The Nielsen view: Ranking the World’s 50 Most Marketable Athletes

This year’s 50 Most Marketable Athletes list is powered entirely by Nielsen. Here, the leading media data and measurement company discusses the rise of athlete influencers and how the planet’s elite sportsmen and women are harnessing the power of their platform.

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The adoption of social media platforms can no longer be considered a trend for this generation. Content distribution has dramatically evolved, and the ways of consuming that content have significantly increased over the years. Now, we’ve reached a point where fans are able to engage with sports stars directly like never before.

Interestingly, the advancement of social, coupled with the consumption habits of a digital-savvy generation, has created huge benefits for the sports ecosystem. But how do we understand the value behind the surge in social usage?

To develop this year’s list of the World’s 50 Most Marketable Athletes, Nielsen analysed over 6,000 athletes from 21 sports, taking into consideration reach, relevance, resonance, and return against objectives. Understanding these variables provides a clear picture of the factors affecting social campaign effectiveness and a blueprint to maximise impact.

Performance remains key

There’s no shying away from the fact that athletes who generally perform well at a global level generate the most exposure for brand partners as well as attracting a larger fan following. Leveraging date from Gracenote, a Nielsen company, and its Global Player Index for soccer, we’re able to gain insight into those that rank in the top ten of the 50MM list.

  1. Lionel Messi – Arguably one of the greatest players to play the game, Messi has won many of club soccer’s top honours and received his sport’s highest individual accolades, including the Ballon d’Or a record-breaking six times.
  2. Cristiano Ronaldo – Cristiano Ronaldo became the first European player – and second player in the world – to score 100 international goals when he netted twice for Portugal against Sweden in September 2020. That is just one of countless personal records the Juventus striker has set during his remarkable playing career.
  3. LeBron James – LeBron James has taken his team to the NBA playoffs in all but one year between 2006 and 2020. The one he missed was 2019, his first season with the LA Lakers, but James has since inspired his team to this year’s finals, their first since 2010.
  4. Virat Kohli – Ranked second, first and ninth in the ICC’s Test, ODI and T20 international batting rankings. India’s Virat Kohli is the only other player ranked in the top ten for all three forms of the game. Kohli is also the top-scoring player in Indian Premier League (IPL) history, with 5,412 runs for his club Royal Challengers Bangalore.
  5. Bianca Andreescu – At just 20 years old, the Canadian winner of the 2019 US Open tennis tournament is currently ranked seventh in the WTA rankings.
  6. Neymar Jr – The most expensive soccer player in history having moved from Barcelona to Paris Saint-Germain in 2017 for €222 million, Neymar has won three league titles in France and was a crucial part of the team which took PSG to their first Champions League final in 2020.
  7. Khabib Nurmagomedov – Russian fighter Khabib Nurmagomedov is the reigning UFC lightweight champion and holds the longest current unbeaten run in MMA, winning all 28 of his bouts.
  8. Rohit Sharma – Ranked number two in the world for in the ICC’s ODI batting ranking behind his compatriot Virat Kohli, Rohit Sharma is also in the top 20 of both the ICC’s Test and T20 international batting rankings. He is the third highest runs scorer in IPL history, with 4,898 runs for the Deccan Chargers and the Mumbai Indians.
  9. Mohamed Salah – Since signing for Liverpool in 2017, Salah is the top-scoring player in the Premier League with 76 goals, 11 ahead of his nearest rival Harry Kane.
  10. Paulo Dybala – Since joining Juventus in 2015, Dybala has won the Italian league title in every season, lifting his fifth successive trophy earlier this year. He is one of only six players to have recorded a total of 100 goals and assists over the last five seasons.

Athlete Snapshot

After considering the platform that high-level performance can provide, we’re able to get better context as to why certain athletes have a higher fan following and generate greater brand exposure. What’s important to note is engagement, and how fans connect and are influenced by content posted by athletes.

When combining all these data sets developed for 50MM, it was vital that awareness and social performance KPIs were considered along with sponsorship KPIs.

Norwegian soccer star Erling Haaland is a great example of an athlete who has seen significant follower growth across his social platforms – 8,390 per cent over the last 12 months, to be precise. However, that still has the Borussia Dortmund striker some way behind Messi and Ronaldo in terms of size of follower base. Interestingly, of the 50 athletes listed, Haaland has the highest interaction rate at 26 per cent and only seven per cent of his posts are branded content. By comparison, 40 per cent of Messi’s posts are branded.

The challenge for athletes and brands here is to remain authentic in branded posts at a time when fans are often looking to engage with athletes personally, not commercially.

Athlete and brand partnerships are becoming more sophisticated with brands often aiming to move away from traditional product endorsement deals. Athlete and brand tie-ups now are much more integrated with overall marketing objectives and include clear KPIs for businesses to monitor returns.

Meanwhile athletes themselves are also growing in sophistication, guided by professional experts; it’s no longer solely all about the money, but how the individual can align themselves with brands that support their passions, interests and ambitions, which is predominantly linked to how they are perceived away from their sport.