The World’s 50 Most Marketable 2015

After the usual rounds of discussion, research and consultation, the sixth SportsPro list of the world’s most marketable athletes is in. As ever, the rankings are only the start of the conversation.

It is now five years since SportsPro compiled the first edition of its annual list of the world's most marketable athletes. Five years which have seen stars rise and fall, World Cups and Olympic Games and continental championships and Super Bowls and title fights and Test series come and go. Five years in which so many things have changed, for all of those that stay the same.

Just six athletes have made every list: Usain Bolt, Lewis Hamilton, Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo, Rory McIlroy and Sebastian Vettel. Two of those have come in first, with Bolt the only entrant in the top ten in all six years. With the criteria favouring potential and value for money, it may be that the great Jamaican finally makes his exit next time around.

He would be in good company. 156 athletes have featured in all. Some of them have achieved unbelievable success, commanding fees unaffordable to most. Others have eased into retirement or lurched into decline. There are those who have flamed out disappointingly; a handful burned by disgrace. Then there are those whose stories have been told and have made way for fresh ones.  

So what of this year's crop? As ever, the measures are weighted towards marketing potential over the next three years. The hypothetical question being asked is which athlete would give brands the best return on their outlay if signed to an endorsement deal over that period. The list is a product of an approach that is both objective and subjective, that leans on empirical evidence but also draws on instinct and informed guesswork. It is, by admission, only as reliable as it is unreliable as a projection but, hopefully, it provides a rich insight into what is important in world sport today and what will continue to be. 

As in 2014 the turnover is high, with 24 newcomers and one re-entry. The highest new entry is once again a male tennis player – Japan's Kei Nishikori – reflecting the sea change coming in one of the most prominent individual sports. Of the 'big four' that have dominated the ATP Tour for nearly a decade only one is left in the list – world number one Novak Djokovic, likely to outlast his rivals on the court as well.  

Rio 2016 sits right at the heart of the three-year cycle under consideration this time around and a troop of Olympians are storming the upper reaches of the rankings. Clustering towards the top of the list are athletes for whom the Games will be at least of some significance. In a few cases, it could be a defining moment.

Americans dominate once again, with 18 athletes in this year's list

There are various factors to consider in what those Olympics will mean. For starters, it is the first Games in two decades scheduled to air in prime time in the United States. That will be hugely influential, particularly given the monumental investment made by NBC in television rights. Should everything proceed as expected, Rio 2016 will make at least as much of a star of Missy Franklin – who climbs again this year, into the top five – as previous editions did of Michael Phelps. Three years on from her breakthrough in London, world swimming’s most precocious talent is also now accepting endorsements as a professional athlete after ending her college career earlier this year.

While some of the wildcard entries this time are also likely to benefit from exposure in Brazil, it is also important to stress what lies beyond that two-week hit. Show jumper Jessica Springsteen – yes, of that Springsteen family – will attract plenty of column inches and television interest before a likely Olympic debut next year. But that would only make a shallow impact were it not for the efforts that the FEI, equestrianism’s governing body, is making in improving the commercial prospects of its sport.

Similarly, world badminton champion Saina Nehwal would become a media sensation with a rare gold for India next summer in an environment where attitudes towards women are being challenged. That, though, might dissipate in the longer term were it not for a maturing domestic sports market, with the Indian Badminton League among the many franchised attempts to diversify Indian sport beyond cricket.

The changes to the Olympic programme for Rio could also have a significant effect on an established sport. Golfers have typically fared well as brand ambassadors: they are engaged in an individual pursuit where sponsor presence is highly visible, and they have time to dedicate to high-end patrons. A presence at the Games means huge mainstream coverage at a time when golf is accused of shrinking towards niche appeal. That has been considered in the case of most of the golfers on the list – particularly the two women, Lexi Thompson and Lydia Ko.

In one case, though, it is less of a consideration. Darren Clarke has been a European Tour favourite for many years and is unlikely, at 46, to add to his single major win at the 2011 Open. Yet his stint as Europe’s Ryder Cup captain is sure to revive interest in his still active career; off the course, few golfers are likely to be as closely scrutinised by the wider media and public.

For others, the effect of events which come very early in the three-year cycle could be felt for some time to come. The Rugby World Cup, the biggest sporting event on European soil this year, is only a few months away, but it could transform the profile of its outstanding performers in an age of commercial evolution for club and international rugby union. Young fly-half George Ford, who has brightened recent England performances with his flair and courage, could be among those to benefit.

Elsewhere, the picture is of the affirmation of the established and the emergence of the new. There are three National Football League (NFL) players included, one a rookie quarterback but the other two breakout stars in other positions. The National Basketball Association (NBA) contributes its usual smattering of talent. The captain-in-waiting of the world’s best cricket team, Australia, is included – in one of the world’s most engaged sporting communities, Steve Smith is the figurehead of a game that has got its groove back both on and off the field.

