NorthStar insight | Analysing the 2021 SportsPro 50 Most Marketable Athletes list

Frank Gregory, social media intelligence practice lead at NorthStar Solutions Group, deep dives into this year's 50 Most Marketable Athletes list to consider what it tells us about marketability and how the list can be instructive for the industry.

If you’ve been following SportsPro’s 50 Most Marketable (50MM) for the last few years, it is clear that the 2021 list is unique. That is because the teams at Greenfly and Zoomph took a more nuanced approach with their data models, focusing less on high follower counts and more on important factors related to who the athletes’ followers actually are.

It asks how marketable an athlete is by assessing their audience among demographics with significant spending power in growing industries and if their followers are highly engaged with that athlete’s content. Or do they just simply follow the athlete because he or she is a household name, not engaging often with the athlete’s content?

As an objective third party social media analytics service provider, we didn’t focus as much on the nitty-gritty of the weighting scales, etc. Instead, when we first saw the list, we asked the strategic question: What actions can brand marketers, sports industry leaders and athletes take based on the insights in this list?

Therefore, we dug a little deeper to conduct our own analysis of the list to unearth common themes and patterns to take note of.

Female athletes to the fore

The immediate observation that pops out is the number of female athletes in the top 50. It is not just that Simone Biles is the most marketable athlete in the world; close to 40 per cent of the top 50 are women. Over the past few years, women’s sports have seen a significant spike in audience growth, with the most important factor being the level of passion that fans have for their favourite players and teams. That fan passion is not just seen in the stands; it is seen in the high level of social media engagement female athletes receive, which is often higher relative to follower size versus what is typically seen from the fans of men’s sports.

This is also clearly shown by the presence of the US women’s national soccer team on the list, with nine players in the top 50. The powerful and unique force of the USWNT creates a perfect storm of marketability:

  • There’s no one athlete that is the sole star of the team. Watching the USWNT play is watching a true team performance, with multiple household names working in unison.
  • They play the most popular in the world (62 per cent of the top 50 are soccer players).
  • They are just as passionate and outspoken about social causes as they are for their sport (and their fans follow suit, with an equal amount of passion about the same causes)
  • They use their platforms as a window into their personalities and family life, not just their career.
  • They deal with one of the most-publicised inequities in sports as one of the best women’s soccer teams in the world getting paid less than their country’s male counterparts, who are an afterthought on the world stage.

Athletes with purpose thrive as marketers

This brings us neatly on to our second key insight. Athletes who show their authentic personalities and speak out about their passions away from the field of play are often more marketable than athletes who stick to posting on social media about their sport.

We took a deep dive look at what each athlete on the list posts about on social media, categorising each of their posts to understand patterns. Besides their sport (the gameday experience, their training, etc), which they all post about, and the sponsorships they are financially incentivised to share (96 per cent of the top 50 have posted about a sponsor in the last six months), the number one content category that the 2021 50MM athletes post about is family (36 per cent), followed closely by social injustices (18 per cent).

In the context of sports, the beauty of social media is its ability to give a window into the human being, not just the athlete. Before social media, fans may have known every stat about their favourite athlete, but with a few notable exceptions they often knew very little about their personal lives. No matter how much fans loved an athlete, they likely could not answer questions like: ‘What’s their family like? What do they like to do outside of playing sports? What kind of car do they drive? Do they have any pets? What are they passionate about?’.

Now, every athlete has the ability to share their entire lives with their fans. Those who choose to truly embrace this opportunity and live an open life in front of their fans on social media are becoming the most marketable, since brands are able to clearly see a personality – and not just a stat line – they can potentially align themselves with.

Being open on mental health is OK

Related to this concept of openness and transparency is our third insight: it is clear that the world has embraced the need for open and honest dialogue about mental health. One could argue that every person in the world has struggled with their mental health during the Covid-19 pandemic, prompting millions who are particularly struggling to open up and seek help.

Athletes are no different. The high-stress pressure to perform only got more intense during the pandemic, as athletes had to change their training routines, be away from their coaches and teammates isolated in hotel rooms. On top of that was the daily stress of trying to avoid contracting Covid, knowing that one misstep could cost their team or themselves a championship or a medal.

While only two of the top 50 athletes frequently post about mental health, it just so happens to be the top two most marketable on the entire list: Simone Biles and Naomi Osaka.

When Osaka originally skipped press conferences, the immediate, engrained reaction from the sports industry was to fine her and threaten her sponsorships. That all changed when she opened up and explained why she did not want to do the press conferences.

What Osaka did changed the international conversation about mental health in sports, likely forever. Immediately, the same sports organisers who had just threatened to fine her put out statements of support for her mental wellbeing. Her sponsors quickly did the same. All of a sudden, there was a very valid reason why she did not want to get in front of a mic: she was a human being who was suffering, which everyone can relate to.

Fast forward only one month later, and when Simone Biles withdrew from Olympic competition due to her own mental struggle, she received a very different reaction to the likely reaction she would have endured even two years ago. The reaction from the sports community and her sponsors was in lockstep: it is OK to prioritise your mental health and take a break, even in the moments when the world is expecting you to be at your best.

Without Osaka paving the way less than one month earlier, who knows what the reaction to Biles’ withdrawal would have been.

