A trophy-laden career spanning 20 years, deals with global brands and the most-followed person on Instagram: Cristiano Ronaldo’s position at the top of SportsPro’s latest 50 Most Marketable (50MM) Athletes list will raise few eyebrows.
For all of Ronaldo’s achievements on the pitch, be it scooping five Ballon d’Ors or becoming the Uefa Champions League’s top goal scorer, the Portuguese soccer superstar has long carried equal weight off it.
Look no further than the 37-year-old’s high-profile return to Manchester United in the summer of 2021. Just an hour after news broke that he would once again be wearing the iconic number seven jersey, sales surpassed the best ever full day for the club’s official merchandise platform. Across the Fanatics network, Ronaldo also became the biggest merchandise-selling player ever in the 24 hours following a transfer to a new team, pipping the likes of Lionel Messi, Tom Brady and LeBron James – all of whom rank among the top names on this year’s 50MM list.
Of course, being able to flog shirts is not a universal currency for marketability. Developed in collaboration with NorthStar Solutions Group, the updated methodology that produced this year’s 50MM list blended a multitude of factors – from individual data analysis and advanced social media monitoring, to economic valuations and real-world consumer insights – to help paint a clearer picture of athlete marketability than ever before.
Yet, whatever the method used, certain things tend to stand out. In this case, it says a lot about Ronaldo’s profile that means he can make arguably the world’s biggest soccer club feel comparatively modest. Enduring worldwide popularity – his Instagram following alone totals more than 481 million – also speaks volumes.
As he enters the twilight of his career, it remains to be seen quite how long Ronaldo’s appeal will continue. That is a question for another day. For this year, he is joined in the 50MM top five by Serena Williams, Lewis Hamilton, James and Messi. Like ‘CR7’, each has a legitimate claim as the greatest of all time in their respective sport.
This list, however, is not reserved exclusively for ‘GOAT’ contenders. From rising stars to those championing social causes, the nature of what makes an athlete marketable continues to shift and evolve. As this year’s line-up demonstrates, there is ample to unravel and weigh up.
Age is just a number
The top five in this year’s 50MM list have one thing in common – they are all aged 35 or older. Messi, who ranked fifth having topped the list in 2020, is the youngest at 35 and Williams, in second, has bowed out of tennis at the age of 41.
Of the top ten, eight are in their 30s or above. Indian cricket ace Virat Kohli (seventh) and US Women’s National Soccer Team (USWNT) striker Alex Morgan (eighth) are both 33. National Football League (NFL) royalty Brady, in tenth, is the eldest statesman of the lot at 45.
The two twentysomethings in the top ten are four-time tennis Grand Slam winner Naomi Osaka (sixth) and Australian soccer captain Sam Kerr (ninth), aged 25 and 29 respectively. Cast your eye across the full standings and you will see that 46 per cent of the athletes are aged between 31 and 40.
Generally speaking, an athlete is expected to be at the peak of their competitive powers in their 20s. Marketability, on the other hand, seems to have far more longevity – in fact, five of this year’s top ten also featured in the top ten when SportsPro first ranked the world’s most marketable athletes back in 2010.
Ronaldo boasts partnerships with heavyweight companies such as Nike, Altice, Herbalife, Therabody and Unilever-owned Clear. Household names such as Adidas, Mercedes-Benz and Coca-Cola also have long-term tie-ups with other athletes in the top ten. Put simply, even if their on-field prowess may be waning, ageing stars remain vital to their commercial partners, providing a reliability and authority their fresher contemporaries cannot compete with.
That said, it is not all doom and gloom for the young pretenders. Of the 50MM, 32 per cent are aged between 18 and 25, suggesting there are plenty of athletes ready to take up the baton.
Risk vs Reward
Whether its reach or influence, commercial partners would like to think they know what they are getting when linking up with any well-known athlete. Negative press, though, would not be one of them.
It is delusional to assume any sportsperson is faultless, but that has not stopped brands getting caught up in various fallouts.
Novak Djokovic, 46th in the list, split tennis fans and dominated the front pages due to his Covid-19 vaccination stance. That cost the Serb his spot at the Australian Open and US Open, not to mention a sponsorship deal with Peugeot.
Real Madrid striker Karim Benzema (32nd) was found guilty in October 2021 of conspiring to blackmail fellow French soccer player Mathieu Valbuena with a sex tape, an episode which saw him handed a one-year suspended jail term and a €75,000 (US$73,400) fine. Benzema’s lawyers said they would appeal his conviction.
Messi, meanwhile, was found guilty of tax evasion in 2016. Some felt Ronaldo’s reputation was irreparably damaged because of a rape allegation lawsuit, which was dismissed by a US judge this June. The latter incident also applied to Messi’s Paris Saint-Germain teammate Neymar (17th), whose investigation was dropped due to insufficient evidence.
Without wanting to pick apart every entry, the above tells us that athletes are not infallible. Some, though, have fronted up to other struggles.
Osaka has been open about dealing with depression and anxiety, which has resonated with people and, if anything, made her more appealing to brands. Simone Biles, the most decorated gymnast in history and 11th in the ranking, withdrew from several events at the Tokyo 2020 Olympics over concerns for her mental health, a move widely praised.
Brand marketers still want athletes to be the complete package. But they also now need to recognise that what sportsmen and women embody goes beyond the field of play.
