‘Intimacy, creativity and personality’: What does the future hold for athlete marketability?

A week on from the release of SportsPro’s 2021 list of the world’s 50 Most Marketable Athletes, Greenfly president and chief executive Daniel Kirschner and chief marketing officer Tom Kuhr unpick this year’s ranking, and consider what the results say about the changing nature of sports stars’ appeal.
Lewis Hamilton remains one of the world's most marketable athletes

An Olympic year, albeit a delayed one, giving us a gymnast as the world’s most marketable athlete is perhaps not the biggest shock. However, the circumstances that have helped take Simone Biles to the top of the SportsPro 50 Most Marketable list presented by Greenfly serve to show the changing nature of what constitutes marketability.

Biles went into Tokyo 2020 as the darling of Team USA. Jaw-droppingly talented and with four Olympic gold medals from the Rio Games already to her name, this year’s event in the Japanese capital would further cement her legacy as one of the most dominant gymnasts of all time.

In a way, Tokyo 2020 did confirm Biles as a sporting icon. How that came about, though, could not have been foreseen. Having posted her lowest Olympic vault score during qualification for the women’s gymnastics team final, the 24-year-old pulled out of several events, citing concerns over her mental health.

“We have to protect our minds and our bodies and not just go out and do what the world wants us to do,” Biles said at the time.

“We’re not just athletes. We’re people at the end of the day and sometimes you just have to step back.”

Biles would later return for the balance beam final, taking bronze. Her comments about her wellbeing have left a lasting impression greater than any medal. For so long, fans and brands have idolised athletes as infallible, superhuman beings who are fuelled by an unwavering drive and insatiable thirst for success. Put simply, they are not supposed to be like you or I. Biles now stands as a leader amongst a growing breed of sportsmen and women pulling back the curtain on what an athlete in today’s world truly embodies.

This sea change is reflected throughout SportsPro’s annual list. Tennis ace Naomi Osaka sits at number two in the standings after a year that brought an Australian Open title, taking her total Grand Slam haul to four. But being billed as tennis’ new megastar brought with it depression and anxiety for Osaka, leading to her taking a break from the game.

Earlier this month, the Japanese 23-year-old was left in tears during her first press conference since withdrawing from the 2021 French Open. Citing the political crisis in Afghanistan and the earthquake in Haiti, Osaka has reassessed not only her relationship with the media but also her place as an athlete in a fractious world.

For centuries, elite-level competitors have been defined by their performances in their chosen field. That will continue to play an integral part in deciding their fortunes, especially with brands. But it is no longer a prerequisite for marketability. Increasingly, athletes are resonating with consumers thanks to their stance on a variety of societal issues.

US soccer internationals Ashlyn Harris and Ali Krieger are at third and seventh in the list. The two are married, and have both spoken passionately on gay rights. Harris has also talked openly about her mental health challenges, as well as an Adderall addiction. In August 2017, she became sportswear manufacturer Umbro’s first female brand ambassador.

Fellow US women’s national team (USWNT) players Alex Morgan (tenth), Kristie Mewis (34th), Megan Rapinoe (35th), Kelley O’Hara (37th), Julie Ertz (39th), Tobin Heath (43rd), and Sydney Leroux Dwyer (45th) have also made the cut. Between them, they have been outspoken on LGBTQ+ issues and equal pay.

Meanwhile, there are also the likes of Lewis Hamilton – ranked at number 16 on the list – who has used his platform as a seven-time Formula One world champion to support the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement and push for greater diversity in motorsport.

Those various causes are backed by millions of fans across numerous digital channels, presenting an ever increasing opportunity for athletes to make their voice heard. It means athletes are now capable of cultivating a loyal, like-minded and passionate audience. As SportsPro’s rankings highlight, there is now an eclectic array of sportsmen and women leading the charge.

Quality, not just quantity

“This is not a standard list that just looks at the number of followers and lists that out, anybody can do that,” Daniel Kirschner, president and chief executive of digital social media flow leader specialist Greenfly, tells SportsPro.

