Sports Superstars with the Most Mainstream Appeal

Laura Depta@lauradeptaFeatured ColumnistFebruary 11, 2016

Sports Superstars with the Most Mainstream Appeal

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    FABRICE COFFRINI/Getty Images

    Ronaldo is just as big a celebrity off the field as he is a star player on it. He has that mainstream appeal that not every superstar athlete can achieve, and he does it through a variety of off-field endeavors. 

    Some athletes have expanded outside the sports world enough to drop the "sports" from "sports star." They may appear in the pages of entertainment magazines or even on film screens with regularity. Even though Ronda Rousey was dethroned as undefeated UFC bantamweight champion, she continues to appear on talk shows and book movie roles with ease. 

    The following athletes are active and elite in their respective sports, but their off-field activities make them household names. Whether it's because of acting roles, charitable efforts or celebrity shoulder-rubbing, even non-sports fans probably know these 15 names.

Maria Sharapova

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    In terms of on-court success, Russian tennis star Maria Sharapova has been trumped by her rival Serena Williams. (Sharapova has five Grand Slam titles to Williams' 21.) Yet, her celebrity has transcended the game.

    Sharapova topped Williams on Forbes' female athlete earnings list in 2015, largely due to endorsements, modeling and business endeavors like her candy company, Sugarpova. In fact, Sharapova has been the world's highest-paid female athlete for 11 consecutive years, per Forbes

    She has also been a Goodwill Ambassador for the United Nations Development Program since 2007 and was named to Forbes' 30 under 30 Europe Entertainment list in 2016. 

J.J. Watt

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    Not many NFL defensive ends are household names, but J.J. Watt of the Houston Texans is quickly becoming an exception.

    As a three-time Defensive Player of the Year, Watt is incredibly successful on the field, but he's just as visible off it. That likely has a good deal to do with simply the kind of guy he is. 

    Watt does a lot of charity work through his foundation, but there are also many stories out there that seem to indicate he's just generally a stand-up guy. Watt helped a young boy who was being bullied, "proposed" to a little girl who had a crush on him and dressed up as Batman to surprise kids at a hospital.

    And those examples just scratch the surface. 

Michael Phelps

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    Michael Phelps has gained international fame as history's most decorated Olympian. Through his record-breaking performances in the pool, Phelps became an American hero and an international icon.

    He received a $1 million bonus from Speedo for winning eight gold medals in the 2008 Beijing Olympics, money he used to start a foundation and help promote swimming and healthy lifestyles.

    Phelps hung up the Speedo in 2012 but came out of retirement two years later with plans to compete in Rio. Though his prime seems to be behind him, the man is still an American legend with widespread appeal.

    He is training at Arizona State University and appears to be having some fun while he's at it. In January, he appeared from behind the "Curtain of Distraction" at an ASU basketball game to try to rattle the opposing free-throw shooter.   

Russell Wilson

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    Seattle Seahawks quarterback Russell Wilson might give J.J. Watt a run for his money for the fictional "nicest guy in the NFL" award.

    Off the field, Wilson regularly makes hospital visits and engages in philanthropic activities. He is one of the league's class acts, always saying the right things and never ruffling feathers.

    His highly publicized relationship with singer Ciara has launched Wilson into the mainstream consciousness, and he has also been a public mouthpiece for the Christian faith.

Tom Daley

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    Though exceptional athletes, Olympic divers don't generally achieve widespread fame to the level of Tom Daley.

    Daley, a British diver, has been an athletic phenom for years—appearing in his first Olympic Games in 2008 at age 14. He took home a bronze medal in 2012 and is looking to add to that in Rio.

    Out of the pool, Daley has added to his notoriety in the UK through television, hosting a celebrity diving show called Splash and a travel show. 

    Daley also has a popular YouTube channel and was named to the Guardian's World Pride Power list in 2014. The list "celebrates the achievements of influential lesbian, gay, bisexual, and transgender people," and Daley came in at No. 3 after Laverne Cox and Ellen DeGeneres.

Usain Bolt

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    Great athletes often inspire widespread adoration simply because of their athletic success. Jamaican sprinter Usain Bolt certainly fits that bill, but he is also a generally likable guy with an infectious personality.

    The world's fastest man laughed it off when a cameraman tackled him with a Segway in August (a reaction not every superstar would have had). He appeared on The Ellen DeGeneres Show to surprise an adorable young fan and even indulged him in a footrace.

    Bolt is also dedicated to supporting his home country. In September, he donated $1.3 million to his former school in Jamaica along with equipment for its sports teams.  

    Bolt will look to take gold in the 100-meter and 200-meter events in Rio for the third straight Olympics.

Alex Morgan

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    Alex Morgan is part of the beloved World Cup champion U.S. women's national soccer team.

    She is also a coveted brand endorser and social media darling. Her youth, attractiveness and charming personality all combine to give her widespread appeal.

    In 2016, Morgan shared the cover of EA Sports' FIFA 16 with Argentinian footballer Lionel Messi, becoming the first woman ever to grace the game's cover. She was also named to the Forbes 30 Under 30 list, which features "America's most important young entrepreneurs, creative leaders and brightest stars."

Tom Brady

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    New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady is as widely recognizable as he is talented on a football field.

