Sports Lists

10 Super Star Athletes Who Are Brands

Zac WassinkFeatured ColumnistFebruary 13, 2016

10 Super Star Athletes Who Are Brands

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    No athlete is a bigger brand than Michael Jordan.
    No athlete is a bigger brand than Michael Jordan.Associated Press

    Professional athletes advertising products so that they can make some extra cash on the side is hardly a new practice. Back in the day, MLB all-time great Babe Ruth had his name associated with multiple products. Former NFL quarterback Joe Namath famously wore pantyhose for commercials. Former NFL head coach and color commentator John Madden now has his name tied to a video game series.

    The athletes who are ultrasuccessful in these endeavors eventually establish their own brands. It is through such brands that athletes are able to branch out into the business world and become more than just sports stars. Some athletes find that they are able to make even more money via their brands than what they made from clubs that were willing to pay them millions of dollars.

    Michael Jordan is the prime example. Jordan last played in the NBA in a time before high-definition television was found in homes all over the United States, yet according to Forbes, he remains "the most recognizable athlete of all time."

    LeBron James may not match MJ in neither rings nor in brand power, but James has wisely set himself up for life after his playing days. No soccer player in history has had the star power of David Beckham. Ronda Rousey became so famous outside of the UFC that she would easily find a plethora of gigs if she were to chose to never again step foot into the Octagon.

    Over time, there have been numerous stories about athletes going broke after their playing careers are over. Athletes who are able to form their own brands hope to never experience such financial woes. All playing careers come to an end in time, but a popular brand can exist long after an athlete's prime has passed.

J.J. Watt

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    The hype surrounding J.J. Watt has never been bigger.
    The hype surrounding J.J. Watt has never been bigger.Alison Yin/Associated Press/Associated Press

    Starting with J.J. Watt is interesting, if only because he is in the early stages of building his brand. The phenomenal Houston Texans defensive end has not yet won a Super Bowl, nor has he set an abundance of NFL records. With that said, Watt's portfolio will only grow so long as he continues to be mentioned as one of the best overall players in the NFL.

    Michelle Castillo of CNBC mentioned Watt in her article, "Turning an athlete into a brand: Today's formula." Part of Watt's brand, as explained by Castillo, has involved the pass-rusher using social media to reach out to audiences.

    "Anyone who follows me on Twitter or Instagram, they know they're not going to see tons of ads and not a whole lot of product placement," Watt said. "I don't operate like that. I'm not going to have some paid ad. It's all going to be organic."

    These posts can also bring in quite a bit of money. Izea's Murphy said midtier athletes can bring in tens of thousands of dollars for a single post. High-profile stars can command six figures.

    Last April, Watt announced his deal with Reebok by completing a 5 feet 1 inch box jump using the company's ZPump Fusion shoes — and filming it and putting it on his social media feeds. Watt has 1.8 million followers on Instagram, and just shy of 1.6 million followers on Twitter.

    The Reebok post got more than 68,000 likes on Instagram and more than 926,000 views on YouTube.

    Watt has become one of the faces of the NFL over the past several years. He has been featured in Verizon television commercials, and a Papa John's ad starring Watt, Joe Montana and Peyton Manning aired this past Sunday during pregame coverage of Super Bowl 50.

Roger Federer

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    Roger Federer has done well to expand his brand beyond the game of tennis.
    Roger Federer has done well to expand his brand beyond the game of tennis.Rick Rycroft/Associated Press/Associated Press

    Roger Federer will likely never again be the greatest tennis player in the world. Federer will be 35 years old before the end of the current season, and 28-year-old Novak Djokovic has surpassed Federer and every other player on the ATP World Tour. While he is in the twilight of his career, Federer has built a brand off years of success and a reputation for being one of the greatest players in the history of the sport.

    Forbes had Federer as the fifth highest-paid athlete in the world for 2015. According to Forbes, $40 million of the reported $67 million that Federer made came from his sponsorship deals. Along with business relationships that Federer has forged during his career, Federer has his own clothing line. You can see fans sporting gear that features the recognizable "RF" logo whenever you attend an ATP event. 