“This list really tries to really look at the qualities of the audience, the levels of engagement and get at which athletes are resonating most powerfully with their audience, and looking at marketability from that perspective.

“It’s really notable that the top three athletes are all women. It’s also interesting to see somebody like Ashlyn Harris so highly ranked. She may not have the follower count of some of the other athletes on this list. But she’s really built an incredible series of connections with her audience through interests that extend beyond sports. It’s everything from tattoos, to music, to skateboarding.

“It means she’s able to connect and resonate with an audience in a very powerful and interesting way. That has tremendous value to marketers.

“We’ve ended up with a list that looks a little different than if you asked someone who the biggest stars are in the world right now. This is really looking at marketability in a much more interesting way.”

Taking a stand

The 50MM methodology from digital measurement platform Zoomph accounts for five key metrics: post frequency, reach, engagement, fan demographic and fan attractiveness. That all adds up to a total influencer score that decided the final order.

Evidently, looking at the numbers, the clout acquired over years at the top means familiar faces also populate the list. Lionel Messi at number 12, LeBron James (24th), Steph Curry (30th), Neymar (31st), and Paul Pogba (48th) have all topped previous editions. Their scores this time around do not suggest their allure is on the wane. Rather, the evolving nature of marketability points to there being more effective engagement at better value out there. So called ‘vanity metrics’, such as follower count, do not determine absolute appeal. 

Chances are, for example, more people will have heard of Fifa World Cup winner Kylian Mbappe, ranked at number 23, than the Women’s National Basketball Association’s (WNBA) Te’a Cooper, who comes in at 17. Yet, according to the metrics, the Los Angeles Sparks point guard makes better use of her audience, even if it is a smaller one.

Finding what resonates with your fans, particularly on topics shaping modern society, is incredibly powerful.

“Those kinds of issues and causes are things that people really turn to a social platform for and really participate in,” explains Kirschner. “That drives a level of engagement and identification, and a sense of intimate connection between the athlete and the audience. That has a really big impact. 

“It’s not like it’s about one issue, one cause. Naomi Osaka and Simone Biles have both been in the news lately for talking about mental health, while other athletes on this list have been in the news for speaking out on other issues.

“But I think the point is that people are connected to others that take a stance, who show some personality, where they feel like they have a sense of who they are. On social and digital platforms, people really want a sense of authentic connection and an understanding of where the person is coming from.”

Indeed, the carefully managed PR post or puff piece editorial is looking ever more dated and redundant. For Kirschner, coming across as overly polished creates a barrier between athlete and audience, scuppering any chance of a meaningful connection.  

Sportsmen and women today are also less inclined to try and please everybody. Whereas Michael Jordan, who defined the Nike brand, jested in the 1990s that “Republicans buy sneakers too” and distanced himself from political activism, many of his modern day counterparts have dispensed with neutrality. The athlete remains a role model, just not quite as we know it.

“That role model is not one-dimensional,” says Kuhr. “Over the last three years, the multidimensionality of athletes has really come through by them taking a stand. Now you could take a look at people taking the knee, for example.

“Athletes are role models for people trying to create change for the better. That’s an important aspect of the audience that brands need to take into account. Are these people setting the stage, are they believable, are they authentic to their audience?”

Maximising returns

However watertight and thorough data is, there will always be a degree of objectivity to what really constitutes marketability. To that end, an added element to this year’s effort is to help establish a link between an athlete’s audience and return on investment (ROI) for those organisations associated with them.

“Marketability is not a concept with a really clear definition. It depends upon the circumstances,” notes Kirschner. “When you think about this list, we’re not saying whose posts are worth the most because they reach the most people. It depends on what you’re advertising, it depends on which athlete is then most marketable for that product.

“Here, we’re looking at who is going to connect most powerfully with their audience, what drives purchasing decisions, who makes purchasing decisions. Those qualities are all really important. The list indicates a kind of credibility that’s going to impact purchasing decisions.”

