Top 10 Most Powerful Athletes in Sports

Matt Haupert@@matthaupFeatured ColumnistJune 30, 2014

Top 10 Most Powerful Athletes in Sports

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    Professional sports are driven by superstars.

    LeBron James sells jerseys. Sidney Crosby sells tickets. Tiger Woods, even in the wake of his atrocious scandal and sudden decline, makes golf worth watching.

    Without marketable, charismatic superstars, sports wouldn't have heroes. They wouldn't provide role models for little kids. They wouldn't have storylines that fans could relate to.

    Every now and then, however, a few of these stars begin to burn so bright that they transcend their teams all together. An individual player becomes more important than his coach, his teammates, his sport.

    For better or for worse, an individual star can oftentimes become so powerful that an entire league begins to revolve around him.

    The 10 athletes on this list have climbed their way up to the highest echelon of status, prestige and power—and it's up to them how they're going to respond to it.

10. Usain Bolt

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    After shattering world records and capturing the hearts of this world with his never-before-seen speed and his magnetic charisma, Usain Bolt has become the world's undisputed king of track and field.

    Where he goes, the fans follow—and so does the cash. Simply getting Bolt to participate in a one-day meet costs a pretty fee of $250,000.

    Bolt has quite possibly become the most powerful athlete in the history of track and field, simply because of how much the sport relies on him economically, how completely he dominates the attention every time he steps on the track and how he has single-handedly made his sport worth the attention of sponsors looking for endorsement deals.

    As Patrick Maygar so astutely observed, per Sports Business Daily, "He doesn’t make a meet good or bad, he makes it glamorous."

9. Cristiano Ronaldo

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    When Cristiano Ronaldo speaks, 110 million people listen.

    That's the number of followers the Portuguese soccer star has accumulated on his Facebook and Twitter accounts combined, making him the most popular athlete in the world on social media. In addition, between his salary and endorsements, Ronaldo earns $80 million per season, making him the second-highest-paid athlete on the planet, behind only boxer Floyd Mayweather.

    The sport of soccer is still far bigger than Ronaldo could ever possibly be, but his unprecedented combination of fame and wealth makes him the most powerful footballer in the world today.

8. Sidney Crosby

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    Desperate for a new savior ever since the departure of the great Wayne Gretzky, the NHL made Sidney Crosby the new face of the league the very moment he was drafted first overall by the Pittsburgh Penguins in 2005.

    Though he hasn't completely dominated the league in quite the way that some dreamed he might, Crosby has been extremely successful, leading the Penguins to a Stanley Cup victory in 2009 and taking home the Hart Memorial Trophy for the NHL's Most Valuable Player in both 2007 and 2014.

    As Stu Hackel of Sports Illustrated explained, Crosby has used this status to become the most influential voice that the NHL has had in years:

    Crosby's various statements on concussions and dangerous play have given credibility to hockey's efforts to curb head checking. He was also quite visible in his support of the NHLPA prior to and during the lockout, helping to maintain player solidarity behind the union's leadership. While his early December attempts (with Mario Lemieux, Ron Burkle and Pat Brisson) to pull together the direct owners-players meeting without the lead negotiators did not immediately lead to a settlement, it did move the sides closer and help set the stage for the new CBA agreement a month later.

    The NHL needs Crosby more than Crosby needs the NHL, so when he speaks, the league has no choice but to sit down and listen.

7. Kobe Bryant

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    Don't let Mitch Kupchak or the other Los Angeles Lakers higher-ups tell you otherwise: Kobe Bryant is the most powerful man in Los Angeles. He is the alpha dog in this franchise.

    Kobe wants a new coach, Kobe gets a new coach.

    Kobe wants to be the star of the team, Kobe gets to be the star of the team—until he decides otherwise.

    Kobe tears an Achilles tendon during a game, Kobe still gets a two-year, $48.5 million extension at the end of the year after virtually no negotiations.

    As long as the future Hall of Famer is still wearing the purple and gold, all roads in Los Angeles will continue to go through him, whether the organization likes it or not.

6. Peyton Manning

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    A few short years ago, Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning likely had a secure lock on the top spot of this list.

    Before the neck injury that shook the world's confidence in his ability to ever play again, Manning single-handedly turned the entire city of Indianapolis into a legendary football town. He didn't just run the Indianapolis Colts—he ran the whole city.

    Elizabeth Merrill of ESPN reported on the impact that the future Hall of Famer had during his tenure with the Colts:

    Today, football is very important in Indianapolis, Stevens said. And Manning didn't just become the face of the franchise, he helped shape the growth of the city. For all of the fights the city's leaders had to wage to build the Hoosier Dome back in 1982, the pitch for Lucas Oil Stadium, which came with a $700 million pricetag, was much easier, Frick said.