What does this all mean?

Well, for brands, the buzzword of the year is authenticity. But what does authenticity actually mean?

First off, brands looking to connect with sports fans should recognise that the most marketable athletes are showing their personalities and speaking out. They are being open and honest. Therefore, brands must do the same, not just in their words, but in their actions.

When thinking about your corporate social responsibility strategy, you are going to fail if the first thing you are doing is asking: ‘Which social responsibility cause is getting the most social media traction, because we want to sponsor an initiative related to that issue?’ We are often asked this question by Fortune 100 companies in the very first meeting about a potential social media analysis project, and we have to push back right away.

Instead of immediately trying to answer their question, we ask whether they have taken a hard look internally at their employees’ perceptions and actions – most importantly their leadership team’s words, actions and implemented policies – to identify what causes their collective organisation is passionate about. In other words, what causes ring true for their brand, which they can back up with case studies of actions taken by current leadership and employees that support that cause?

Then and only then, we help the company understand the social conversation trends and influencers within that social responsibility initiative. That way, when they begin to sponsor an athlete or influencer, or create a programme to support that cause, they can honestly back up their stated passion for the cause with tangible case studies from their day-to-day operations and policies.

So, if you’re a brand marketer looking to sponsor someone on this list – or any athlete for that matter – before you reach out to the athlete, do your due diligence to research what the athlete is passionate about to see if there is a natural fit. Without that basic research, you risk your brand being damaged via a social media backlash, your investment being wasted and you may even have a PR crisis on your hands.

What about rights holders? What should they do with this list?

First, is an athlete from your property on this list? Great, congratulations. Start featuring them more, but not just their sporting accomplishments. If you have not already, ask them what they are passionate about outside of their career. Then ask how they would like you to get involved to support their efforts and shine a light on their personalities. Showing support for your athletes’ causes will be appreciated by them and their fans, elevating their voice even higher and demonstrating solidarity.

Are you not fortunate enough to have an athlete in this year’s 50MM? That’s OK, not to worry. Similar to the recommendation given above for brands, start by looking internally at the causes that your employees are passionate about. That applies not just to the athletes on your payroll, but all of your employees, as well as your fans. Once you have identified the causes that have a natural fit, and you have ensured the organisation’s actions (past, present and future) do not undermine any authentic passion about that cause, bring your employees together to see how they want to get involved. A combination of athletes and non-athletes within your organisation, as well as your most passionate fans, all showcased together supporting a cause as a team, is going to be the most authentic way to have your efforts resonate positively to the outside world.

Finally, what should athletes do with this list?

Did you make the list? Fantastic, congrats. Keep using your platform to show your personality and your passions outside of your career. Then, if you have not already, have your representatives do the research into what your social media fans are interested in. What brands do your fans love the most, across a multitude of categories? What music, movies and TV shows are they into? What news outlets do they prefer?

With some targeted research, you can find out exactly what will resonate with your social media following, which will help inform the potential sponsorships you should accept. For example, we took a look in Zoomph on Simone Biles’ followers and found that (besides the brands that already sponsor Simone), her fans are huge fans of Starbucks, who prefer pop and hip-hop over country or rock, talk shows and comedies over reality TV, and love The Tonight Show, SNL, Grey’s Anatomy, as well as Game of Thrones. They also love fashion and gaming, and they follow Barack Obama, Ellen DeGeneres, Taylor Swift, Rihanna and Ariana Grande more than any other non-sports celebrities.

Right there, Starbucks offers the potential for a fruitful partnership with Biles in the future, including the potential creative tone they could take in their campaigns (as long as the previously mentioned internal due diligence exploration into authentically supporting a cause is taken by Starbucks).

Are you an athlete that is not on the list, or a representative of one? Well, most athletes did not make the list either. The key question is, are you currently using your social platform to show your personality and speak out about what you are passionate about?

If yes, fantastic. Keep it up, but also find fellow athletes that are passionate about the same topics (whether that be a cause, or simply a non-sports hobby), and if you do not already know them in real life, start a relationship with them on social media in a way that feels natural to you. If you are being true to yourself, your peers will appreciate your support and begin to reciprocate on your content. The rising tide will lift all ships, with fans noticing and engaging to support, gaining more visibility for the entire group. This can lead to sponsorship opportunities that may not have come your way without the collective, organic social media relationships that you built.

Finally, if you have not been using your social media platform to show your personality, start today. Nothing will make you more marketable in this day and age than giving the world a window into who you truly are outside of your day-to-day career as an athlete. Do not force-fit a cause into your social media posts just because it is popular. Heed the previous advice for brands, consider what you are truly passionate about and start showcasing that side of you. It may just start with showing your family life, and then go from there with what feels natural. Ultimately, you will be rewarded with higher engagement and followership from the fanbase, who will enjoy learning more about who you are. This will naturally increase your marketability and lead to more opportunities down the line.

This year’s 50MM list is sure to spark some conversations, which is great in and of itself. But while you are debating with your colleagues whether you agree with a particular ranking or not, do not forget about the actionable insights that brand marketers, properties and athletes should be taking from this list. Look internally at your passions, find ways to express those passions on social media while being true to yourself, and do your research to find partners that naturally fit based on your (and your fans’) passions.