As fans—as people who just love sports—we tend to get lost in wins and losses, sophomore slumps, comebacks, record-setting performances and the other aspects of the game that are so compelling that we forget about how good the biggest stars have it. At least until their contract starts to look like a suckers bet or they get arrested.
The vast majority of star athletes, big-name coaches and executives who make the highs and lows of sports possible, spend most of their time living outside of the game—living a life that is almost certainly vastly different from the average person. As a star, they not only have the wealth and accoutrements of the elite, but also the distinct cache that comes with being a part of the sports universe.
However, not all sports stars are created equal in the eyes of the industry and there are a number of specific signs that help separate the superstars from all the rest.
These are the 20 signs you're a huge sports star.
The rise of social media heavyweight, Twitter, has allowed star athletes and other celebrities of the industry to interact with the public on a personal level that was unprecedented. As you would expect, any platform that allows someone to instantaneously broadcast 140-character thoughts and opinions across the globe can occasionally stir up controversy.
While most of us only have the capacity to offend a few hundred people on Twitter, some of the biggest names in sports have tweeted ill-advised and just plain disgusting outbursts to hundreds of thousands of followers (including journalists)—and despite deleting the evidence, the Internet never forgets.
People who regularly watch ESPN's First Take—and I don't mean, turn it on while doing chores, but really focus on the show—must be amazing parents. Because it has to take unlimited patience and a even temperament to tolerate the shrill back and forth of co-hosts Skip Bayless and Stephen A. Smith.
The formula is this:
- Pick a big name, as in a current newsmaker in sports.
- Instantly crystallize an opinion polarized from the other guy.
- Ramble ad nauseum about why yours is right and then allude to when you were right and the other person was wrong.
LeBron James, Tim Tebow, RG3, Tiger Woods—if Bayless and Smith argue about how good, bad, smart or stupid you are, that's the company you keep.
Sure, younger companies like Under Armour and well-known brands like Buick have their share of big-name athletes shilling for them in exchange for a few mill', but the undisputed king of endorsement deals is the sports apparel giant Nike. With a history of sponsorships that includes Michael Jordan, Tiger Woods, Kobe Bryant and...ugh...Lance Armstrong, nothing announces you've achieved true super stardom than a fat, juicy Nike contract.
The latest to sign on with The Shoosh? The PGA Tour's newest ace, Rory McIlroy. Your career may eventually go down in flames, but that Nike sponsorship before everything started falling apart, is proof that you were a true star...at least for a while.
The fact of the matter is that athletes aren't known to be terrific actors. Actually, there's plenty of anecdotal evidence which suggests that, overall, they are pretty freaking terrible. There's a reason that actors act and athletes do not.
Love it or hate it (and you probably hate it because you think it hasn't been good since whatever few years you were in high school), there's not question that hosting Saturday Night Live isn't easy.
Some people just seem to excel in the format, but there have been plenty of big-time movie stars, and even comedians, that have completely bombed on that stage. Which is why athletes are invited to host once every two years or so.
If Daniel Craig and Louis C.K. struggle on SNL, how slim must the odds be for an athlete to succeed. With failure nearly guaranteed, you've got to be quite the superstar athlete to score a hosting invite.
Of course, there have been a few success—Peyton and Eli Manning, Tom Brady, Charles Barkley and Derek Jeter all showed some promising acting chops and comic timing. Then you've got others—Michael Phelps, Deion Sanders, Joe Montana and Wayne Gretzky—who were abject failures.
The one thing they all have in common? They are all superstar athletes. Hall of Famers. Future Hall of Famers. Olympic champions. You're not gonna see Barry Zito hosting SNL in this life or the next.
It may be a contradiction—why would someone like Ray Lewis allow himself to be in a roughly produced, local commercial where he lip syncs to a jingle about used cars? But it's pretty much orthodoxy for some of the recognizable faces in their sport; money is money, so world-class athletes like Penguins star Evgeni Malkin end up in hilariously bad local television commercials.
This isn't a complaint...far from it! You and I, we get the benefit of seeing something as absurd as Flyers forward Max Talbot pretend DJ scratchin'. When it comes down to it, who else is a business going to count on to draw in customers? The ringer on your company softball team?
Surely you're heard the phrase "You're nobody until somebody loves you," or some variation thereof. Perhaps there's some truth to that in sports too. You need to be known to be loved. And you need to be good to be known.
That being said, those at the top of almost any field generally tend to attract almost as much hate as love.
