SportsPro has a long-standing history of providing compelling, insightful and thought-provoking content around an athlete’s global marketability through its 50 Most Marketable Athletes list.
For this year’s rankings, SportsPro aimed to incorporate a more holistic, data-driven and ultimately predictive model of athlete marketability than ever before. This is because athlete marketability is rapidly evolving. It is no longer predominantly based on an athlete’s sporting prowess or their popularity on social media. Rather, athlete marketability is increasingly an amalgamation of complex, interrelated factors, some of which are relatively easy to discern and measure, and others that are a correlation of many qualitative measures for which readily available data and clearly defined models do not exist.
With this objective in mind, SportsPro entered into a three-year partnership with NorthStar to leverage one of our six practices in particular, Business Intelligence, Analytics & Insights Solutions. Within a very short period of time, this practice focused on building a foundational model for the long-term through integrating critical back-end practice components, such as data engineering and management, machine learning and artificial intelligence (AI).
In the coming months and years, we will expand on our foundation, look to incorporate more of the ten pillars from NorthStar’s aforementioned practice, and also explore to what extent our other five practices, such as Process Excellence and Technology Enablement, can contribute.
A fresh take on 50MM
To complement our holistic approach to the 50 Most Marketable Athletes list, we pulled together and led a multi-disciplinary team of partners with expertise in sports, marketing, social, and data science to accomplish the following goals:
- Create the most complete picture and comprehensive assessment of athlete marketability in the sports industry
- Identify trends, shifts in consumer perception, and the most popular societal values in the marketability of an athlete (e.g., authenticity, gender equality, diversity & inclusion, sustainability, etc.)
- Provide deeper visibility and insights, recommendations and decision support, as well as predictive and prescriptive modeling
- Obtain the richest and highest quality of pertinent data sources at various levels of granularity
- Expand the historical measurement of an athlete’s on-field performance with off-field dimensions
- Focus on the triple bottom line vs. the straight financial measure of ROI
- Examine the difference between the most marketed and most marketable athletes
To achieve these goals, NorthStar drew on proprietary insights from three leading data providers, whose respective contributions were as follows:
- Triple Bottom Line + Purpose/Values/Mission metrics (e.g. what is the audience commenting on in social media about an athlete in correlation with social issues and sustainability initiatives?)
- Sentiment analysis on an athlete’s personal posts and audience mentions
- Athlete alignment with conversation drivers and common trends
- Proprietary social value measurement, calculated by using impressions, views and engagement for social media posts based on industry-standard rates for CPM (cost per mille), CPV (cost per view), and CPE (cost per engagement). This measurement factors in data from Facebook, Instagram, TikTok and Twitter.
- Proprietary Sponsorship Opportunity Report which evaluates relevant behaviour, emotion, and impact metrics for the evaluated sports across 18 countries (Argentina, Australia, Brazil, Canada, China, Columbia, France, Germany, India, Indonesia Italy, Japan, Mexico, Portugal, South Africa, Spain, United Kingdom, United States) to highlight the greatest sponsorship opportunities via fan-based survey data within the respective country.
The methodology explained
In order to be considered eligible for this year’s list, an athlete must have been active during our evaluation period, which ran from 1st December 2021 through to 31st July 2022. They must also have been listed as a primary starter if competing in a team sport, actively training for upcoming Olympic competition, or participating in annual World Championships.
Finally, they must compete in one of 24 sports, the list of which takes into account multiple entities at a league level and levels of competition. These included: American Football, Baseball, Basketball, Boxing, Cricket, Cycling, Esports, Field Hockey, Golf, Gymnastics, Mixed Martial Arts, Ice Hockey, Motorsports, Olympics, Paralympics, Rugby, Skateboarding, Skiing, Soccer, Surfing, Snowboarding, Tennis, Table Tennis, and Track & Field.
While most people have a sense of what the term “marketability” means, there is no globally accepted definition or formula that defines it. Marketability tends to be very contextual and purpose-based (e.g. related to a particular product or location or demographic). Applying the concept of marketability to an athlete compounds the challenge as traditional views of what makes an athlete marketable is transforming while data to support the analysis and measurement of athlete marketability is not always comprehensive or readily available.
Since its conception in 2010, SportsPro’s 50 Most Marketable Athletes list has evolved from an informed gut-feel approach to one driven by data, supported by industry-leading data providers and tools and usually constrained to the capabilities and specific scope of the respective data provider or technology platform.
