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A decade of 50MM: How the list, and athlete marketing, has evolved

Ten years, more than 200 sportsmen and women, countless debates: SportsPro’s 50 Most Marketable has clearly evolved in line with broader trends. Yet, on reflection, the list tells its own story.

21 August 2019 Michael Long

“A snapshot of the moment and a forecast for the future” was how one former editor of SportsPro liked to describe it.

The #50MM Roll of Honour

2010 – LeBron James

2011 – Usain Bolt

2012 – Neymar

2013 – Neymar

2014 – Lewis Hamilton

2015 – Eugenie Bouchard

2016 – Stephen Curry

2017 – Anthony Joshua

2018 – Paul Pogba

2019 – Naomi Osaka

In essence, SportsPro’s list of the world’s 50 most marketable athletes is exactly that: an attempt to meld an athlete’s current trajectory with the sports marketing trends of the day in order to predict the commercial stars of tomorrow.

It is, of course, an inexact science; there is, after all, a lack of consensus around what constitutes marketability. For that reason, SportsPro’s list has never claimed to offer any kind of objective assessment of an athlete’s commercial value. Instead, it has always been intended as a conversation piece; a way to drum up discussion around the nebulous notion of athlete marketability. 

Conceived in 2010, the list assesses athletes from across the world according to their marketing potential over the coming three-year period. Taking into account highly debatable criteria such as charisma and willingness to be marketed, the end result each year has been a compilation of 50 individual stories, one whose complexion has evolved considerably but which has always drawn heavily on informed opinion and no small amount of guesswork.

Whatever did happen to Melanie Oudin?

Indeed, the process of compiling the list is fraught with pitfalls. Sifting through the hype and hyperbole, for one, is never easy. With each passing year there are numerous teen sensations showing signs of promise, no shortage of prospective draft picks with wholesome backstories, countless ’ones to watch’ garnering untold column inches. Few warrant such coverage; fewer still will go on to justify it.

As every sports marketer worth their salt will know, picking the great from the good is a perilous task. For every Odell Beckham Jr there is a Sam Bradford (ranked 45 in 2011), for every Sloane Stephens a Melanie Oudin (ranked 43 in 2010). But sometimes the hype is impossible to ignore. Who could forget ‘Linsanity’, the global craze that preceded the inclusion of Jeremy Lin, perhaps the unlikeliest of major league stars, at number 21 in 2012?

A total of more than 200 athletes have featured in the list to date but throughout its lifespan, Americans and soccer players have dominated. That is undoubtedly a natural reflection of the lopsided shape of the industry, an indication that while every athlete has a story to tell, scale and popularity have long been – and likely always will be – determining factors when assessing commercial appeal.

The NBA has churned out marketable stars on a regular basis

And while every sport has its stars, some are simply better at creating them. Athletes in mainstream individual sports like tennis and golf have generally fared well, but perhaps more than any other league in team sports, the larger-than-life, viral-inspiring National Basketball Association (NBA) has always proved fertile ground for cultivating individual personalities.

It is no secret that the NBA is a marketing juggernaut. Not only are its games played at favourable times before sell-out crowds and worldwide audiences, the league’s cultural relevance and ability to seamlessly crossover into other walks of life – fashion and entertainment chief among them – has created a platform for its stars to shine brighter and more broadly than those in other sports.

A host of NBA stars have thus featured in SportsPro’s list over the years; LeBron James and Stephen Curry, two greats of their generation, topped the ranking in 2010 and 2016 respectively. In truth, though, there could have been many more.

Expect the unexpected

Comparing apples to oranges is hardly conclusive, but there are other potential pitfalls involved in compiling SportsPro’s list. Where season-ending injuries lurk, so too do career-defining scandals and unexpected retirements. Then there are cataclysmic dips in form that are virtually impossible to predict.

When Eugenie Bouchard (left), to name one notable example, burst onto the international tennis scene in 2014, few could have foreseen what was to come. Then aged just 20, the Canadian had enjoyed a remarkable breakout season, winning her first WTA title and recording back-to-back semifinals at the Australian and French Opens before reaching the final of Wimbledon.

It was the combination of those accomplishments that saw Bouchard become the first female to top the list in the spring of 2015. Even if her on-court performances were already on the slide, here was an emerging talent who had all the attributes to become the face of the most commercially successful women's sport on the planet. Blue-chip brands like Nike and Coca-Cola had already taken notice; SportsPro were not the only ones to single her out from the rest.

The past few years suggest Bouchard was a flash in the pan, but if nothing else her plight makes for an interesting case study for students of sports marketing. While she may not have rescaled the heights she once achieved on the court, and while persistent management upheaval and other distractions may have derailed her development off it, the 25-year-old can hardly be said to have fallen on hard times.

With millions of fans and followers, Bouchard remains in the spotlight as someone who has leveraged her looks and social media profile to her own advantage. That combination is, in itself, a compelling enough mix for many marketers – and Bouchard’s annual off-court earnings surely attest to that.

Promise pays, but timing is everything

On the flip side, one athlete who aptly embodies – and perhaps even vindicates – the rationale for 50 Most Marketable is Neymar, who remains the only two-time number one having led the list in 2012 and 2013. The Brazilian’s career to date serves as a reminder that while potential pays and talent talks, timing is everything.