Even the most diplomatic, mild-mannered individuals evoke a seething angst that manifests itself in living rooms and the comment sections of online articles about them. Tom Brady is practically sedated. Sidney Crosby is the consummate company man—buttoned up and polite.
When a star athlete is outspoken, plays the role of villain with gusto or seems to be forced upon the masses by the media—the public goes nuclear. Tim Tebow, Alex Rodriguez and Tony Romo have each drawn white hot hatred on both their own merits and in the minds of others.
It's the nature of the beast: if you are great, then someone's beloved team is getting beat by you or someone's favorite player is getting schooled by you.
Twitter has already made one appearance on this list, and I would be remiss not to mention the collective hysteria that ensues on the site when people anticipate that big news is about to break. Reporters like ESPN's Adam Schefter often break news in real time, so from the national level to local dailies, the sports media and fans are connected 24/7.
When a huge star is on the trading block, or hits free agency, their career path transforms into a hashtag that links the media, players and fans to any tweet—relevant or not—that might...just might...be the news everyone is waiting for.
Consider, the insane #JagrWatch spectacle in 2011. Hockey fans across North America where whipped into an absurd frenzy by the hashtag; going so far as to track aging sniper Jaromir Jagr's flights.
Star athletes gracing the Wheaties cereal box is uniquely American cultural tradition. It started with Lou Gehrig in 1934 and over the last eight decades various legends and champions have been given the honor—such as Bart Starr, Mary Lou Retton, Carl Lewis, Dan Marino and Misty May-Traynor.
I don't know anyone that actually eats Wheaties, but someone must be buying it, and I imagine the sales are largely driven by whose mug is featured on the box. It's a rite of passage for some of the greatest athletes of the modern era.
File this particular sign under "Why regular people want to be rich, but don't trust the rich."
Wealth and prestige give people access to a universe that overlaps with the one the rest of us occupy, but often plays by its own rules. Celebrities and top executives are offered credit cards with a limit, always seated at the most exclusive restaurants, welcomed into the hottest clubs and when they get caught with their proverbial hand in the cookie jar...confront the legal system with an army of high-powered attorneys.
Now consider how this universe operates for a future Hall of Fame superstar—the money and access is coupled with the irrational sense of devotion inextricably affixed in their fans.
OJ Simpson's acquittal in 1995 is the most famous example of perceived injustice, along with Ben Roethlisberger's skeevy encounter with an inebriated woman and Ray Lewis' plea deal in case involving the death of two men.
It feels like charges are always being dropped, or thrown out in favor of something much lesser.
Between ESPN, Fox Sports, the NFL and NHL Networks (and all other niche sports channels) the broadcast media landscape is a veritable who's who of former sports icons providing their opinion, analysis and color commentary—to varying degrees of success.
Admittedly, the bar for the athlete-turned-broadcaster is pretty low, but if they can make sense in front of the cameras and under the piercing, unforgiving gaze of Trey Wingo, then the big sports media outlets will court popular, charismatic stars like Jason Taylor and Ray Lewis as their playing career comes to a close.
And why not? If nothing else, they bring an aura of credibility—and familiarity—to an industry that many view with cynicism.
High-profile superstars are much more likely to end up in a feud with 'Lil Wayne or Donald Trump than a less flashy character.
You'll noticed that when Trump decides to infect the sports world with his particular brand of monosyllabic bile directed at the Yankees, he doesn't lash out at Boone Logan or even Nick Swisher. He goes right for Derek Jeter and Alex Rodriguez.
The same premise holds true for rapper 'Lil Wayne, although in a far less wretched display. In the last year or so, Wayne has had high-profile feuds with Cowboys wide receiver Dez Bryant and the Miami Heat's "Big Three." How's that for name recognition?
Having to deal with, or make the decision to completely ignore, a conflict of that caliber probably isn't the best part of being an athlete.
Is there any measure of a person's status in sports that's more indicative of their ascent than being on the cover of Sports Illustrated? SI is the old godfather of sports journalism and remains a respected stalwart in the industry, despite the digital transformation of the media—it can still drive the prevailing narrative while immortalizing someone's moment of stardom.
There are so many bombtastic SI covers that have come and gone, but my personal favorite faithfully portends Shaquille O'Neal's impact (and fame) on the NBA level.
The ESPY awards aren't exactly the Oscars, but they are about as close to that as it gets in sports. Most sports have their own annual awards, which include a much broader population of athletes from within a given sport.
The ESPYs only honor athletes at the very top of their sports, giving superstar athletes a chance to congregate for an evening in their finest designer duds. Or their finest spandex tuxedo and sneakers, as the case may be.
