SportsPro Insight: What makes these the 50 most marketable athletes?

With the 2020 list of the World’s 50 Most Marketable Athletes now out in the open, SportsPro deputy editor Sam Carp picks out some of the key trends and storylines bubbling beneath the surface of this year’s rankings – and what they mean for the future of marketability.

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It probably shouldn’t be a surprise to see Lionel Messi peering down from atop this year’s list of the World’s 50 Most Marketable Athletes.

The Argentinian soccer great’s potential departure from Barcelona over the summer was front-page news in Spain and dominated even more column inches across the globe – and in the end he didn’t even leave. Still, it was the kind of ‘will he won’t he’ saga that could have commanded its own motion picture, armed with no shortage of protagonists and villains, a long-running love affair and a dramatic plot twist to boot.

Barcelona, though, would not only have been worried about seeing arguably the greatest to have ever played the game wander out the exit door, but also the millions of commercial dollars that would have likely followed him through it.

Would Rakuten, the La Liga side’s main partner, have been willing to renew its deal on the same terms – the Japanese company currently pays the club €55 million annually – without Messi fronting their marketing campaigns? Might Beko have been keen to splash another €57 million to sponsor the team’s training kit if the six-time Ballon d’Or winner were not wearing it?

For now those questions don’t have to be answered, but Barcelona, a club which routinely sets ambitious revenue projections, will have been well aware of the financial implications of losing its most irreplaceable asset.

Indeed, now more than ever, athletes are at the heart of commercial conversations, and these are the 50 that have been most effective when promoting their sponsors on Instagram over the 12 months from 1st July 2019. Narrowed down from some 6,000 sportsmen and women, this year’s list was generated entirely by Nielsen using Athlete Influencer Scores calculated by reach, relevance, resonance and return – four R words that are of growing importance to sports marketers in a world increasingly influenced by social media.

Messi, who tops the list with a total score of 115, has the broadest reach of any athlete, providing a platform for commercial partners like Adidas, Pepsi, Lays and Gatorade to engage with upwards of 157 million followers. Given the metrics in play, it is also no surprise to see the 33-year-old in the company of some of the most famous athletes on the planet, with his old foe Cristiano Ronaldo, basketball star LeBron James and cricket icon Virat Kohli all joining him in the top five.

Still going strong

SportsPro has admittedly left some readers scratching their heads in recent years with the omission of some of the world’s top-performing and highest paid athletes, with the argument being that their commercial portfolios have passed the point of saturation. There has been no room for Messi or Ronaldo in each of the last three editions of the list prior to this year, while LeBron, the first ever number one back in 2010, has not featured since 2013. Believe it or not, this is the first time that 20-time Grand Slam winner Roger Federer has appeared in 50MM since its inception.

What the evolution in this year’s methodology has highlighted, then, is that despite having arguably reached their marketing potential, sport’s dominant forces remain of critical importance to their partners. Ronaldo, who counts deals with Nike, Clear and Herbalife in his portfolio of endorsements, saw his follower count on Instagram increase by nearly a third in the last 12 months, a quite staggering increase for a man who is the most followed person on the platform and whose posts generated close to US$1 million in media value on average for his sponsors.

But for every Ronaldo on the list is an Erling Braut Haaland, for every LeBron a Zion Williamson, and for every Tom Brady a Patrick Mahomes. Borussia Dortmund striker Haaland, who shot to prominence last year for his goal-scoring exploits on the pitch and his big personality off it, has the highest interaction rate on the list and saw his Instagram following surge more than 8,000 per cent in the last 12 months, while Super Bowl-winning quarterback Mahomes grew his number of followers by more than 150 per cent.

So while this year’s list suggests that the most established sportspeople are among the most marketable athletes, it also identifies the next generation of stars waiting in the wings ready to take their place.

The future of tennis is female

More than half of the 2020 list is made up of soccer and basketball stars, but the third best represented sport is tennis, with six players making an appearance. Much of the conversation in recent years has been about who is going to step into the shoes of the golden generation that have ruled the men’s game for well over a decade. Alexander Zverev and Dominic Thiem have featured in this list in the past, but the inclusion of Federer and Rafael Nadal ahead of them would suggest that the sport’s most effective athlete endorsers are now coming from the Women’s Tennis Association (WTA).