At 46, Northern Irish golfer Darren Clarke is the oldest athlete ever to appear in the list

Soccer joins tennis in providing six entries and, in truth, there are plenty beyond those with a case to make. There is a hint of a generational shift in the most popular sport on the planet and, after a couple of years devoted to continental championships, it will become clearer which global icons have emerged to replace Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo.

There is also a sense of the guard changing in the combat sports, not least after the era-ending and mind-bending excess of Floyd Mayweather’s bout with Manny Pacquiao. Two new boxers feature: Anthony Joshua, a clean-cut heavyweight prospect, and Gennady Golovkin, a destructive middleweight force. Ronda Rousey is the lone mixed martial artist this time; it will be interesting to see whether she is joined in future years by combatants from outside the American heartlands of the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC). The signs are that she will be.

A few entrants serve as a reminder of changes in what sport means to people, how it is watched, and where it is watched. Jann Mardenborough has parlayed a talent for video games into a career in endurance motorsport. Skateboarder Nyjah Huston has already built a personal empire on his success at the age of just 20. Ding Junhui has become a world class snooker player at a time when China is switching on to a British bar-room game in huge numbers.

A women’s cyclist is included this year, with Marianne Vos’ years of high achievement finally matched by a more serious approach to the marketing of her sport. Overall, there is one fewer woman included in the list but it may be that more professionalism and more exposure brings more names into the mainstream. Certainly, the fact that only one of the women included – Alex Morgan – participates in an out-and-out team sport is a reasonable indication of where there is most ground to make. 

If the right steps are taken, the complexion of these rankings could change dramatically in the years ahead. For now, there is a woman at the head of the list for the first time – picked on potential, rather than her most recent results, but with the promise of developing into a global figure in sport and the media.

Eugenie Bouchard, it must be said, does not deviate too far from the mainstream ideal of a female athlete but her selection reflects things as they are. It might even start a conversation about how things will be.

‘The Federer question’

David Beckham, Roger Federer, Sachin Tendulkar: three of the most celebrated names in world sport, three examples which ought to suggest that omission from SportsPro’s list of the world’s most marketable athletes might not have anything to do with a lack of success, fame or brand appeal.

From the outset, in order to keep this feature from becoming a bland list of the world’s best-known sportspeople and to infuse some variety in the markets and sports covered, SportsPro has sought to recognise marketing potential over a period of three years from the perspective of a company seeking an endorsement. It is not a list which is intended to reflect the current profile of active athletes, nor is it an estimate of athletes’ personal earning potential.

The criteria, to be clear, are value for money, age and proximity to retirement or decline, the strength and size of the athlete’s home market, charisma, willingness to participate in marketing campaigns, and crossover appeal. Not all of these factors will be in the favour of every athlete ranked but, taken together, they begin to form a picture of what brands will look for in a prospective spokesperson.

Tennis greats Rafael Nadal and Roger Federer: two hugely marketable athletes omitted from this year's list on the basis of lacking potential.

But they also tend to weigh what an athlete might achieve more heavily than what he or she has achieved. Andy Murray, Britain’s first Wimbledon men’s champion for 77 years in 2013, makes his exit this year, joining Federer and Nadal on the sidelines. Maria Sharapova and Serena Williams, the dominant forces in women’s tennis for a generation, are also absent. The NFL is littered with star quarterbacks either deep into lengthy marriages with existing sponsors, or too far past their peak to offer value.

In soccer, the indomitable Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo drift down the list this year despite being at their very peak. A new generation, led by Neymar and Paul Pogba, is rising up to replace them with profiles unmarked. Many of those on the fringes of the list are from the same background. 

Entrants are generally younger, but there are exceptions which prove the rule: Wayne Rooney returns after a four-year absence, his image rehabilitated and his place at the head of English soccer still unchallenged as he presses on towards landmark scoring records. Chris Paul, who has starred in the NBA for several years, is another slightly older campaigner included this year on the basis of a stature that has grown with age and now marks him out from his peers. His example contrasts with that of league megastar LeBron James, who headed the first list in 2010 but whose portfolio has long since passed the point of saturation.

Another important nuance to consider is that for some athletes, in some sports, there is a limit to what marketing activities they are contractually able to fulfil – or prepared to pursue.

50MM Down the Years

Athlete case studies

A woman's worth: assessing commercial opportunity and the need for development in women's sport

The mechanics behind Wayne Rooney’s ground-breaking new contract

Slalom star Mikaela Shiffrin: winter sport’s most marketable athlete?

Deals in the pipeline: the marketing strategy behind surfing champion Gabriel Medina

The IMG action plan for a Nishikori Grand Slam

Previous lists