Top athletes often earn more off the court than on — find out how they build and leverage powerhouse personal brands.
If you’re an athlete, you are your own brand. While actors and musicians’ artistic creations form the basis of their public personas, athletes must build their personal brands from the ground up, through avenues such as social media, public appearances, and “extracurricular” career opportunities.
Let’s look at a few of the famous athletes who have successfully navigated this tricky terrain:
David Beckham: The Golden Boy
David Beckham reached unprecedented levels of fame during his 20-year soccer career. And yet, he posted the highest earnings of his life two years after he retired, earning $75 million in 2014, and a tidy $65 million in 2015. How? In 2003, Beckham signed a lifetime contract with Adidas for $160 million — one of the largest athlete endorsement deals of all time. The deal kicked off over a decade of wildly lucrative endorsements, from Pepsi to Calvin Klein to a gig hawking BP’s Castrol oil lubricant in Vietnam.
What makes Beckham so marketable? Sure, raw athletic ability propelled him onto a national stage, but his bravado and good looks helped shape him into an international celebrity and pop culture god. His marriage to Spice Girl Victoria “Posh” Adams in 1999 intensified the already frenzied media circus surrounding his career, and the subsequent decade of athletic domination, media attention, and persistent endorsement deals established him as the benchmark of athlete marketability.
Maria Sharapova: Fallen From Grace
Until quite recently, Maria Sharapova was the picture of a diversified athlete. She’d aligned herself with major fashion brands, designed a line of gear for Nike, and was regularly featured in major fashion publications like Harper’s Bazaar and Vogue. She even launched her own clothing and accessories label, Sugarpova, in partnership with Henri Bendel.
But the star now faces a two-year suspension after failing a drug test in March of 2016. While Nike hasn’t severed ties, the scandal has cost Sharapova several other sponsorships and two years of her career, and earned her persistently grim press coverage. It remains to be seen if and how she’ll bounce back from this PR disaster — is she capable of pulling a Kobe Bryant or a Lance Armstrong?
Ronda Rousey: Girl Power Personified
With over 8 million Instagram followers, Ronda Rousey has built a brand around speaking her mind, standing up for women, and quite frankly, refusing to take any shit. In addition to rising to prominence in a male-dominated sport, the self-made millionaire has advocated against body shaming, spoken out about sexist double standards in athletics, appeared as the covergirl on magazines like Sports Illustrated’s Swimsuit Edition and SELF, and cameo’d in massive franchise films like Furious 7.
Her personal brand is a convincing reflection of the things that genuinely matter to her. That sincerity has won her a loyal fan base and impressive social audience, garnering marketability that major brands like Buffalo Jeans, Reebok, and Metro PCS have sought to capitalize upon.
LeBron James: The Prodigal Son
Lebron James joined the Cleveland Cavaliers in 2003, just after graduating from St. Vincent high school in Akron, OH. He was the portrait of a local boy made good — that is, until his fame took off. James’ status as fan favorite was threatened when he publicly jilted the Cavs in favor of the Miami Heat in 2010. After announcing the switch on ESPN, defensively justifying his actions, and appearing at a celebratory rally with his Miami teammates shortly thereafter, both his fans and the media were left stung and disappointed.
In 2014, James decided to return to the Cavs, expertly casting himself as the prodigal son returning. He’s since fulfilled his promise to bring a title to his hometown, leading the team to victory in the 2016 NBA finals. As Tom Van Riper prophetically wrote in 2014: “It makes you wonder if the whole thing — leaving, winning titles, and then coming back as the Heat roster aged and the Cavs’ roster improved thanks to the draft picks that traced directly to his departure — was all part of the master plan.” But it couldn’t be…could it?
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