Indeed, no fewer than four female tennis players appear in this year’s 50MM, led by breakthrough talents Andreescu and Coco Gauff, along with Australian Ashleigh Barty and Naomi Osaka, who was named the most marketable athlete of 2019.

Andreescu, 20, has seen her following soar more than 570 per cent in the past 12 months after winning her first Grand Slam by stunning Serena Williams at last year’s US Open. Nielsen determines that such growth, combined with an interaction rate of 23 per cent, makes the Canadian one of the most relevant athletes on the list. Andreescu’s victory at Flushing Meadows was soon followed by an endorsement deal with luxury watchmaker Rolex, which joined the likes of Nike, BMW and Head in a commercial portfolio that is only likely to grow in the years ahead.

Then there is Gauff, who aged just 15 captured the imagination at Wimbledon last year as she knocked out seven-time Grand Slam winner Venus Williams on her way to the fourth round. Major titles will no doubt come further down the line, but endorsers like New Balance and pasta brand Barilla are already positioning Gauff as a champion, with both creating a marketing narrative around the records she has broken as a youngster. In fact, Gauff’s relevance score of 44 is second only to Andreescu, with the American’s following having climbed by nearly 1,000 per cent since she broke onto the scene.

If anything, then, this year’s list suggests that those who have been looking to the men’s game for tennis’ next star might have been looking in the wrong place all along.

Yet this list has seldom been about sport’s biggest names, but rather those showing signs that they could be next. Canadian tennis player Bianca Andreescu’s inclusion at number five – making her the highest ranked female athlete on the list – is a reminder that 50MM has long served to highlight the young up-and-comers with significant marketing potential over the coming three-year period.

With representatives from across 16 sports and 25 countries, this year’s most marketable athletes are as diverse as ever, and as always there are no shortage of trends and storylines to unpick.

Here come the girls

Women at large are well represented in this year’s 50MM, with a record 17 female athletes included, which is to be expected given the ascendancy of women’s sport in recent times. While this is undoubtedly a positive, welcome trend, it is also worth noting that only two women on the list – World Cup-winning Americans Alex Morgan and Megan Rapinoe – come from team sports, in comparison to 24 of the 33 men that are featured.

Indeed, the female athletes who appear are predominantly those who have grasped their opportunity to shine at major events, when media coverage of women’s sport has historically been at its peak. Simone Biles, for example, is an obvious inclusion both for her artistry on the gymnastics mat and her willingness to speak out about societal issues off it, as are the aforementioned Osaka, Morgan and Rapinoe, who have arguably transcended their sports to take on celebrity status internationally.

It is a reminder that while women’s sport has undoubtedly enjoyed a surge in popularity over the past 12 months, outside of the flagship occasions and milestone moments it remains at a comparatively nascent stage compared to the men’s from a marketing perspective. However, the signs suggest that female leagues and competitions could be about to benefit from an increase in exposure, which means further down the line we could see more women from team sports come to populate 50MM.

Brands, too, could yet see female athletes as a more cost-effective way to reach large audiences as their budgets tighten in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic.

Megan Rapinoe and Alex Morgan are the only female athletes from team sports to feature in the list

Here come the girls

Women at large are well represented in this year’s 50MM, with a record 17 female athletes included, which is to be expected given the ascendancy of women’s sport in recent times. While this is undoubtedly a positive, welcome trend, it is also worth noting that only two women on the list – World Cup-winning Americans Alex Morgan and Megan Rapinoe – come from team sports, in comparison to 24 of the 33 men that are featured.

Indeed, the female athletes who appear are predominantly those who have grasped their opportunity to shine at major events, when media coverage of women’s sport has historically been at its peak. Simone Biles, for example, is an obvious inclusion both for her artistry on the gymnastics mat and her willingness to speak out about societal issues off it, as are the aforementioned Osaka, Morgan and Rapinoe, who have arguably transcended their sports to take on celebrity status internationally.

It is a reminder that while women’s sport has undoubtedly enjoyed a surge in popularity over the past 12 months, outside of the flagship occasions and milestone moments it remains at a comparatively nascent stage compared to the men’s from a marketing perspective. However, the signs suggest that female leagues and competitions could be about to benefit from an increase in exposure, which means further down the line we could see more women from team sports come to populate 50MM.

Brands, too, could yet see female athletes as a more cost-effective way to reach large audiences as their budgets tighten in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic.