Over the next three years of our partnership, NorthStar and SportsPro will be evolving the list into an even more holistic, 360-degree view of an athlete’s marketability by providing the most comprehensive assessment of its type in the sports industry.
For this year’s list, we started with the premise that over the past few years, especially with the advent and proliferation of social media, the idea of what makes an athlete marketable has evolved from an almost exclusive focus on sporting performance and a brand ambassador model to a more traditional approach to marketability that has been largely exclusive to sports properties and brands. Thus, we took a step back and first considered: “What makes something – or anything for that matter – marketable?”
We boiled it down to a basic combination of needing a strong brand identity and message, with a large total addressable market that provides a high return on Investment (ROI) and/or return on objective (ROO
Additionally, we conducted extensive research, including meeting with many professionals in the sports industry, and learned that, almost universally, sports properties and brands have wrestled with concepts such as brand values and purpose, storytelling, authenticity and triple bottom line in their efforts to improve their own marketability.
Furthermore, we identified a common trend indicating that athletes are now expected to be their own brands and not simply ambassadors. Thus, more athletes now have an increased focus on personal brand building beyond simply being a top performer within their sport.
As we developed our methodology, we applied elements of brand building 101 that have previously been exclusive to brands and properties (e.g., sporting venues) and applied those components to athletes. Marketability certainly starts with a great brand, but key factors such as larger accessibility can dramatically make a difference in contributing to the financial measure of ROI.
Ultimately, NorthStar’s definition of marketability and its resulting scoring model was based on a holistic view of an athlete from the strength of their personal brand to the depth, breath, engagement and growth potential of their audience, to their current and potential to generate ROI/ROO, categorised into the following three themes:
Athlete: Incorporates out-of-sport measures that speak to the strength of an athlete’s personal brand (e.g. brand story, authenticity, citizenship, risk, etc.).
Total Addressable Market: Includes the range of demographics that the athlete’s personal brand appeals to (e.g. age, gender, nationality, race, etc.) as well as audience engagement, audience sentiment, etc.
Economics: Integrates the triple bottom line concept into measuring not only the financial/ROI aspect of an athlete but also the ROO around social and environmental priorities.
Arriving at the top 50 Most Marketable Athletes
To determine the full eligible athlete population, we compiled a starter list of athletes based on the following:
- Any athlete that made SportsPro’s 50 Most Marketable Athletes list in 2021
- The top ten performing athletes (for men’s and women’s leagues listed above) rated on current rankings based on ratings available on league’s official websites or publicly available sports statistical databases.
- Any athlete that appeared on lists, award shows, etc. focused on both in-sport and out-of-sport categories. For example:
- ESPY Awards
- Forbes Highest paid athletes
- Leaders for In-sport performance (current ranking based on number of athletes in their league and historical accomplishments within the sport)
- Best Dressed
- Most Influential
- Most Philanthropic
- Vocal on DEI & ESG related topics
- Influencer in trending social values (e.g. sustainability, mental health, etc.)
This gave us a starter list of 700 athletes to conduct deeper analysis. Due to the scarcity of comprehensive and holistic athlete data sets, we added the following screening elements to further pare down the list:
- Did the athlete generate a significant amount of coverage of web and social media conversation from both fans as well as media outlets?
- Did the athlete raise any immediate red flags from a brand risk assessment?
This process narrowed the list to 120 athletes to conduct our full, in-depth analysis to which we applied the following differentiators and additional criteria to arrive at this year’s 50 Most Marketable Athletes based on the pillars outlined below.
The final Athlete Marketability Score was based on relative strength across the different categories and subcategories in direct comparison to the pool of athletes analysed. All categories were weighted and the maximum total score available was 100 with each athlete being assigned a proportionate score based on their individual score in relation to the top performer for each metric.
In addition, the Athlete Marketability Score was comprised of three weighted metrics with each of the three pillars being comprised of multiple contributing metrics:
- Athlete Personal Brand Strength (maximum 20 points)
- Audience & Reach (maximum 50 points)
- Economics (maximum 30)
Pillar 1: Athlete Personal Brand Strength (20 total points)
The first pillar is the Athlete Personal Brand Strength measurement, which considers how an athlete builds their brand identity (e.g. the way they perform on the field of play, the causes they support, how well they dress, how well-spoken they are in interviews, how authentic they are, etc.). Within personal brand strength, we analysed the topics related to Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG), Diversity, Equity and Inclusion (DEI), Sustainability and Gender Quality as the recognised trending topics.