Being invited to the ESPYs also gives athletes the opportunity to take a trip to Los Angeles, rub elbows with celebrities and models, and party the weekend away with a seriously highbrow crowd of people that they wouldn't ordinarily get to hobnob with.
Thereby exponentially increasing the odds of a chance encounter with someone like…say…Kate Upton, for instance. So if you run into Kate Upton at the ESPYs, you're probably a superstar.
Starring in one of ESPN's hilarious SportsCenter commercials is something generally reserved for superstar athletes. Benchwarmers and clipboard holders need not apply.
Over the last two decades, there have been dozens of superstar athletes, mascots and coaches who have appeared in the spots. ESPN has landed power players from almost every sport, at every level.
- NHL: Alexander Ovechkin and Henrik Lundqvist
- MLB: Albert Pujols and David Ortiz
- NBA: Kevin Garnett and Dwight Howard
- NFL: Peyton and Eli Manning and Larry Fitzgerald
- Coaches: John Calipari, Chip Kelly, Pat Summit and Les Miles
- Olympians: Michael Phelps and Apolo Anton Ohno
- Soccer: Hope Solo, Alex Morgan and Landon Donovan
And that's just a little sampling of a very prestigious list. If you're an athlete who lands a spot in a SportsCenter commercial, rest assured that you've officially "made it.
Obviously, one of the perks that comes with being a superstar athlete is a super-fat paycheck. That's not to say that your average athlete doesn't do pretty well in that department as well. Professional athletes as a whole tend to live pretty well—at least until they stop collecting those paychecks. But there's a distinct difference between living comfortably and building an extravagant mega-mansion from the ground up. For example:
- Derek Jeter's Tampa Bay Mansion—this epic $12 million home will cost Jeet $265,000 in property taxes in 2013.
- Tom Brady's California Castle—this ridiculously spacious $20 million home is over 22,000-square-feet and has its own moat. Plenty of room for a family of four.
- Tiger Woods' Florida Estate—the key word here being eSTATE, as in this $60 million property is so spacious and private that he probably feels like he lives alone in his own private state.
Those are some pretty big names who own pretty big homes and are pretty much sitting atop an exclusive group at the top of their respective games.
One of the best ways to determine whether or not an athlete has achieved superstar status is to observe the reaction they receive at sporting events that are not their own. Do they blend into the crowd? Or do they become as big an attraction as the game itself.
When Jets backup quarterback Tim Tebow and Heat superstar Dwyane Wade attended a Yankees game together in August 2012, the next day their presence captured far more national headlines than anything that happened on the field.
Who knows who won that game? All people remember is that Tebow and Wade were featured on the Jumbotron wearing Yankees hats and received plenty of boos from the hometown crowd.
A-list superstar professional athletes often have A-list superstar celebrity friends. Just one of the many perks of the job.
- Floyd Mayweather Jr.—Justin Bieber
- David Beckham—Tom Cruise
- Alex Rodriguez—George Clooney
- LeBron James—Jay-Z
- Tiger Woods—Keith Urban
Those are social circles with some serious star power.
This one is pretty straightforward. As useless as most of America thinks the U.S. Congress is, it is usually too busy backbiting and creating government gridlock to get involved in sports matters too often.
But whenever it does wade into those waters, you can be damn sure it isn't targeting any "small fish" to testify before congress on a given issue. Obviously, the steroid investigation of a few years back is the most prominent example.
Barry Bonds, Roger Clemens, Mark McGwire, Sammy Sosa and Rafael Palmeiro were among those who found themselves in the congressional crosshairs. Oh…you know…just a few baseball nobodies.
More like four of the most prominent players of a generation.
Yes, EA's Madden NFL franchise has destroyed most of the competition since debuting in 1990, but it was originally known as John Madden Football until it took on its shortened moniker after 1993. John Madden was star as the head coach of the LA Raiders from 1968 to 1978 and in the broadcast booth for Monday Night Football.
And let's not kid ourselves, the Madden NFL cover competition is all about the players and a critical element of the brand—to the extent that some people sincerely believe in the "Madden Curse."
Along the way, clunkers like John Elway's Quarterback, along with titles like Roger Clemens MVP Baseball and George Foreman's KO Boxing suckered or carried a generation of gamers who loved sports video games...on the star power of the guys on cartridge.
Someone like Tom Brady is a superstar in his own right, so it really is piling it on that he's married to supermodel Gisele Bundchen, who's on track to have a net worth of a billion dollars.
But when your business card says, "Handsome, Three-Time Super Bowl-Winning QB," it's just one of the perks of the job.