Top 10 Faces of Sports Right Now

Zac Wassink@https://twitter.com/ZacWassinkFeatured ColumnistAugust 22, 2016

Top 10 Faces of Sports Right Now

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    Cristiano Ronaldo is the biggest sports star in the world.
    Cristiano Ronaldo is the biggest sports star in the world.Frank Augstein/Associated Press

    Stars sell sports. 

    Passionate sports fans go out of the way to watch events and follow competitions. Casual fans, though, are drawn in by stars. The top faces in sports are featured on television and in advertisements, and the hope is that they will attract new fans who previously did not spend money to follow a particular product. 

    Brock Lesnar brought new viewers to the Ultimate Fighting Championship. Peyton Manning is featured in commercials even though he is retired because he remains popular among National Football League fans. Wayne Gretzky is probably the most famous hockey player in history. 

    The top faces in sports today all could reach such levels of fame. 

    Cam Newton is the reigning NFL Most Valuable Player who may improve as he hits his physical prime. LeBron James continues to represent the National Basketball Association on and off the court. Conor McGregor is literally the biggest draw in UFC history as it pertains to making money. 

    You may not love all of the top faces in the sports world today. That's all right. In fact, disliking a sports personality is sometimes the point. In those instances, the idea is that you'll pay money to watch those faces lose a game, match or competition. Either way, you've been drawn in. 

    It's a cycle repeated each and every year. 

Bryce Harper

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    Bryce Harper may be the future face of Major League Baseball.
    Bryce Harper may be the future face of Major League Baseball.John Bazemore/Associated Press

    Major League Baseball needs new stars. 

    It's a take often repeated on sports talk radio and among baseball observers. There is no Barry Bonds crushing balls outside of parks these days. There is no current version of Ken Griffey Jr. slamming home runs and also making athletic catches in the outfield. 

    Bryce Harper appears to be baseball's next big thing. 

    The 23-year-old already has an MVP award in his personal trophy case. Harper is a mainstay on MLB All-Star teams. The outfielder for the Washington Nationals has been featured in multiple television commercials. 

    Harper isn't just talented on the field. He produces emotional outbursts that make headlines. 

    Think back to earlier this season when Harper cursed at an umpire following a walk-off win. Harper was ejected before Washington won that contest, but the fiery young star rushed onto the field to celebrate with his teammates while at the same time hurling verbal abuse toward the man who kicked him out of the game. 

    That passion draws attention and creates new fans. 

    As Jay Jaffe of Sports Illustrated recently pointed out, Harper is experiencing somewhat of a down season. Harper's numbers aren't terrible, but that he isn't sitting atop the National League in multiple categories is noteworthy. That's how good Harper is, and that's the type of star he is heading into the fall of 2016 and into the future. 

Odell Beckham Jr.

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    Odell Beckham Jr. is already a superstar just two years into his career.
    Odell Beckham Jr. is already a superstar just two years into his career.Bill Kostroun/Associated Press

    "He’s a football god around here. And a style god, too." This is how Jamel Bowser, owner of Dorm Room Kutz near LSU, described New York Giants wide receiver and LSU product Odell Beckham Jr., per Emily Kaplan of TheMMQB.com.

    Beckham's numbers are undeniably impressive. Beckham, per Jordan Raanan of NJ.com, beat the record for most receiving yards in the first two NFL seasons once set by Randy Moss. Moss is widely perceived as one of the best receivers of his time and will one day be enshrined in the Pro Football Hall of Fame. 

    Needless to say, Beckham is forging quite a path for himself. 

    Beckham is more than a productive offensive weapon. He completes incredible one-handed catches featured on highlight reels and national TV shows seemingly with ease. Such catches likely helped Beckham land commercials, and they made him so popular that he was featured on the cover of a Madden video game before his second season in the NFL. 

    Beckham isn't yet on the level of a Cam Newton. Newton plays quarterback, a more high-profile position. You do not have to be a market expert, however, to realize Beckham's popularity is on the rise. Beckham jerseys are sold and seen in New York City, throughout northern New Jersey and in the Midwest. 

    The 23-year-old will be the face of the NFL if he continues to improve through his prime. 

Stephen Curry

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    Some may argue Stephen Curry is already the face of the NBA.
    Some may argue Stephen Curry is already the face of the NBA.Associated Press

    Fans arrive to arenas early to watch Golden State Warriors guard Stephen Curry warm up before games. They watch him dribble two basketballs at once. They marvel as Curry drains three-pointer after three-pointer. 

    That's just practice. Curry is even more entertaining when the buckets he makes count. 

    Curry seemingly doesn't want to be the face of the NBA. "It's really annoying for me," Curry said about the subject this past June, per ESPN.com's Ethan Sherwood Strauss. Perhaps Curry should have thought about his status before he became an all-time great shooter and a two-time MVP. 

    Such discussions come with the territory. 

