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Tops of 2017: Pro Athlete Marketability

3 minute read | December 2017

It’s no secret that winning helps boost the endorsement power of professional athletes. But in 2017, some of the biggest names in sports were able to elevate their celebrity status and marketability even when they weren’t competing.

Several top brand endorsers spent time on the bench due to injuries. Others announced they won’t compete full time in 2018. By comparison, however, the top-ranked person on this year’s U.S. list of top athletes by N-Score earned “super human” status by winning a Grand Slam tennis tournament with a baby on board.

Nielsen’s N-Score talent tracker assesses the endorsement and casting potential of actors, athletes, musicians and other celebrities in the U.S. It accounts for Awareness and Likeability, and 10 other attributes such as: “Influential,” “Role Model” and “Trendsetter.”  N-Score values range from 1-100.

After winning the Australian Open in January, tennis star Serena Williams revealed that she was eight weeks pregnant during the competition. With an N-Score of 83, she topped all professional athletes in 2017 in the N-Score Talent Tracker, even after taking maternity leave and sitting out the remainder of the year.

Williams has more than 22.6 million social media followers and was the highest paid female athlete in 2017, according to Forbes. Intel was among the newest organizations to sign endorsement deals with Williams, joining brands like Beats by Dre, Gatorade, JPMorgan Chase, Nike and Tempur-Pedic.

Her off-the-court life-changing events were widely shared on social media. The birth announcement of baby Alexis generated more than 1.1 million likes and 35,000 comments on Instagram. And a photo of her in her wedding dress garnered more than 833,000 likes and 12,000 comments. If a brand had sponsored this particular wedding post using a hashtag, the media value would have topped $66,000, according to a Nielsen Sports social media valuation.

Venus, the older of the Williams sisters, landed in the No. 2 spot on the list with an N-Score of 79, up three points for the year, compliments of a comeback tennis season. She finished runner-up to Serena at the Australian open and made it to the final round of Wimbledon in 2017. Venus Williams has more than 4.8 million social media followers and endorsements with Electronic Arts, Kraft, Ralph Lauren, Tide and Wilson.

LeBron James (N-Score 76) led the Cleveland Cavaliers to their third straight NBA Finals appearance in 2017, and he leads all U.S. athletes in terms of brand marketability via social media with more than 96.9 million social media followers. Like Serena Williams, James added Intel to his list of endorsement contracts, which also includes a $1 billion lifetime contract with Nike and deals with Beats by Dre, Coca-Cola, Kia Motors and Verizon.

The NFL player with the highest N-Score (76) is two-time Super Bowl Most Valuable Player, Eli Manning. His streak of consecutive starts by a quarterback came to a halt when he was benched for one game in November. How Manning handled this controversial roster move generated a lot of social media conversation and support. His endorsement portfolio includes DirecTV, Gatorade, Nike and Toyota.

Right behind Manning is four-time Super Bowl MVP Tom Brady, who led the New England Patriots to a comeback victory in Super Bowl LI in February. Given his bankability, Brady’s N-Score rose six points year-over-year to close 2017 at 75 (tied with three other athletes). Brady has endorsements with Under Armour and UGG. His social media followers top 7.5 million. The 40-year-old quarterback released his first book in 2017 detailing his approach to long-term health and fitness.  

Others among the top 10 professional athletes by N-Score in 2017 included Golden State Warriors point guard Stephen Curry (N-Score 75); Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers (N-Score 75); NASCAR drivers Danica Patrick (N-Score 75) and Dale Earnhardt, Jr. (N-Score 73); and Houston Texans’ defensive end, J.J. Watt (N-Score 73), who had a season-ending leg injury, but raised more than $37 million for hurricane relief in the Houston area.

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