As the late, great philosophising baseball player Yogi Berra once said: “It’s hard to make predictions, especially about the future.”
Predicting what might happen tomorrow, let alone over the next three years, is a near-impossible task. In sport as in the world at large, perhaps the only certainty is that nothing is ever certain. Sport has a wonderful knack for throwing up surprises, for making the unlikeliest of outcomes seem as though it was somehow meant to be.
Still, we try.
Since its conception in 2010, this list has been all about evaluating marketing potential over the coming three-year period. It has never been an objective assessment of an athlete’s entire body of work, nor has it ever set out to rank those who make the most money from endorsements and sponsorship deals. Consider it as both a snapshot of the moment and a forecast for the future, a collection of calculated bets that seeks to spark debate whilst drawing closely upon the trends in an industry as obsessed with who’s next as much as who - and what - continues to set the standard.
As the wheels of the global sports industry rumble inexorably on, this edition of the list takes into account next year’s Winter Olympics in South Korea and a Fifa World Cup in Russia, the two standout sporting occasions in a three-year period that coincides neatly with the build-up to Tokyo 2020. It also looks beyond those mega-events to consider the impact other single-sport showpieces might have on an athlete’s media exposure and non-competition earning potential, while much consideration has been given to other non-sporting factors that contribute to an individual’s commercial appeal, such as the size of their social media following or willingness to be marketed.
This year, as in past years, Americans dominate the list, with no fewer than 20 hailing from sport’s largest market. Soccer provides ten entries, the most of any sport, while there are 14 women this year, one less than in 2016. An average age of just under 24 years old reflects the usual mix of young blood and established personalities, including two resurgent re-entries whose inclusion this year illustrates the ever-mutable, form-dependent nature of an athlete’s commercial value.
As ever, though, this list will draw interest and ire as much for those who are not included as for those who are. The larger-than-life figure of Usain Bolt, a former ever-present who topped this list in 2011, is a standout omission on account of his looming retirement - certainly not because he suddenly lacks the talent or star power that has made him one of the most recognisable faces on the planet, let alone in sport, over the past decade. Likewise Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, two transcendental stars still at the top of their games, do not feature for the first time this year, the logic being that both have reached their commercial peak having long cemented their place in the pantheon of sporting greats.
That those living legends no longer feature says nothing of their actual marketability, of course. It’s just that they’ve simply outgrown this list and no longer fit the criteria that underpin it, just as many of their illustrious peers have in the past. What their exclusion does do, though, is create space for others to step into the void, and there were plenty of those to choose from.
In soccer in particular, there is a sense that a generational shift is taking place, with young, emerging talents supplanting the old guard across the globe. In Europe, the likes of Paul Pogba, Neymar and Eden Hazard are the household names leading a budding generation that bristles with exciting youngsters such as England’s Deli Alli and Harry Kane, not to mention prodigious imports like Gabon’s Pierre-Emerick Aubemayang and American playmaker Christian Pulisic, both of whom currently ply their trade for Borussia Dortmund in Germany’s Bundesliga but remain on the radar of their sport’s richest clubs. With next year’s Fifa World Cup coming into view, and with plenty of domestic and continental titles to challenge for in seasons to come, each of those names has a potentially career-defining few years ahead of them.
The apparent changing of the guard in soccer hints at a theme that was abundantly clear throughout the lengthy deliberations and consultations that went into compiling this list: that is, the business of sports marketing in general is evolving.
If sports organisations across the board have long viewed themselves as media properties, there is no question that brands and sponsors now value content, especially video content, above all else. The shifting and increasingly fragmented media landscape, defined by a collective movement towards digital and other non-traditional means of distribution, has ensured that, for now at least, modern-day athletes harbour great value and retain perhaps unparalleled influence for the content they generate, the sizeable followings they boast, and the compelling stories they inspire.
But the certainties of old, the traditions, beliefs and financial revenue streams that have long sustained the sports industry, are being challenged and eroded all the time. What applies today may not hold true tomorrow.
For the same reasons top athletes have been able to capitalise on the popularity of their respective professions, social influencers have emerged as viable investments for brand marketers looking to reach young, tech-savvy consumers. But there are wider forces at play. How will relatively recent market trends like dwindling TV ratings and attention spans impact upon athlete marketability in future? With the continued pervasion of eSports into mainstream discourse, could pro gamers one day rival traditional athletes as brand ambassadors? Only time will tell.
Whatever comes to be, the competition for eyeballs and marketing dollars has never been stronger or more widespread. One day, perhaps, the complexion of this list could look very different indeed. Until then, the best anyone can do is offer some informed guesswork, as hard as that may be.