    Federer is clearly not the player of old, nor is he hurting for money these days. One might assume that Federer would have eyes on future business plans away from the court. Not so fast, he explained in December 2015. From ESPN:

    "I've planned all of 2016, all the way through the Rio Olympics and beyond," Federer said. "I'm going to probably announce that schedule in the coming weeks. I'm looking forward to next year.

    "Australia's obviously a big goal for me and after that it's going to be a long, tough year. I'm feeling fine physically and in good shape. Like I say so many times, I hope I'm still on tour for a while. There are no plans to retire yet, I don't have a definite date, even though that would make things easier to plan."

Phil Mickelson

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    Phil Mickelson could go down as one of the most popular golfers in history.
    Phil Mickelson could go down as one of the most popular golfers in history.Rick Scuteri/Associated Press/Associated Press

    It was not that long ago that Tiger Woods was the biggest name in the game of golf. Woods is physically no longer the player of old, and thus his days of carrying the PGA are gone. The new "Big Three" of the PGA that consists of Jordan Spieth, Rory McIlroy and Jason Day make for entertaining television on Sundays of tournaments, but they are not yet TV draws as was Woods when he was at his best.

    Of all of the big names out there, it was Phil Mickelson who was named by Forbes as the highest-paid golfer for 2015. Forbes has claimed that Mickelson makes over $40 million off of appearances and also from his endorsement deals. "Lefty," as he is affectionately known, has been featured in TV commercials for the arthritis drug Enbrel. Those ads air even when a golf tournament is not going on.

    What is it about Mickelson that has made his brand so attractive? Nothing about Mickelson offends us. He seems to be a wonderful family man. Mickelson was the ultimate underdog when going against the super-athlete that was Woods. Even those stories/reports about Mickelson gambling on and off the course don't bother us because that's just who Lefty is.

    In June of 2014, Bill Dwyre of the LA Times suggested that Mickelson may be "the most interesting man in the world." Such depictions of Mickelson, the likable and inoffensive athlete, have helped him become one of the highest earnings in the history of pro golf. 

Ronda Rousey

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    One loss won't stop the momentum Ronda Rousey has gained over the years.
    One loss won't stop the momentum Ronda Rousey has gained over the years.Jae C. Hong/Associated Press/Associated Press

    The career path of former UFC Women's Bantamweight Champion Ronda Rousey will be interesting to follow in 2016. Losing to Holly Holm last November did not hurt Rousey's brand. A future rematch, if one occurs, will likely do historic business for the UFC and for both fighters. Rousey already had endorsements and movie roles lined up for her well before Holm notched the upset.

    Rousey would have been able to schedule a rematch with Holm in December, but she elected to not do so in part because of her busy filming schedule. The "Rowdy" one explained to TMZ Sports in January that she was eager to agree on a fight date, but that rematch is in jeopardy due to Holm defending her title against Miesha Tate on March 5.

    Rousey built her reputation as "the baddest woman on the planet" over several years. One surprising defeat alone was not going to diminish Rousey's worth to companies and to movie studios. Truth be told, it is not a stretch to suggest that the UFC needs Rousey more than Rousey needs the UFC.

    Last fall, Rousey claimed that she was the highest-paid fighter in the UFC (h/t Forbes). That she is planning on entering the Octagon a single time in 2016 says plenty about the strength of her brand and about her options.

    The possibility exists that Rousey could, in preparing to fight Holm, realize that she could have an easier and happier existence acting and working in WWE rather than as a competitive fighter.

Derek Jeter

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    Derek Jeter is looking to change the way we hear from pro athletes.
    Derek Jeter is looking to change the way we hear from pro athletes.Mark J. Terrill/Associated Press/Associated Press

    Athletes don't get much classier than former New York Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter. Jeter was arguably the greatest pitchman Major League Baseball has ever had. Forbes has nine different companies listed as having relationships with the all-time great. While Jeter retired following the 2014 season, he checks in on the list because of a brand that is different than that had by any other athlete.