It’s a lifestyle thing

Despite the revamped methodology, one thing that continues to ring true is that athletes from action sports are valuable endorsers for their partners. This year’s list features six representatives from that area, including three surfers, one skier, a snowboarder, and a solo skateboarder in Sky Brown, who at 12 years of age is the youngest athlete to ever feature in 50MM.

Each of the names in that group of six – which also includes Anna Gasser, Keila Turmini, Bethany Hamilton, Carissa Moore and Mikaela Shiffrin – promote their partners in more than 20 per cent of their posts, which is understandable given that competitors in action sports are typically more dependent on brands for sponsorship income to back up their earnings.

More interesting, though, is that they have some of the highest scores in the list for resonance, which takes into account the engagement rate on each athlete’s social media posts, sentiment around the athlete, and number of people talking about them. Gasser, whose partners include Red Bull, Burton and Huawei, has a resonance score of 31, which is bettered only by UFC lightweight champion Khabib Nurmagomedov, whose Russian and Muslim appeal has helped rank him as the world’s seventh most marketable athlete.

What this suggests, though, is that while athletes in more niche disciplines might not be able to offer brands the millions of followers that those in mainstream sports like soccer and basketball can lay claim to, they do have a highly engaged audience. It also speaks to the fact that Instagram users in particular follow athletes from sports such as surfing, snowboarding and skateboarding for an insight into their globe-trotting lifestyles, which also makes it easier for endemic brands to be more seamlessly integrated into their social posts.

It has also not gone unnoticed that this year’s list features a CrossFit athlete for the first time, with Iceland’s Katrín Tanja Davíðsdóttir popping up at number 45. Her inclusion – and indeed her 1.8 million Instagram followers – makes clear that what started out as nothing more than a fitness fad has become an ingrained part of modern society. For onlooking brands, it demonstrates that there could be a route to an untapped community through athletes from newfangled non-traditional sports that they might not have previously considered.

Athletes boosted their following during lockdown

It is difficult to measure precisely what impact the coronavirus pandemic had on this year’s rankings, but there are signs that those who were particularly active on social media during lockdown helped to boost their overall Athlete Influencer Score.

Alongside the likes of Lando Norris and George Russell, Charles Leclerc is the face of a new generation of Formula One driver, one which not only entertains on the track but is also happy to embrace emerging digital platforms. The Monégasque native told members of the media during lockdown that streaming on Amazon-owned Twitch had allowed him to show “the real me” compared to how he comes across during race weekends – and it appears to be resonating with his audience.

The 22-year-old, who is sponsored by Giorgio Armani and Richard Mille, has seen his following on Instagram grow by 117 per cent in the last 12 months, and Nielsen reckons that digital growth – combined with high levels of engagement and a strong relevance score – would give brands a significant return if they were to partner with the Ferrari driver. 

More established names like Golden State Warriors point guard Stephen Curry, Rapinoe, Nadal and Federer were also among the athletes that took to Instagram Live during the months of March and April, and each unsurprisingly saw big gains in their following during the past 12 months.

Where is everyone else?

As with any list, one of the most noticeable things about this year’s 50MM is those that are absent from it.

Historically, the World’s 50 Most Marketable Athletes has featured at least one from each of the major US sports leagues, yet this year includes no one from either Major League Baseball (MLB) or the National Hockey League (NHL). Golfers, too, have long been accepted as some of the most valuable athlete endorsers, but there is no room for the likes of Brooks Koepka, Dustin Johnson or Rory McIlroy in the rankings. In addition, there are no rugby players and no swimmers, while British sprinter Dina Asher Smith is the only representative from track and field.

That speaks most to the changing face of athlete marketability. With the exception of soccer and basketball, the results show that simply competing in the most high-profile, lucrative sports no longer translates to being an effective brand ambassador. Marketability is increasingly about how individuals harness social media platforms, where audiences are younger and more easily accessible. For those sports not on the list, then, it is worth considering why that is, and maybe how they can help better market their athletes to the next generation of fan.

Not everyone is born with the swagger of Rapinoe, the charm of Anthony Joshua or the cool of Lewis Hamilton, but it is the athletes like them, the ones capable of generating conversation, likes and shares, that brands will be clamouring to sign in the years to come – and who will continue to dominate 50MM in the future.