    His good looks and supermodel wife help with that notoriety, but Brady has also racked up quite a list of cameos over the years. According to his IMDb page, the four-time Super Bowl champ has appeared in television shows like The Simpsons and Family Guy, hosted Saturday Night Live and popped up in films such as Stuck on You, Ted 2 and the Entourage movie.

    He's also a magazine cover-guy extraordinaire, recently gracing the front of GQ for its 2015 Men of the Year issue.

    And honorable mention here goes to Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning for all of those commercials

Lionel Messi

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    Argentinian Lionel Messi is a football legend with far-reaching international appeal. In January, he won his fifth Ballon d'Or as the world's best player.

    Messi is often compared to Portuguese star Ronaldo in terms of on-field play, but off the field, the two appear quite different. Messi doesn't have the same Hollywood-type appeal of Ronaldo, but he is still an international star.

    He publicizes friendships with other big-time athletes—think NBA stars Stephen Curry and Kobe Bryant—on Instagram, and his friendships with his own teammates appear joyful.

    Beyond that, Messi gives back and appreciates his fans. In August, his foundation donated over $480,000 to UNICEF. In February, Hilary Whiteman, Nima Elbagir and James Masters of CNN reported the foundation is also attempting to arrange a meeting with Messi and a young fan from Afghanistan.  

John Cena

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    Brad Barket/Getty Images

    WWE star John Cena has granted over 500 wishes for the Make-A-Wish Foundation. Incredible.  

    Much like Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson before him, Cena has also followed the path of professional wrestler ascending from in-the-ring star to full-blown celebrity.

    Since 2015 alone, Cena has appeared in Amy Schumer's hit comedy Trainwreck, the Tina Fey/Amy Poehler collaboration Sisters and the Will Ferrell/Mark Wahlberg film Daddy's Home. He also made a guest appearance during the final season of NBC's Parks and Recreation.  

    Though Cena's acting career is heating up, he does intend to remain in the ring. He told Thomas Golianopoulos of the New York Times, "I really like it in the ring. I try to pick opportunities that don't take me away from WWE for too long."

Lewis Hamilton

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    Lewis Hamilton is a British Formula One driver—a good one. However, the three-time champion is becoming perhaps even more well-known to those outside the auto racing scene.

    Hamilton is a wildly successful sports star relishing the celebrity lifestyle. With all the famous names on his speed dial, one might easily confuse him for a music star or actor. 

    Hamilton just watched Super Bowl 50 with Jay Z, Usher and Kendrick Lamar, and he has been seen with stars like Rihanna and Kendall Jenner, all while gaining quite the party-boy reputation

    At this point, Hamilton seems just as likely to grace the pages of an entertainment magazine as a sports publication.

Ronda Rousey

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    Until November, Ronda Rousey was the undefeated UFC bantamweight champion. However, even folks who don't follow UFC likely recognize her as a movie star, model and pretty much the celebrity du jour.

    Even after her loss to Holly Holm, Rousey has remained popular outside the cage. She posed for Sports Illustrated's annual swimsuit issue, hosted Saturday Night Live and signed on to make a movie with comedian Tina Fey—all since the big knockout.

    Rousey is also active in charitable work. In 2015, she donated her championship belt to a judo school in Brazil and gave $30,000 to support the sport there.

LeBron James

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    LeBron James is one of the world's greatest basketball players. Yet, his charitable endeavors and forays into the entertainment business put him in a league of his own off the court as well.

    The LeBron James Family Foundation has supported education in his hometown of Akron, Ohio, for years and pledged to provide up to 2,000 four-year college scholarships to students in the Akron area, according to Nancy Armour of USA Today.

    In 2015, James appeared in Judd Apatow's comedy Trainwreck, signed on to produce a reality show and finalized a "production partnership with Time Warner Inc.'s Warner Bros. Entertainment that spans movies, television and digital content," according to Joe Flint of the Wall Street Journal.  

Serena Williams

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    Serena Williams continues to dominate women's tennis like few ever have. Her 21 Grand Slam titles put her just three shy of Margaret Court's all-time record.

    Yet, folks who haven't watched one minute of tennis in their lives would likely recognize Williams. Her off-court endeavors are significant—one might wonder how she fits it all in.

    Williams has her own fashion line and calls stars like Drake and Kim Kardashian her friends. She landed at No. 3 on DoSomething.org's list of most charitable athletes in 2015. She has her own foundation, serves as a Goodwill Ambassador for UNICEF and has helped open schools in Africa and Jamaica. 

Ronaldo

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    Yes, Ronaldo is well-known for being one of the world's best soccer players. However, his stardom has absolutely transcended that on-field prowess.

    Not unlike many popular athletes, he has his own brand (CR7) and has become a coveted endorser. Beyond that, a documentary about his life was released in 2015.  

    More importantly, Ronaldo is incredibly active in terms of charitable work. In fact, Dosomething.org named him the most charitable athlete of 2015. The site explained, "(Ronaldo) raised money for various causes, including donating more than $83,000 to a 10-year-old fan in need of brain surgery and giving more than $165,000 to fund a cancer center in Portugal that treated his mother."

    In October, Ronaldo also started an initiative to encourage young people to donate blood, according to Luke Augustus of Mail Online.

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