    Curry is a massive superstar, in part because he is different than LeBron James. Young basketball fans can only dream of being LeBron. They can only hope that taking vitamins and drinking milk will make them 6'8" physical specimens able to dominate opponents and take control of games. 

    Becoming a future version of Curry is attainable in the eyes of a child. 

    A young observer can believe he or she can make shots from anywhere on the court and become a tremendous ball-handler with the right amount of practice. Curry is more at the level of we mere mortals that way. Yes, Curry is a professional athlete, but he doesn't possess physical attributes that make him appear otherworldly. 

    In a way, that helps further elevate Curry's superstar status. 

Lionel Messi

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    Lionel Messi is an unassuming superstar.
    Lionel Messi is an unassuming superstar.Manu Fernandez/Associated Press

    Want to generate hits and spark debates? Suggest that either Lionel Messi or Cristiano Ronaldo is the undisputed king of soccer. You'll achieve your goal in no time. 

    A portion of the ESPN FC website is dedicated to the supposed rivalry between Messi and Ronaldo. That in itself says plenty about the statuses of the two faces of the sport. Both are great players, and yet the two are different on and off the pitch. 

    Ronaldo is Hollywood. Messi is New York. Ronaldo is thin crust pizza. Messi is deep dish. Ronaldo is oranges. Messi is apples. 

    Who you like better comes down to personal preferences. 

    Messi doesn't make headlines as does Ronaldo. Messi is more unassuming and a champion who seems unconcerned about his brand. We don't talk about Messi ever playing in Major League Soccer because it's difficult to even fathom him wearing the shirt of a club that isn't Barcelona. 

    Messi is merely one of the greatest footballers to ever live. That's his legacy. 

    "The great thing about Messi is that he doesn't really believe he's Messi," wrote Eduardo Galeano, per Pete Jenson of the Daily Mail. It's a perfect description for Messi's public image. We believe Messi doesn't believe he is an all-time great. 

    He's wrong. 

Sidney Crosby

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    Sidney Crosby is a hero among Pittsburgh fans.
    Sidney Crosby is a hero among Pittsburgh fans.Keith Srakocic/Associated Press

    This past June, Mitch Michals of TheHockeyWriters.com referred to Pittsburgh Penguins superstar Sidney Crosby as "the most impactful player the NHL has to offer" in an excellent piece about the two-time Stanley Cup winner. 

    Crosby is polarizing. He is understandably adored by members of a Pittsburgh fanbase that nearly lost its hockey team a decade ago. Critics and opposing fans, however, lash out at Crosby for a variety of reasons. They accuse him of whining and of diving during games. They refer to him as "Cindy" and "Crysby." 

    Such sports hatred is reserved only for the greats. 

    Crosby is a quiet star off the ice, the type of guy who takes the Stanley Cup to a Tim Horton's, per NHL.com. He neither boasts nor brags. Crosby's personal life is inoffensive, to the point that he's boring to those who crave crazy stories about pro athletes. 

    You feel no guilt if you buy a Crosby jersey for a young hockey fan in your life. 

    It's impossible to say how much bigger a star Crosby would be if he played for a club in New York City or Los Angeles. Crosby leading a championship parade through one of the country's largest cities would be replayed on hockey-related shows year after year. As things stand today, Crosby will be remembered as an all-time great Penguins player who helped restore the popularity of the NHL in Pittsburgh. 

    That's not a bad legacy for any player. 

Conor McGregor

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    Conor McGregor is now the face of the UFC.
    Conor McGregor is now the face of the UFC.Isaac Brekken/Associated Press

    Conor McGregor is a dream come true for any combat sports promotion. 

    McGregor has the kind of knockout power that can end a fight in under 30 seconds. He is a UFC champion and a proven winner. McGregor is also arguably the top promoter in mixed martial arts as it pertains to selling himself. McGregor talks the talk and walks the walk. 

    McGregor, as Andreas Hale of Yahoo Sports explained, earned a record $3 million purse for his fight against Nate Diaz at UFC 202. Financially speaking, McGregor is the biggest star in UFC history. 

    His ego probably didn't need such a boost. 

    McGregor is everything we want in a fighter. Some love that he cuts promos on opponents before fights. Others want to see foes silence him. However you feel about McGregor, you want to watch when he enters the cage for a bout. 

    That's the point. 

    We don't know when or even if Ronda Rousey will fight again. Perhaps Rousey will overtake McGregor as the face of the UFC if she wins back the title she lost last November. Until that day arrives, McGregor is the sport's undisputed top superstar. 

Serena Williams

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    Serena Williams is a tennis legend and icon.
    Serena Williams is a tennis legend and icon.Vadim Ghirda/Associated Press

    Find a casual sports fan who maybe watches Wimbledon and the other major tennis events of any given year. Then, ask that person to name a women's player who isn't Serena Williams. 