Neymar topped the list two years in a row – in 2012 and 2013

From his early playing days at Santos, in his home state of São Paulo, the flamboyant striker exploded through the curated shop window of the YouTube showreel to take Europe by storm, making good on his obvious potential to become a standout star for club and country. And with a Fifa World Cup and an Olympic Games held on home soil in 2014 and 2016 respectively, he emerged at the perfect moment to capitalise on the heightened commercial interest that inevitably surrounded both events within his native country.

Long before those big-ticket occasions rolled around, and long before he was taking the field in Barcelona and Paris, the Seleção’s anointed one and then-headline client of Ronaldo’s 9ine agency had already amassed a fortune, racking up deals with the likes of Nike, Panasonic, Santander, Claro, Unilever and Volkswagen. But it was always going to be the case that such strong domestic interest would eventually give way to global endorsements – and so it proved.

Greats never last

Ever since LeBron topped the inaugural edition in the summer of 2010 – just prior to the self-indulgence that was ESPN’s ‘The Decision’ – one question has always underpinned deliberations when it comes to compiling the list: what should be done with the established names whose marketability is unquestionable but who now command top-dollar and thus fail to fulfil the criteria? 

Generally speaking, the line of thinking has been consistent. If an athlete’s endorsement portfolio is extensive, the argument is that there is little room left for other brands to muscle in. What’s more, if the price for that athlete’s signature is prohibitive for all but the wealthiest companies with the largest marketing budgets, they no longer offer value for money.

Lewis Hamilton finally lost his place on the list after previously being an ever-present

As such, countless big-name stars have been and gone over the years. Lionel Messi, Cristiano Ronaldo, Serena Williams, Novak Djokovic, Tom Brady, Lindsey Vonn, Shaun White, Kobe Bryant, Tiger Woods, Rory McIlroy, Michael Phelps, Valentino Rossi, Usain Bolt, Manny Pacquiao – all are legends of their professions who have featured in past editions but have dropped off as their greatness has been cemented and their portfolios in turn maxed out.

This year, Lewis Hamilton joins that class. Number one in 2014, the five-time Formula One world champion was previously the only ever-present in the list, yet his stature is such that he no longer ticks the box marked ‘potential’. Stepping into Hamilton’s void, both in the sport and in the list, are two rising stars of Formula One, Max Verstappen and Charles Leclerc, whose budding on-track rivalry looks set to sustain motorsport’s glamour championship long after Hamilton calls time on his career.

The rise of the athlete activist

A decade can feel like an eternity in sports marketing. So much of what the industry now takes for granted was in its infancy ten years ago. That’s if it even existed at all.

Social media had a role to play back then, but its influence was far from what it is today. Athletes, brands and sports executives were still grappling to make sense of Facebook, Twitter and other newfangled platforms whose power as a communication and brand-building tool was only beginning to be realised.

In the summer of 2010, Instagram was but a sketch on a napkin. Usage of the term ‘social influencer’ was, at least in the context of sports marketing, few and far between. For athletes and the sports industry at large, access to consumers tended to follow the traditional analogue route, with sponsorships and endorsement contracts generally built around conventional media elements such as commercial ad spots and billboard campaigns, or guest appearances at corporate events.

Recent years have seen the rise of athlete activists like Megan Rapinoe

While each of those routes to market remain, the proliferation and rapid growth of digital platforms, not least the big-beast social networks, has served to reframe the conversation around athlete marketability. Just as sports sponsorship has evolved considerably over the past decade to encompass content in all its many forms – broadcast, social, digital, video, experiential – the business of athlete marketing has naturally followed suit.

Top athletes are now borderless brands; many are content creators, media publishers and equity investors in their own right. For some, the arcane, often contrived practice of lending a name or likeness to any old product or service for a fee simply won’t cut it. Increasingly, athletes want to be seen to stand for something, not merely endorse it. The same can be said for a growing number of brands.

In hindsight, the evolution of SportsPro’s list can be tracked alongside this trend. While the complexion of the list and the profiles of the athletes who feature have generally followed an established pattern, the reasons for their inclusion have moved with the times. 

In the early years of the list, athletes were generally ranked according to straightforward commercial metrics like broadcast airtime, their sport’s popularity or level of exposure, and opportunities for partner brands to activate around forthcoming major events. Over time, however, other, less easily-quantifiable factors like social engagement and cultural relevance have come increasingly into play.

That shift has taken place, at least in part, due to a recognition of the fact that in today’s highly politicised, highly divided world, in the age of Me Too and Time’s Up and rising social activism, sitting on the fence no longer washes with consumers. The why, generally speaking, is now deemed more important than the what, which has naturally meant that more and more athletes are championing social causes and partnering with brands who back them.

The likes of Megan Rapinoe and Raheem Sterling, both of whom feature at the top end of the list in 2019, are two notable examples. Both are established stars with sizeable followings who ply their trade in the world’s most popular sport, but it is their willingness to use their platforms to speak out on issues that transcend sport that has cast them in a new light.

Yet, as history has shown, speaking out is a risky business for any athlete or brand. NFL star turned racial equality activist Colin Kaepernick, incidentally, has never featured on SportsPro’s list – but that’s a story for another day.

Ten years of SportsPro 50 Most Marketable

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