    Jeter launched The Players' Tribune, a website edited by pro athletes and one that features first-person stories written by athletes, in October 2014. In February 2015, Jeter announced via The Players' Tribune that the website was entering a "new phase."

    We’ve started a community of athletes that is pretty special. And now it’s time to take it up a notch. More content, more distribution channels, more fresh ways of telling our stories our way. Podcasts, digital video, Sirius radio, plus much more of the kinds of stories we’ve already been telling.

    We’ve demonstrated what athletes can do when given the chance to express themselves. Now it’s time to push that opportunity to the limit.

    The Players' Tribune has obviously not put beat reporters out of business. Fans still read websites such as this one to find quotes from athletes and get scoops on rumors and other news. Jeter's experiment is fascinating because it is unlike anything else out there: A sports website run from the point of view of the athletes who compete.

    Outside of The Players' Tribune and other business endeavors, Jeter has stated that he wants to own an MLB club. Per Michael McCarthy of The Sporting News

    Derek Jeter is an admirer of late New York Yankees owner George “The Boss” Steinbrenner. Now retired, Jeter wants to be a boss himself of a Major League Baseball team.

    Jeter told Sporting News his “ultimate” goal is to own a team.

    “I’ve always been vocal about that. Somebody said I was trying to buy the Buffalo Bills,” said Jeter during an event for his new digital company, The Players’ Tribune. “They keep associating my name with a lot of different places. Ultimately, that’s the ultimate goal. But there’s a lot of stuff along the way before that ever happens.”

Cristiano Ronaldo

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    The CR7 brand could become even bigger if Ronaldo completes a move to the United States down the road.
    The CR7 brand could become even bigger if Ronaldo completes a move to the United States down the road.Francisco Seco/Associated Press/Associated Press

    Cristiano Ronaldo versus Lionel Messi has been one of the great sports rivalries in recent memory. Ronaldo has been a key man for Real Madrid, while Messi has made his fame and fortune playing for Barcelona. Both have won Player of the Year honors, and both helped their clubs win domestic and European championships.

    Ronaldo is the big winner in one aspect: money.

    Forbes listed Ronaldo as the third highest-paid athlete and the highest-paid soccer player in the world for 2015. Tony Manfred and Melissa Stanger of Business Insider reported in May 2015 that Ronaldo made $28 million in endorsements the previous year. Ronaldo has his own CR7 clothing line, and CR7 has basically become Ronaldo's own personal logo.

    Rumors linking Ronaldo with MLS have become so commonplace that Billy Haisley of Deadspin somewhat mocked such whispers in April 2015. It makes sense why those stories are posted on websites just about every year. David Beckham playing in the North American top-flight was as much a business decision as it was a career move. MLS promised Beckham his own franchise to lure him to the league.

    Would MLS do the same for Ronaldo?

LeBron James

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    LeBron James is looking to follow the career path of Michael Jordan.
    LeBron James is looking to follow the career path of Michael Jordan.Tony Dejak/Associated Press/Associated Press

    On multiple occasions, LeBron James has shown that he has one of the smartest business minds in all of sports. For starters, James wisely makes sure that he gets paid what is owed to him by the Cleveland Cavaliers each year. As explained by Forbes, James will be able to negotiate a new contract for himself once the salary cap goes up in 2016. The Cavs obviously cannot let James leave Cleveland again, so the rich will only get richer.

    James is like Michael Jordan in many ways. Both were, when at their best, once-in-a-generation players. Both did well to build brands off the court. Sales of James' Nike shoes were, per Forbesat $340 million in the United States back in 2014. An association with Nike and other companies, as Joe Vardon of Cleveland.com wrote for a piece that was published last November, is only one branch of James' numerous business endeavors.

    Like Jordan, James -- who turns 31 next month -- is a prime pitchman for Nike, with his annual shoe sales topping $340 million. He has lucrative marketing deals with Kia and Coca-Cola as well and earns more than $60 million in basketball and endorsement income, according to Forbes.

    But James' entrepreneurial flair may be more developed than Jordan's was at the same age, and James will have many options after basketball.

