Why we’re applying a market research lens to SportsPro’s 50 Most Marketable Athletes

For the first time in the 14-year history of SportsPro’s 50 Most Marketable Athletes, we’re applying the market research approach of viewing brands in a product category to athlete brands in a sports category. By doing so, we’ve ensured that we’re considering the most comprehensive, holistic and inclusive list of global athletes for the 2023 ranking.

For example, just as the Procter & Gamble-owned brand Tide is part of the product category Laundry Detergents, the athlete brand Mookie Betts (pictured above) is part of the sports category baseball. As indicated later in this article, a sports category approach enables entire sports, leagues, teams and the athletes that comprise them to expand their understanding of marketability and help them grow within their sports category as well as developing the sports category as a whole.       

By determining how many sports categories there may be in existence today, NorthStar identified the number of top ranked athletes within each sports category to arrive at a universe of athlete brands to consider for this year’s list of the 50 Most Marketable Athletes.   

With this approach, we first had to explore the question: just how many sports categories are there? Despite our efforts, we couldn’t find a definitive source to answer this question. We thus cast the widest net possible to consider sources that would help us arrive at the most comprehensive universe of sports categories to consider.

We then applied layers of quantitative and qualitative criteria to narrow this list of sports categories to approximately a couple hundred from which to pull the top ranked athletes. This narrowed list of sports categories discovered was quite diverse.   

It included many of the more recognisable sports categories that fans view on television, watch on streaming services, or experience live, such as motorsports, tennis, cycling, rugby, mixed martial arts, cricket, football, baseball, golf, skiing, soccer, ice-hockey, boxing, lacrosse, and basketball.   

Additionally, this list incorporated all of the Olympic, Paralympic, and Special Olympic sports categories including skateboarding, volleyball, athletics, swimming, diving, badminton, field hockey, gymnastics, figure skating, table tennis, equestrian, weightlifting, softball, sailing, bowling, surfing, beach volleyball, curling, cheerleading, rowing, wrestling, breakdancing, and archery.   

Finally, this list also included sports not typically associated with the world’s 50 Most Marketable Athletes, including esports, rodeo, bullfighting, set ski racing, fishing, water skiing, paragliding, hiking, squash, pickleball, padel, billiards, CrossFit, yoga, polo, lumberjack, teqball, cornhole, spikeball, and parkour.  

Parkour was among the hundreds of categories NorthStar assessed as part of its market research approach for 50MM

Sports categories that extend the definition of a sport also had to be considered. This is because athletes can now, more than ever, reach, relate and engage on a global level with Gen Z and Millennial audiences through video-based social channels such as TikTok.

To put TikTok’s impact into perspective, in just seven years, the platform has grown to 1.1 billion worldwide users and has significantly surpassed YouTube, Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram in engagement levels. For this reason, additional sports categories that drive engagement on TikTok were incorporated into our analysis, including chess, darts, poker, dodgeball, quadball (formerly quidditch), axe throwing, yo-yo, kiting, billiards, and yukigassen.

To further highlight how athletes from diverse sports categories could be potentially considered based on their level of reach and engagement with key target audiences, we found that the majority of the top athletes in the world have a high number of followers on Twitter, Instagram and Facebook but relatively small representation on the two social channels in which Gen Z and Millennials have been increasingly spending their time: YouTube and TikTok.

Thus, if a top athlete from CrossFit were to have approximately one million followers on TikTok and/or YouTube, ranking them higher than many of the top global stars across all sports categories, this would warrant running some or all of the numerous qualitative and quantitative measurements on that athlete to discover whether the data qualified them to be in the ranking.      

CrossFit athletes were also considered this year owing to the popularity of the fast-growing discipline on TikTok

Knowing the number of sports categories was just the first step. Our next challenge was to then find out how many sports there may be within each sports category. For example, the sport of climbing consists of 19 sub-categories, including abseiling, bouldering, free solo, mountaineering, and speed climbing.   

But there was still more to do to get it right. Our third step was to determine the leagues and governing bodies within a sport category and applicable sports sub-categories to ensure we didn’t miss an athlete brand that could be included.

To take one example, the sport category archery consists of the following leagues and governing bodies: Archery Canada Tir à l’Arc (ACTA), Archery Shooters Association (ASA), Australian Bowhunters Association (ABA), Centershot, European 3D Archery Championships, Federación Española de Tiro con Arco (FETA), International Bowhunting Organization (IBO), and the National Archery in the Schools Program (NASP).   

After mapping out the entire sport category ecosystem, we had the highest level of confidence in arriving at an athlete universe to consider for this year’s 50 Most Marketable rankings. However, to ensure absolutely no stone was left unturned, our athlete marketability model also allowed for adding to the athlete universe any athlete that potentially may not be classified within a sports category or a corresponding league or governing body. This is because the sports industry is constantly evolving with new leagues and governing bodies being launched all the time, such as LIV Golf. 

Expanding the sports category approach to optimise growth 

NorthStar has expanded this approach to enable entire sports, leagues, teams and the athletes that comprise them to further understand their marketability to achieve growth within their sports category as well as grow the sports category as a whole.      

As indicated in my recent article for SportsPro, integrating qualitative research with quantitative metrics has raised the bar in providing the most comprehensive ranking of the 50 Most Marketable Athletes. 

By expanding this comprehensive model beyond representative athletes from various sports to all athletes within one sports category, including the breakout of these athletes by their respective leagues and teams, the picture of marketability becomes more precise. This is because athletes can compare their marketability performance to other athletes within the same sports category and, likewise, leagues and teams can make comparisons to other leagues and teams, respectively.   

Even more fascinating is the ability to compare the marketability of a sports category – and all the athlete, league, and team brands within it – to other sports categories. For example, athletes and teams in the National Football League (NFL) may want to know how they’re performing in marketability relative to their comparable global counterparts in soccer and basketball. The same could be said for other similar categories, such as boxing, mixed martial arts and wrestling.   

Our existing athlete marketability model consisting of 16 qualitative and quantitative drivers, each with their respective comprehensive mathematical and statistical formulas pulling from multiple primary and secondary data sources, is a foundational starting point for any athlete, league, or team.

NorthStar's model means the marketability of entire sports - not just its athletes, leagues and teams - can be compared

Furthermore, it’s a great way to convey a story to sponsors that otherwise cannot be captured in quantitative measurements or through automated processes alone. For example, an entire sports category could start with knowing how all its athletes are ranking on Authenticity, a qualitative driver which is highly valued by most if not all sponsors.   

Finally, visualising a story of marketability is essential, especially to sponsors that are looking to make significant investments. This is why NorthStar created a customisable dashboard that can accomplish the following: 

  • Tailor existing marketability metrics or add new ones all together that are unique to a sports category’s brands including athletes, agents, leagues, governing bodies, teams, and sponsors. 
  • Drill down into visualisations to further understand the story among the quantitative and qualitative analytics. 
  • Answer exploratory questions. 
  • Share comments from dashboard insights with all sports category stakeholders including agents, athletes, leagues, sponsors, etc. who can access and augment the insights anytime and anywhere to grow the health of an entire sports category.