Champions for change
Authenticity and marketability go hand in hand. Athletes have long acted as role models for those trying to create positive change across society, so it is little surprise that this year’s 50MM list is stacked with names throwing their weight behind social causes.
Notably, seven-time Formula One world champion Hamilton continues to champion the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement and demand greater diversity in motorsport, while Williams and James have both been vocal about issues around gender representation and racial equality.
Manchester United forward Marcus Rashford (50th) has spearheaded a campaign for the UK government to provide free school meals to children outside of term time. Morgan, alongside fellow USWNT players Megan Rapinoe (27th) and Becky Sauerbrunn (40th), pushed for equal pay with the men’s national team. Four-time major champion Rory McIlroy (48th) has been outspoken on the controversial Saudi-backed LIV Golf tour, echoing the thoughts of many outraged fans.
Clearly, this new wave of athlete activism resonates, strengthening connections between athlete and audience. For the organisations and brands those athletes represent, there is plenty of upside than the more traditional measure of financial return on investment (ROI).
Today, in the current era of purpose-driven marketing, aligning with socially-conscious athletes can also support efforts to boost returns across the ‘triple bottom line’ of social, environmental and economic impact. That was one of the main reasons why SportsPro and NorthStar made social impact a key factor in their assessment of athlete marketability.
Of course, any time an athlete speaks out on a polarising or politicised issue there is the risk of alienating people. History has shown that speaking out is a risk in itself but if brands are serious about being purpose-led, values-based, socially-conscious organisations, they can’t simply sit on the fence or stay quiet.
Nike reigns supreme
One company that has mastered athlete storytelling is Nike, which is comfortably the most prominent brand represented on the 50MM list. Holding deals with 22 of the 50 athletes – 23 if you include 45th-ranked Luka Dončić and his contract with Nike’s Jordan Brand – the sportswear giant far outstrips its great rivals Adidas and Puma, who sponsor eight and three athletes on the list respectively.
Over the years, Nike has repeatedly demonstrated the power of storytelling by articulating its brand purpose through its own channels, as well as those of its athlete ambassadors. The brand’s famous ‘Just Do It’ campaign, launched more than 30 years ago, is perhaps the best example in sport of the many ways a company can use storytelling in their communications and content strategy.
Spanning multiple platforms and social media accounts and incorporating many different campaigns and content formats, ‘Just Do It’ is a perfect example of the flexibility of great messaging. Those three words have been used by both the brand and its sponsored athletes to promote and champion a diverse range of social causes, from racial justice to mental health and female empowerment. Ultimately, though, the message has remained consistent across the board, with a single philosophy and enduring purpose permeating all parts of the campaign.
One interesting area for further exploration in future, at least in the context of 50MM, would be to study the interplay between brand investment and athlete marketability. Like any brand, Nike would naturally support athletes it deems marketable and who have the potential for future development, but does the brand’s backing inherently make an athlete more appealing to brands in other sectors?
With the scale and resources to put its sponsored athletes in shopfronts and in media channels the world over, the Nike marketing machine has the power to dramatically enhance an individual’s profile and visibility, while there is a certain lustre that comes with being aligned with perhaps the world’s most recognisable and aspirational brand. Surely that only benefits any other company aligned with the athlete?
With nearly half of the 50MM class of 2022 aged 31 or above, attention will turn to the crop of youngers who can fill the gap as the likes of Ronaldo, Messi and Brady edge closer to retirement. Several women look to be leading the charge, with more female athletes – 22 – featuring on the list than ever before.
The 14-year-old skateboarder Sky Brown (39th), who became the youngest athlete to ever feature in 50MM back in 2020, has attracted further attention since winning a bronze medal at Tokyo 2020. Other young stars from action sports have also made the cut, including snowboarder Chloe Kim (22nd) and skier Eileen Gu (29th). Aged 22 and 19 respectively, they already have four Winter Olympic gold medals between them.
Then there is British tennis’ great hope Emma Raducanu (12th). The 19-year-old has had a tricky year on the court since her shock US Open victory in 2021, but the glow from her Grand Slam triumph continues to shine bright. Given the raft of endorsement deals she signed off the back of her victory at Flushing Meadows, including agreements with brands like British Airways, Dior and Porsche, more on-court success could catapult her even higher up future 50MM lists.
Young athletes that have grown up with social media are also using Instagram and TikTok to enhance their marketability. A standout is 20-year old gymnast Olivia Dunne, who has 2.1 million and 6.1 million followers on the respective platforms, making her the most-followed National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA) athlete across social media.
Dunne is also expected to be one of the biggest earners after the US collegiate sports body gave the green light last year for student-athletes to start profiting from selling their name, image and likeness (NIL) rights. WME Sports took note, signing her up as the agency’s first NIL athlete in August 2021.
On the men’s side, France’s 23-year-old Fifa World Cup winner Kylian Mbappe (19th) and 22-year-old Norwegian goalscoring phenomenon Erling Haaland (24th) have been earmarked as the successors to the Messi-Ronaldo rivalry.
The old guard may slowly be on their way out but, when it comes to unearthing marketable athletes, the future appears bright.
To find out more about the 50 Most Marketable Athletes, including the full ranking, methodology and further insights, click here.