Athletes Whose Popularity Has Transcended Their Sport

Garrett BakerSenior Analyst IMarch 31, 2014

Athletes Whose Popularity Has Transcended Their Sport

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    Nowadays, athletes are much more than just people who play sports. They are part of a multi-billion dollar industry and are celebrities in the truest sense of the word.

    Megastars like the ones on this list have become household names, whether it's from endorsements, unique backgrounds, or meteoric ascents to stardom.

    These active athletes all have one thing in common: they have found incredible amounts of success both on and off the field (or court or rink), and their popularity extends beyond the boundaries of being an athlete.

    Here are 12 athletes whose popularity has transcended their sport.


    Net worth figures taken from Endorsement deals via Forbes.

Aaron Rodgers

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    Rodgers has emerged as a top three quarterback in the NFL, and is playing his best football in the prime of his career.

    He is a likable character who has endeared Green Bay fans for years and has also stepped up his endorsement game since winning and being named MVP of Super Bowl XLV.

    As Forbes' sixth-highest earning athlete in 2013, Rodgers has become a household name beyond football. He's got a major deal with Nike, and his State Farm "discount double check" commercials have been a hit for over a year now.

Kobe Bryant

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    Bryant has been a polarizing player during his long NBA career. He ruled the majority of the 2000s, and helped lead the Los Angeles Lakers to five championships.

    But his play has tailed off some in the past few years as the wear and tear of so many playoff runs has taken its toll. Yet Bryant still remains one of the most recognizable athletes in all of sports.

    He remains right up there with LeBron as the NBA's top earner according to Kurt Badenhousen of Forbes, but what sets Bryant apart is his international brand.

    Some of the stories about Bryant's insane popularity in China are pretty outrageous, and just goes to show that he has transcended the boundaries of both his sport and North America's borders.

Lionel Messi

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    The best soccer player and arguably the most dominant athlete in the world right now, Messi has become a global icon and is unique in that he seems to be liked by practically everyone (other than Real Madrid fans).


    Messi has been scoring goals at will and breaking records left and right for years now, and is a four-time FIFA Ballon d'Or winner for Barcelona. 

    He has created his own brand of Adidas equipment, is sponsored alongside Kobe Bryant by Turkish Airlines, and has a net worth of $115 million. His boyish charm and general likability on top of his immense success has made him a worldwide sensation.


Bryce Harper

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    The youngest professional player on this list, Harper has been a sensation since he was beginning high school and he transcended his sport as a teenage phenom.

    Any time an athlete is on the cover of Sports Illustrated at age 16 with the headline "The Chosen One" and a tagline calling them "the most exciting prodigy since LeBron", well, that's a big deal.

    Harper then had an interesting series of events play out before reaching the majors, and he set the stage for other young American baseball phenoms by graduating from high school early and attending a junior college to make him eligible for the draft a year early. 

    The Nationals outfielder was the 2012 National League Rookie of the Year, and is well on his way to a great career. His celebrity and status as a trailblazer at such a young age is very rare.

Peyton Manning

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    There isn't a more well-liked superstar athlete in America right now than Manning. He's a humble, low-key, relatable southern kid who happens to be one of the best quarterbacks of all time.

    His 2013 season was historic, and helped push him back into the GOAT discussion despite a poor showing in the Super Bowl. Manning's popularity has transcended football.

    He has major deals with Gatorade, Reebok and DirecTV. Some of his commercials are incredible, and he has one of the funniest Saturday Night Live skits in history. His likability off the field, combined with his success on it has made him one of the brightest stars in NFL history.

Tiger Woods

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    The most divisive inclusion on this list, Woods was at the absolute pinnacle of fame in America before his monumental collapse and fall from grace in 2009.

    His endorsements have taken a huge hit, but he's still raking in millions because of his sponsorship with Nike, who essentially built their entire Golf line on Woods.

    He's had his own video game for years, and before the scandal had endorsements with some of the biggest companies in America. His golf game seems to be getting back on track, and there's no debate that he's still the most notorious athlete in the nation.

Sidney Crosby

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    While hockey isn't as popular as baseball, basketball and football in the U.S., any NHL fan will tell you the most dominant athlete on the continent doesn't play in South Beach and wear number six .

    Crosby is so much better than everyone else in the NHL that it's almost just taken for granted at this point. He had 95 points as of March 27, which is 16 more than Ryan Getzlaf, who ranks second.

    He could push to break Wayne Gretzky's all-time points total one day if he just stays healthy. He's the face of Reebok's hockey line and also has deals with Gatorade and Bell.

    Crosby has been the face of the NHL for years now, and that won't change anytime soon.

Derek Jeter

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    Some version of the phrase "I hate the Yankees...but I respect Jeter" has been uttered countless times around America over the past decade and a half.

    "Captain Clutch" is one of the most successful baseball players of all time, yet has maintained an unprecedented level of privacy for today's megastars despite his fame and huge endorsements with Nike and Gatorade.

    Playing for the most historic franchise in the biggest city in the nation is a challenge by itself, yet Jeter has handled the responsibility with grace and humility while winning the hearts of millions.

Johnny Manziel

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    The only people who dislike Johnny Football at this point are either Alabama fans or old curmudgeons who get upset when they see that athletes have social lives. 

    Manziel has been the most electrifying football player (not just in college) for two years running, and he's just months away from entering the NFL.

    He singlehandedly carried Texas A&M to two very successful seasons in the SEC, becoming the first freshman to win the Heisman Trophy along the way. He had an eventful summer in 2013, and became a full-fledged celebrity, making connections with Drake and the next guy on this list.

    No matter what you think about Manziel's future (he's going to be a top-10 pick and day one starter), there's no denying that he maintained a very high level of play during a rapid ascent to stardom which was unprecedented for a 20-year-old kid.

LeBron James

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    James has had somewhat of an uphill battle ever since "The Decision" to win back the favor of the majority of the population, but he has been incredibly successful in that pursuit.

    He has been the undisputed best basketball player in the world for years now, and nobody can question him after winning back-to-back championships.

    As the face of Nike, James has his own line of equipment and is featured on commercials and billboards around the world. He's still in his prime and is one of the biggest celebrities, athlete or otherwise, in all of America. It's good to be king.

Cristiano Ronaldo

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    While he's the clear second-fiddle to Messi in terms of success on the pitch, Ronaldo actually has a larger media and off-the-field presence.

    He doesn't have the same widespread appeal and overall likability that Messi does, but he almost seems to relish the role of villain. And his net worth ($130 million) is actually higher than Messi's.

    Ronaldo's sex appeal and business aspirations have caused him to rack up the big-name sponsors and also recently open his own underwear line, CR7. His popularity and fame have been accelerated by these extra curricular activities, and it seems like he's only getting started.

Drew Brees

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    Brees has transcended the boundaries of sports with his popularity in so many different ways. After resurrecting his career in New Orleans, he led the Saints to a victory in Super Bowl XLIV.

    The narrative of Brees moving to New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina and helping rebuild the city both literally and figuratively, culminating with their Super Bowl win, was one of the best sports stories of the new millennium.

    Brees was also Forbes' fifth-highest earning athlete of 2013 and has deals with major companies like Pepsi, Nike, Wrangler, and Verizon. His career is likely just a few years away from ending, but nobody will forget his impact on New Orleans for a long time.