Kuhr adds: “At a macro trend perspective, too, traditional TV audiences are declining in a lot of markets, a lot of sports, as people start to gravitate towards their favourites – towards their niches. There’s just more variety out there for them to tune into.

“Social media in general is making up for those connections, it’s making up for the loss of younger audiences. People are still connecting, they still love sports. They’re just connecting in a different way.

“So you can look at this list as the next generation of connection. It’s a roadmap for advertisers who are looking beyond traditional media, traditional broadcast, traditional ways of connecting with audiences.

“This is the new way to connect with audiences – it’s speaking with athletes directly, and it’s happening on social platforms.”

In the past, particularly with team sports, athletes made their name playing for a renowned team. Now, they can have a staunch following before they’ve made their professional debut or been drafted. Leagues and teams are taking note of this shift and leveraging their marketing efforts accordingly.

This changing tide of athlete power also helps shed more light on the inclusion of skateboarder Nyjah Huston at number 20 on the list, surfers Bethany Hamilton (33rd) and Gabriel Medina (36th), and snowboarding sensation Chloe Kim (42nd). The fact their respective sports do not possess the global pull of a sport like soccer or the financial might of the National Football League (NFL) doesn’t mean they are automatically hindered when it comes to building an audience. 

“If you look at Chloe Kim, she emerged as this massive star with that incredible gold win at the Winter Games, and then she has a really powerful personality on social media,” says Kirschner.

“She’s the kind of person that really connects. Snowboarding, like surfing and skateboarding, also represents a lifestyle and drives a lot of youthful engagement that’s really interesting for advertisers and connected to marketability.”

Arguably, a list like this is as notable for its absentees. Just one baseball player broke the top 50 – Cody Bellinger at number 40 – while Cam Newton was football’s sole entry at 46. Not a single golfer or ice hockey professional made it in. For Kuhr, the solution to this is clear.

“For the teams, leagues or organisations that are looking at this as a guidepost along the way, embracing their athletes’ personal brands is the future. They are starting to leverage that for sponsors, they’re starting to leverage that for general awareness of the team.

“Spreading that message across athletes, across their team, across their rosters really carries that message a lot further because each of those athletes has their own audience and their own organic ability to get the consistent messages out.”

Future trends

If athlete marketability remains broad in its interpretation, how brands choose which sporting ambassadors to partner with is where the change will arrive. The dominance of social media, as well as the emergence of new engagement metrics, media value and fan influence, means there is ample opportunity for organisations aligning with athletes. Uncovering consistent, targeted ROI is where the real test lies.

“The ability for everyone to have a social media account makes it more difficult for marketers to find the right influencer if they’re just looking at stats,” says Kuhr. “So getting in-depth data like this, analysed by Zoomph, is really going to be an important trend for the brand side of things in the years to come.

“Getting hold of this data, understanding the data, understanding influence over audience as a marketability factor is going to be a big change for people that are used to looking at which frequency to reach an audience.

“I think the athletes and their agents, publicists and PR people will start to understand that pretty quickly and make the most of athletes that have that connection with their audience. They’ll make the most of promoting that for endorsements.”

Kirschner continues: “Over the next decade, we’re going to see a breakdown of polished image and the continued rise of a kind of intimacy with the athletes. One of the things that’s been interesting on social media itself is how much it’s evolved over the past five years.

“Instagram was originally a place for polished and beautiful photography. It was a really powerful place to put up beautiful images of people engaged in sport or lifestyle, things like that. And then, of course, the rise of Instagram Stories really changed that. You now have these much more intimate and direct short-form videos and punchy little photos with funny captions.

“That’s been absolutely supercharged with TikTok where that’s broken down even further with people looking for more intimacy, creativity and personality.

“That’s an ongoing evolution, we’re going to continue to see that over the next several years in social media. I think marketability is really going to relate to that.”