At Large: What could athlete marketing look like in the 2020s?

As SportsPro releases the tenth edition of its list of the world's most marketable athletes, editor at large Eoin Connolly takes a highly speculative look at the athlete marketing trends that could shape the decade to come.

Eoin Connolly
By Eoin Connolly | 22 August 2019

Given how distant this morning can seem in these accelerated times, it’s fair to say 2010 feels a long way back now. 

That, in any case, is when this publication launched its first annual list of the world’s most marketable athletes, projecting a three-year period in which Roger Federer’s tennis career would probably start to wind down. My esteemed colleague, SportsPro editorial director and magazine editor Michael Long, has done a fine job elsewhere of detailing the history of the feature and how it has reflected changes elsewhere in sport, in the media and in brand priorities, so there’s no need for further reflection here.

But what about the next decade? Knowing what we do about the media and commercial space of 2019, what we be the trends that define athlete marketing in the 2020s? In the proper spirit of the most marketable athletes feature, here is a speculative collection of things to look out for in the years ahead.

Pragmatic athlete activism

Political activism was historically the live rail for brands investing in sport but from Colin Kaepernick down, more and more athletes have been able to exhibit a social conscience without sacrificing their commercial profile. Naturally, it’s not without risk for sponsors in polarised times – Republicans still buy sneakers, too, only some now set those sneakers on fire in protest – but a careful alignment of target consumers and causes has been effective.

It will be intriguing to see how far athletes can push this. One of the first stops made by US soccer star Megan Rapinoe on her post-World Cup media tour was to Pod Save America: the smash-hit podcast run by ex-Obama and Clinton staffers for engaged Democrats and politics geeks. Its massive, like-minded audience makes it an advertising honeypot, and owner Crooked Media converts those earnings into funding and coordinating its own grassroots campaigns.

That could be a template: athletes not just confident enough to combine commercial relevance and political influence, but savvy enough to use one to the benefit of the other. 


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Crossover audiences and shared experiences

There are lots of things elite athletes enjoy that most of their fans will never get to, like fast cars, designer clothes, luxury holidays, and being really, really good at a particular sport. But cultural touchstones have always been there to bridge that gap and, increasingly, the digital space provides opportunities to make the most of that. 

Gaming has been quick to capitalise on its status as a shared interest of leading stars and their followers, both through above-the-line advertising and the power of shared streams. In that spirit, you could imagine more being made of the possibilities of curated playlists on music or video streaming sites or, if the practice of shared viewing becomes more commonplace in over-the-top (OTT) sports broadcasting, the prospect of fans watching matches together with their heroes. It is not difficult to see the added value in an interactive in-game Q&A where a current or recently retired player gives personal and technical insights. 

Live esports competitions, mass participation events and app-led physical challenges could also be more active ways of bringing athletes closer. 

Data and digital identities

One of the great unresolved debates of the last few years concerns ownership of biometric and performance data. There is huge value for leagues and rights holders in being able to sell this collectively to the media or betting sector. Yet it seems likely some individuals will fight to take personal charge of their information – either for ethical reasons, or because they see a route to market themselves.

With in-game sponsorships having become a feature of the worlds of titles like Fifa, it may also be that athletes look to exploit their digital avatars for commercial gain. A virtual endorsement in the space where they have most contact with many fans makes sense, though that would again mean breaking through existing licensing arrangements. 

Athlete-led events and competitions

Stars have always been used to break events but with social and clip-based media having placed so much emphasis on the individual, the conditions exist for this to be more disruptive than it has been in a generation.

With experimental formats in vogue among rights holders, brands could perform some trials of their own, bringing together their leading endorsers for small-sided showcases. Already, the potential for athlete-led set-pieces has been explored through Eliud Kipchoge’s quest for a sub two-hour marathon or that infamous encounter between Conor McGregor and Floyd Mayweather in 2017. The example of bookmaker 32Red parachuting Wayne Rooney into English soccer’s second tier at Derby County may also have its imitators.

The impact of all this could be felt most keenly in emerging sports where the interest in top international stars has grown out of proportion with existing competitions. In women’s soccer, for example, it will be instructive to see how the club game develops around the breakout followings of the very best players.

Short-term hits

The faster the culture moves, the bigger the risk to anyone trying to catch hold of it. Long-term bets still pay off in a lot of cases but sponsors have grown leery of the kind of three-year commitment on which SportsPro’s most marketable list is hypothetically based. 

With influencer marketing trends having their own, well, influence, agents increasingly talk about the demand for shorter-term partnerships – something, say, about the length of a series of Love Island. That’s not ideal for an athlete trying to build for a sensible future but anyone looking to maximise a short burst of attention, it has its appeal.

Olympic athletes would be among those with most to gain from briefer endorsement deals – something which will add further pressure on Rule 40, the regulation limiting the promotion of non-IOC sponsors for the duration of each Games. 

Olympic athletes would be among those with most to gain from briefer endorsement deals

Legacies and long tails

As Generation Z floods the workplace over the next few years, spare a thought for all those millennials and younger Gen Xers whose authority will start to wane: Serena Williams, Rafa Nadal, Lionel Messi, Tom Brady. 

A whole cohort of great athletes will retire in the 2020s and they just so happen to be the very last to have emerged in an era of relative media universality. It remains to be seen just how properly global icons emerge from more diffuse forums but popular interest in this crop looks sure to outlast their careers for a while yet. 

Already, the clamour for 90s and 00s TV favourites like Friends and the Office is shaping the next phase of the contest among entertainment streaming services more powerfully than original content. From legends tours to a new legacy deals, affection for these fading sporting greats could reshape the industry in ways that have barely been felt yet.

Agency fragmentation and reconnection

Taking athlete deals into new contexts and timeframes will demand a lot of specialist knowledge and personal attention, and the kind of agility for which the monster agencies aren’t renowned. Those conditions tend to produce splintering and the emergence of boutique agencies, either under the auspices of existing organisations, like Wasserman’s female sport-focused the Collective, or as breakaways.

So it’s likely fair to expect a spate of athlete political consultancies, niche media representatives and companies with bespoke sales engines – at least until corporate scale becomes a necessity for some major project or the big boys go on a buying spree and the whole sector comes back together again. Think of it as erosion and mountain-building, only in powder-blue suits with no ties.

Athletes in space

I mean, maybe? Between Elon Musk, Jeff Bezos, Virgin Galactic, space tourism, and an international race back to the moon, the cosmos is going to be the in thing of the 2020s. Someone, somewhere, is thinking of strapping one of these people to a rocket with a logo on the side.