    "If it wasn't for Peyton and the Colts' success, the decision to build the stadium probably wouldn't have happened," said Frick, who led the negotiations to bring the Colts to Indianapolis.

    When the Colts made the decision to move on from Manning after his injury and take a step toward the future by drafting Stanford standout Andrew Luck, it was the first sign that he wasn't running the show anymore—which is the only thing that has knocked him down a few spots on this list.

    How did Manning respond?

    After two seasons with Denver, he has already picked up a fifth MVP award and another trip to the Super Bowl.

5. David Beckham

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    David Beckham's fame extends far, far beyond the soccer pitch.

    Over the course of an illustrious career that finally came to an end in 2013, Beckham gained immense fame and has become perhaps the biggest international celebrity in the history of the sport.

    He is a UNICEF Goodwill Ambassador, has been the inspiration for major Hollywood movies, served as the Samsung Olympic ambassador at the 2012 London Games, is married to model and fashion designer Victoria Beckham and even in his retirement is one of the richest athletes in the world.

    Beckham can seemingly do whatever he wants whenever he wants, and he is the rare soccer star to have actually become an influential A-list celebrity in the United States.

    For all the fame and wealth that the young Cristiano Ronaldo has accumulated thus far in his bright career, he will likely never become a global icon quite like Beckham.

4. Floyd Mayweather

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    Much like the sport of track and field now revolves entirely around sprinter Usain Bolt, the sport of boxing is virtually nonexistent outside of Floyd Mayweather.

    When Mayweather isn't fighting, nobody watches. Nobody pays attention. Nobody keeps track of wins and losses.

    As soon as Mayweather decides it's time to step in to the ring, the world empties its pockets and turns on pay-per-view. According to Forbes, his September fight against Canelo Alvarez set a PPV record by grossing $150 million. He's pocketed at least $25 million for each of his last nine fights.

    Think about that for a minute—anytime Mayweather finds himself needing an extra $25 million or so to pay off his bills, all he needs to do is throw on the old gloves and hop into the ring for an hour.

    Now that's power.

3. Derek Jeter

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    Derek Jeter need not do much more than blink his eyes, and the entire world will swoon.

    The New York Yankees superstar shortstop has been the face of Major League Baseball for virtually all of his illustrious 20-year career, and his incredible presence and impact on the game are becoming all the clearer in this, his final season.

    Now, every time he comes to the plate, whether it be at home or on the road, Jeter gets a standing ovation. Every time he plays in a ballpark for the final time, he is presented with a special commemorative (and usually over-the-top) gift.

    No matter how far his batting average dips or if his play shows signs of rapid aging, the world continues to bow at Jeter's feet and kiss the very ground he walks on.

    Few athletes have ever been so beloved for so long by an entire sport, giving Jeter a genuine sort of power that money could never buy.

2. Tiger Woods

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    The fact that Tiger Woods is still the second-most powerful athlete in sports is rather remarkable.

    He hasn't won a major in years. He missed the cut this past weekend after sitting out most of the year with an injury. He's probably one of the most hated athletes of all time due to his embarrassing series of affairs that made him a public object of derision a few years ago.

    And yet, despite all this—despite the scandal, despite the poor play—the entire sport of golf still completely revolves around Tiger.

    Let's just take a look a simple comparison in TV ratings to prove my point.

    Last year, Tiger—the same Tiger who is so despised by everyone in the world—was in the hunt at the Masters. 4.2 million viewers tuned in for the Friday telecast.

    This year, Tiger sat out the whole tournament due to injury. The first day of the tournament drew two million viewers.

    To make a broad claim based on a specific statistic, over half of golf's fans don't even bother tuning in when Tiger isn't playing.

    MLB will be alright without Jeter. The NFL won't skip a beat without Manning. Soccer will remain the world's most popular sport long after Beckham and Ronaldo have left the spotlight. As soon as Tiger puts away his clubs for the final time, however, golf could very well slide into complete irrelevance.

1. LeBron James

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    No athlete in the world has more total control over his entire sport than LeBron James does over the NBA.

    The NBA draft was an excellent showcase of this.

    LeBron had tweeted that he liked Shabazz Napier, so the Miami Heat made a trade in the draft and got him.

    No way u take another PG in the lottery before Napier.

    — LeBron James (@KingJames) April 8, 2014

    He doesn't even need to talk to Pat Riley and the rest of the Miami Heat management. LeBron tweets what he wants, and he gets what he wants.

    An even better display of LeBron's total supremacy is the whole ordeal that goes on every time he becomes a free agent. Teams figure out ways to restructure their entire lineups and rosters to make room for LeBron to come in and earn as much as he'd like.

    Watching teams court LeBron is like watching an episode of The Bachelor where a multitude of women are doing all they possibly can to win a guy's affection.

    NBA title or no NBA title, this is LeBron's league, and for the foreseeable future, it's going to stay that way.


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