    As that person struggles to produce a name, realize how worse off the sport will be when Williams retires. 

    We can't say if Williams is the greatest player ever. She is two Grand Slam titles away from tying the all-time record. Steffi Graf, like Williams, won 22 Grand Slams during her legendary career. Both Graf and Williams are icons of the game. 

    I am an avid listener of sports talk radio. I have sports talk radio on as I type this sentence. Tennis is rarely discussed at the local and national levels. Tennis doesn't move the needle in the United States. It's the lay of the land. 

    That is why I immediately took notice when Ken Carman of CBS Radio spoke about Williams' greatness on the air earlier this summer. Carman then took a call from a fan who wanted to speak about Williams' legacy. 

    It was only then when I truly appreciated Williams' impact on the sports world. 

    We often see the future of sports. Blake Bortles may be the next great NFL quarterback. Kyrie Irving is potentially on the cusp of becoming something special. Auston Matthews could be the next massive NHL superstar. 

    There's no such case in women's tennis. That's how far Williams is above her supposed peers. Williams turns 35 years old in September, but she does not appear to be slowing down anytime soon. 

Cam Newton

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    Cam Newton's star is on the rise.
    Cam Newton's star is on the rise.James Kenney/Associated Press

    The rise of Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton is fascinating. 

    It was not all that long ago when Newton sulked on the sidelines when things went against him during games. Newton is now one of the best young QBs in the NFL and the reigning league MVP who recently guided the Panthers to a conference championship. 

    Newton does more than throw the football well. He makes plays with his legs. He's built more like an overpowering wide receiver than a standard QB. He's energetic, personable and fun to watch. 

    Newton is also polarizing. 

    Some fans find Newton dancing after he scores touchdowns or makes first downs entertaining. Others, however, hate Newton's antics during games. Either way, Newton gets people talking, and that has helped make him the top face in the NFL heading into the 2016 season. 

    As Gil Lebreton of the Star-Telegram touched upon last February, Newton hands the football to a young fan in the stands whenever he scores a TD. He created a foundation "committed to enhancing the lives of youth." Whether it's intentional, Newton works to be the face of the NFL on and off the field. 

    Newton is one of the league's top assets. He may also prove to be its best player come February. 

LeBron James

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    LeBron James made good on his promise to bring a title to Cleveland.
    LeBron James made good on his promise to bring a title to Cleveland.Gene J. Puskar/Associated Press

    You don't need me to tell you LeBron James is the face of the NBA. 

    James is the greatest basketball player of his generation and one of the best to ever grace a court. He's achieved every goal as a pro. He has won three NBA titles and multiple MVP awards. 

    James may also now be the most likable player in the league. 

    It's quite the turnaround from the state of the NBA in the summer of 2010. James became a quintessential heel when he announced via "The Decision" that he was taking his talents from his hometown Cleveland Cavaliers to South Beach and the Miami Heat. James then won a pair of NBA championships as fans in northeast Ohio and around the country booed his efforts. 

    It turns out you can go home again. James returned to the Cavs in July 2014, and he did so via a love letter penned to a fanbase and region he abandoned four years prior. James then made good on his promise to end the title drought that hovered over Cleveland pro sports for over 50 years. 

    He's the biggest babyface in all the NBA. 

    James is no longer a young man attempting to establish himself. The 31-year-old has been in the NBA since the fall of 2003. His body will soon betray him, so enjoy watching James while you can. 

    He is a special talent, let alone the face of the NBA. 

Cristiano Ronaldo

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    Cristiano Ronaldo is the top face of the sports world.
    Cristiano Ronaldo is the top face of the sports world.Daniel Ochoa de Olza/Associated Press

    Cristiano Ronaldo is the top face of sports in 2016. There isn't even a close second. 

    Ronaldo is the biggest star of the world's most popular game. He plays for Real Madrid, the world's biggest club. He has won every honor at the club level. Ronaldo has hoisted the League Cup, FA Cup, Premier League trophy, Copa del Rey, La Liga trophy, Champions League trophy and the FIFA Club World Cup. He has been recognized as the best player in the world. 

    Per FanPageList.com and TwitterCounter.com, Ronaldo has more Twitter followers than any other athlete. 

    It's easy to understand why Ronaldo topped the ESPN World Fame list earlier this year. Ronaldo is not only talented, but he's an advertiser's dream. Ronaldo has a big personality and also the good looks of a movie star. It's hardly an accident when Ronaldo removes his shirt and flexes his muscles after a big victory. 

    He knows exactly what he's doing.

    We'll remember Ronaldo as one of the best footballers of his generation and in the history of the sport. Don't discount the size of Ronaldo's star power. He'd be the biggest acquisition ever signed by Major League Soccer if he decides to join the North America top flight following the 2018 World Cup. 

    Yes, Ronaldo would be an even bigger signing than David Beckham.