizeable contingent this year from the combat sports, thanks in no small part to the continued emergence of mixed martial arts as a force to be reckoned with on the global stage. Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) stars Ronda Rousey and Conor McGregor, the highest of 19 new entries, are joined this year by Angela Lee, the American-Asian teenager who is making waves in another of MMA’s increasingly ambitious and international promotions, the One Championship.
Lee is one of 15 women in this year’s list, up from 12 in 2015. Four of those women are teenagers while three make the top ten, ensuring there is more female representation in the highest bracket than in any of the previous six editions of the list. Usain Bolt, one of only five ever-presents in the ranking, drops out of the top ten for the first time this year while Sebastian Vettel, a faded force in Formula One who had featured in every previous iteration, misses out altogether. Eugenie Bouchard, last year’s number one, plummets on account of her catastrophic dip in form, but a change in fortunes on the court could just as well see her climb again in future, such is the talent and star quality she displayed not so long ago.
A word, too, on those who do not feature, despite ostensibly meeting much of the selection criteria. For Formula One’s Max Verstappen, a Grand Prix winner in May at the scarcely credible age of 18, this year's list may have come a fraction too early. England batsman Joe Root also misses the cut, despite becoming the face of English cricket at the age of just 25. That there is only one cricketer in the list, despite the sport's huge commercial footprint, speaks to the geographical idiosyncrasies of its appeal beyond the giant Indian market – though Root and others have every chance of making future lists.
And as ever, of course, an omission for a previous entry does not necessarily reflect a fall from favour. It may simply be a case of that the biggest moments in their career have passed, for now at least.
Joe Root's omission shows the geographical idiosyncrasies of cricket's appeal beyond India.
That much cannot be said for the young soccer stars who feature in this year's 50. The likes of Dele Alli and Paul Pogba – perhaps the next great player of his generation – have the world at their feet and talent in abundance. Not only are their services sought after but, in commercial terms, they are clean slates – an attractive concoction for prospective partners at a time when both players are poised to fulfil their international calling.
The likes of Dele Alli and Paul Pogba, in commercial terms, are clean slates
For all the young blood in the list, there is also the established personality rejuvenated by unexpected success. The joyous on-court resurgence in doubles of tennis player Sania Mirza, one of the finest and best-known sports stars in India’s history, has served as a reminder of the way in which a competitive renaissance can thrust a seasoned star back into the global limelight.
Though she is entering the twilight of her career, Mirza’s peak years are happening now and there is still plenty of time left for a brand to capitalise on her sustained exposure and profile.
And yet, for all its importance in deciding this list, it should be noted that brand appeal is but one element of marketability. Classifying an athlete as marketable does not only intimate his or her value to those who buy and sell products and services. Many of the athletes included – soccer star Alex Morgan, for example, or golf sensation Lydia Ko – are important assets for those who govern, promote and safeguard the future of their sport, too. Their presence alone has the power to drive up ticket sales, TV ratings or pay-per-view buys. Their personal journeys inspire compelling plot lines and narratives that are so coveted by the media. The simple fact they compete keeps people interested.
And therein lies the rub. Each of this year’s 50 is different from the next, yet they all share one common trait: without them and their like, it is difficult to imagine why anyone would have been drawn to this industry in the first place. ML