    James owns a media company -- SpringHill Entertainment – and a small marketing firm, which he could grow to represent a stable of clients if he chose (for now, the marketing firm handles his endorsement deals and represents Browns quarterback Johnny Manziel). James holds an ownership stake in Blaze Pizza and England's Liverpool soccer club.

Peyton Manning

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    Peyton Manning has been a business unto himself for over a decade.
    Peyton Manning has been a business unto himself for over a decade.Gregory Payan/Associated Press/Associated Press

    Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning was walking from the sidelines onto the field seconds after the Broncos had won Super Bowl 50. It was widely speculated that game would be the last in Manning's historic NFL career. Before possibly riding off into the sunset as a champion, Manning did not immediately kiss his wife or his twins. Manning planted one on the cheek of John Schnatter, the man responsible for the Papa John's pizza chain.

    That should give you a solid idea about Manning's business acumen.

    It is hardly a secret that people who don't follow the NFL on a weekly basis watch the Super Bowl with friends and family members. Those individuals probably couldn't tell you how many wins Manning accumulated during his career. They likely couldn't tell you the team that Manning and the Indianapolis Colts defeated in Manning's first Super Bowl appearance. What do they know about Manning?

    Chicken parm, you taste so good.

    That Nationwide ad is one of the many commercials Manning has done since entering the NFL in 1998. Manning has, as explained by Forbes, also ventured into the food industry, as he inked a deal to own 25 Papa John's restaurants in the Denver area back in 2012. Life in a commentary booth or an NFL front office awaits Manning, assuming that he has indeed thrown his final NFL pass.

David Beckham

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    David Beckham is one of the most recognized athletes on earth.
    David Beckham is one of the most recognized athletes on earth.Jordan Strauss/Associated Press/Associated Press

    The star power had by David Beckham goes far beyond the sport of soccer, and it is easy to understand why that is the case. Beckham has movie star-good looks, an English accent that is downright dreamy for some, and he was truly a great player during his career. Those who could not point Paris Saint-Germain on a map would immediately recognize Beckham in a crowd of people.

    Beckham was, as is explained by Forbes, such a cultural icon when he decided to play in the United States that MLS put a clause into his original contract that allowed him to eventually buy his own MLS franchise. Per Jacob Spiwak and Giancarlo Navas of Florida International University Student Mediathat endeavor has not gone according to plan, but Beckham FC will nevertheless likely join MLS at some point.

    Beckham's playing days are but a thing of the past, but he is financially more successful now than at any other point of his pro career. Kurt Badenhausen of Forbes reported in March 2015 that Beckham made $75 million in 2014, the highest earnings of his career. Breitling, Adidas and Jaguar are just three of the noteworthy companies who have happily worked with Beckham, the man who could soon become the most handsome team owner in all of North American pro sports.

Michael Jordan

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    Michael Jordan remains well above LeBron James and all other athlete brands.
    Michael Jordan remains well above LeBron James and all other athlete brands.Chuck Burton/Associated Press/Associated Press

    Here is a crazy thought for those who were able to watch Michael Jordan play for the Chicago Bulls during his prime: There are probably some youngsters out there who would recognize the "Jumpman" logo before they would recognize Jordan's face.

    Kids these days.

    Jordan is more than just an all-time great basketball player, a name or a brand. He serves as the example for every athlete who wants to branch out into the business world. Forbes reported in 2015 that Jordan was worth $1.1 billionwith a "b"and that Nike makes $2 billion in revenue per year off the Jordan Brand. 

    What's amazing about those figures is that Jordan was, per Forbes, the highest-paid player in the NBA only twice during his legendary career. 

    Jordan is the first former player to own a majority stake in an NBA franchise, the Charlotte Bobcats at the time and now the Charlotte Hornets (h/t ESPN.com). While Jordan has other business interests, it is his relationship with Nike that will carry on his name and legacy to people who never saw him play a second of meaningful basketball. One has to wonder if Nike would be the company it is today without Jordan. 

    Probably not.

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