- Sporting Performance: Base performance stats and above-and-beyond recognition (including historical individual or team success with trophies won and forecasted record milestones).
- Presentation: The aesthetics and consistency of brand packaging or presentation (e.g. athletes that are viewed as best dressed, physically fit, etc.)
- Citizenship: Reviewing how an athlete makes his or her teammates better, impacts their community and world, and their sportsmanship towards competition within their sport.
- Risk: Conducting a brand risk assessment on an athlete to evaluate if they pose a risk based on previous negative media instances and/or determining if they are more prone to injury because of the sport they play.
Pillar 2: Audience & Reach (50 total points)
The second pillar is the Audience & Reach metric, which factors in the overall market appeal of their personal brand (e.g., what demographics do they appeal to, what is the combined size of that market, what is the sentiment amongst those demographics and, from a global scale, what is the general awareness of their specific sport). For example, this metric allows us to measure the difference between a mid-tier performer, multi-faceted woman in Fifa who is outspoken about environmental issues and social injustice vs. an MVP calibre male on an NFL mid-market team who doesn’t have an interest in being vocal about emerging topics.
- Brand Awareness & Focus: Evaluating how often an athlete is mentioned on social and web channels and whether or not the trajectory of the volume has increased or decreased during the analyzed time.
- Follower Engagement: Weighted score factoring in their total number of followers, follower credibility, follower growth over the past six months, and follower engagement rate.
- Demographic Reach: Weighted score factoring in an athlete’s followership across a range of demographics (e.g., geographies, age groups, races, genders, etc.).
- Perception/Sentiment: Audience state of athlete based on negative, neutral, and positive sentiment components.
- Contributing/Growth Factors: Areas where an athlete may gain a bump from participating in a highly marketable sport, or be part of a highly marketable property associated with a growing demographic (e.g. women’s sports).
Pillar 3: Economics (30 total points)
The third pillar is Economics, which incorporates existing value, Return on Investment (ROI) and Return on Objective (ROO, based on the athlete’s personal brand strength and market appeal and what value (ROI/ROO) they provide, looking not just at financial measures but also elements of triple bottom line value. It may be driven by an athlete’s position and visibility on certain social and environmental issues, but it is an assessment of the potential ROI/ROO of that activity. This is where the term ROO factors in, which allows us to provide a score based on how an athlete is scored specifically in the financial, environmental and social values within the triple bottom Line.
- Financial: Defined as market demand, market spend, and Zoomph Social value:
- Market Demand: Consumers, purchasing power and expected behavior of brands that are marketing.
- Market Spend: Historical salary, endorsements, estimated value of athlete’s organic social activity.
- Zoomph Social value: Calculated using impressions, views and engagement for posts based on industry-standard rates for Cost per Impression (CPM), Cost per View (CPV), and Cost per Engagement (CPE).
- Social & Environmental: Evaluating how often a specific athlete is mentioned specifically around environmental and social values to highlight how an individual could potentially contribute to the triple bottom line.
- Growth Potential: Looking at areas where there is trending growth for future ROI/ROO that is not yet being fully captured in current data (e.g. NIL, women’s sports, etc.)
The overarching theme of our methodology is that the way athletes are being looked at is significantly different now than in the past. Historically, before the visibility and platform that social media provided, athlete marketability was largely based on sporting performance, which was essentially all that mattered.
Now, the most marketable athletes are hitting on the other metrics as well, such as greater citizenship and contribution to social and environmental causes, and not just on whether they’re having a great season. So, while being an elite performer may put an athlete into consideration for a top 50 Most Marketable Athletes list, putting too much emphasis on sporting performance as a justification to be highly ranked would not fit within our methodology.
It’s also important to always recognise that this list that we’re analysing represents the elite of the elite. There are so many incredible, marketable athletes that were analysed but only so many can make the cut when we consider global scale.
Finally, as the definition of athlete marketability continues evolve to a more traditional brand building and innovative influencer dynamic, heightened by the advent of Name, Image and Likeness (NIL) for both college and high school athletes, so too will our holistic, data-driven and ultimately predictive model of athlete marketability.
NorthStar will thus continue to listen to the marketplace and sports industry experts, gather comprehensive and relevant data from disparate data sources wherever it’s possible to do so, develop proxies if the right data cannot be obtained, and incorporate what’s important into our model moving forward