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Nielsen Names its 50 Most Marketable Athletes

To develop this list, Nielsen analysed over 6,000 athletes from 21 sports, covering the period between July 2019 and June 2020.

If the COVID-19 pandemic and resulting lockdown has reminded us of anything, it’s the power, reach and influence of the world’s top athletes.

That’s as sports fans across the globe were initially starved of live action and had to make do with archive content from broadcasters and increased digital engagement from the sports stars themselves, as these stars suddenly found themselves with time on their hands, a host of digital tools at their disposal, and the perfect opportunity to further build and grow their individual brands.

As the social media numbers stacked up and these stars increased their following, you got the sense – if you weren’t already cognisant of the power of the star athlete – that real value and influence lay (literally, in the form of a mobile phone) in the hands of these sports people, and that brands would do well to harness that value, with a well thought out and strategic approach, of course.

That’s probably why Nielsen and SportsPro put out the ‘50 Most Marketable Athletes’ list every year, as it’s a snapshot into where the real commercial power lies in global sport, both in terms of individual athletes and the sports they represent.

Nielsen uses its proprietary methodology for assessing athlete marketability, the Influencer Selection and Measurement Framework, which draws on vast amounts of social media data to generate an ‘Athlete Influencer Score’, comprising four key data points: Reach, Relevance, Resonance, and Return:

Reach – Takes into account the number of social media followers, momentum/growth of followers during the measurement period, and the quality of the reachable audience.

Relevance – Refers to the demographics that are selected for the study, including topic affinity, gender affinity, and geography.

Resonance – Takes into account the engagement rate on the athlete’s social media posts, sentiment around the athlete, and number of people talking about them during the given time period.

Return – Is the value a brand would receive from partnering with an athlete on their social media channels.

Designed to accurately monitor social campaign effectiveness and help sponsors maximise impact, Nielsen’s Influencer Selection and Measurement Framework incorporates a range of performance and sponsorship-related KPIs, such as social following, content engagement, fanbase growth over time, media value, and the performance of branded versus organic content.

And the results make for interesting reading.

For starters, there are 16 sports represented in this year’s ‘50 Most Marketable Athletes’ list, with football way out in front with 15 players, followed by basketball with seven and tennis with six.

Further, the list of athletes spans 25 different nationalities, with five teams seeing two of their stars pop up in the top 50 – the LA Lakers, the Indian cricket team, Juventus, Tottenham Hotspur, and Paris Saint-Germain.

So, who is out in front on this year’s list of Nielsen’s ’50 Most Marketable Athletes’?

Barcelona and Argentina forward, Lionel Messi, leads the way, thanks to an overall score across the four categories of 115. The two main areas he’s strong in is ‘reach’ (50) and ‘return’ (37), and it obviously helps that he has 157 million social media followers and enjoyed growth of 27% in the time period.

Yet, whilst Messi’s ‘reach’ was joint-highest with the second (Cristiano Ronaldo), third (LeBron James) and sixth (Neymar) athletes on the list, his ‘return’ was deemed second-best to fellow footballers, Paulo Dybala (10th) and Eden Hazard (11th). But those two playmakers, according to Nielsen, don’t have the ‘reach’ of Messi.

The top five is rounded off by Indian cricketer and captain, Virat Kohli, and, interestingly, 20-year-old Canadian tennis player and 2019 US Open champion, Bianca Andreescu. That’s largely due to an overwhelmingly high score (48) in the ‘relevance’ category. Just to give you an indication of how significant that number was, she was followed in that category by fellow tennis player, Coco Gauff (44 – but overall 18th on the list) and footballer Erling Braut Haaland (41 – 16th overall), but only one other athlete on the list even scored in the 30s in this category. By way of comparison, Messi’s score in this category was just five.

Incidentally, if you’re looking for impressive social media growth stats, look no further than Borussia Dortmund striker, Haaland, with the young Norwegian seeing a spike of 8,390% in followers, in the period in question, obviously due to his scoring spree with his German club, following his move there in December of 2019. That looks like a fairly straightforward case of on-field success = increased interest = more followers, although it does still require the athlete in question to engage and make use of the social media tools at his disposal.

The same could be said for Gauff, who was another to grow her following substantially, with growth of 924%, as she approached the 700,000 followers mark. That’s after becoming the youngest player in Wimbledon history to qualify for the main draw in 2019, at the age of just 15. She reached the fourth round of that event, and each of her matches was the most-watched of the day in the United States, which would have seen the interest in Gauff grow exponentially.

The top 10 is completed by mixed martial arts star, Khabib Nurmagomedov (7th), Indian cricketer Rohit Sharma (8th), Liverpool’s Mohamed Salah (9th), and Dybala.

Other notables include 22-year-old American boxer, Ryan Garcia (12th), who is the current WBC Silver Lightweight champion, but is only ranked as the fifth-best active lightweight by The Ring magazine. He obviously does most of his heaviest hitting on social media!

Another interesting take-out, if one looks at the 50 names on the Nielsen list, a split of 33 male and 17 female athletes.

In closing, the Nielsen report also offers up some interesting social media stats, in terms of sports fan consumption. For instance, it says that 76% of sports fans use social media while watching sport and that 81% of sports fans use social media for sports news.

All of which makes for interesting reading and pause for thought, as one contemplates the power and influence of the world’s top athletes, as their social media followings, alone, equip them with a serious commercial tool and marketability that is tough to match.

An interesting exercise would be to see where South Africa’s top athletes are at, in terms of their ‘reach’, ‘relevance’, ‘resonance’ and ‘return’.

Do South Africa’s biggest sporting names realise the currency they are sitting on, the commercial power and influence they are able to wield, and do they have the right people in their camps with the ability to leverage this influence for commercial gain?

Now that would be worth seeing.

Dylan Rogers

Dylan Rogers
Dylan Rogers

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