Our List of Most Marketable Athletes in the United States

Note: This article was updated on June 27th, 2020.  Throughout the duration of the 2012 Olympics, the most well-known athletes […]

August 22, 2012

Note: This article was updated on June 27th, 2020. 

Throughout the duration of the 2012 Olympics, the most well-known athletes participating in the games were endorsing some of the most notable products and brands. Below is a list of the more prominent athlete and brand sponsorships: 

    • Michael Phelps: Speedo, Visa, Omega, and Under Armour
    • Ryan Lochte: Gillette, Nissan Motorw and AT&T
    • Sanya Richards-Ross: BMW and Nike
    • LeBron James: McDonald’s and Nike
    • Usain Bolt: Puma, Visa and Gatorade

Who is the Most Marketable U.S. Athlete in Sports?

After being exposed to so many advertisements from athletes over the duration of the 2012 Olympic Games, I started to wonder, who is the most marketable U.S. athlete in sports? I was able to limit the selection to four athletes.

  • Tiger Woods 
  • Peyton Manning 
  • LeBron James 
  • Michael Phelps 

Below is my rank of the most marketable U.S. athletes in sports as of the summer of 2012:

4. Tiger Woods

Tiger Woods easily would have been the most marketable athlete in the U.S. a couple of years ago, before his cheating scandal in 2009. In addition to his reputation taking a hit, his golf game suffered.

This combination of events led to Tiger Woods losing his title of the top-paid athlete. Woods’ estimated endorsement income fell to $54.5 million in 2011 from $60 million in 2010 and $92 million in 2009 [source]. A peer in his own sport, Phil Mickelson, overtook Tiger Woods as the top paid athlete in golf.

Some of the major sponsors to drop Tiger Woods after the scandal included the following:

  • Gatorade
  • AT&T
  • Accenture
  • American Express
  • General Mills
  • TLC Laser Eye Centers
  • Tag Heuer
  • Rolex

Tiger Woods is still one of the most recognizable figures in the world. His largest sponsor, Nike, has stuck with him through all of this. If his golf game turns around and more time passes from his scandal, he could easily move back into the most marketable U.S. athlete in the world. 

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3. Peyton Manning

Peyton Manning can put some charm into just about any product.

His neck surgery in May 2011 took him away from the football and out of the spotlight. Peyton still has an iconic brand that will remain in-tact, regardless of his football future.

Below are the brands Peyton Manning has pitched in the past [source]:

  • MasterCard
  • Papa John’s Pizza
  • DirecTV
  • Kraft’s
  • Oreo Cookies and PepsiCo 

Similar to Tiger Woods, the prime of Manning’s career is likely behind him. He is still such a recognizable figure in the U.S. that he still tops our list of most marketable athletes in the U.S.

2. Michael Phelps 

After 8 gold medals in Beijing in 2008, there were estimates that Phelps should generate in excess of over $40 million in endorsement revenue over the next 4-years [source]. Phelps’ agent went onto say that his client will earn over $100 million in endorsements over his career [source].

When the Olympics are fresh in people’s minds, there’s no bigger star in the world than Michael Phelps. The reason why Phelps doesn’t make #1 on the list is because his sport isn’t in the spotlight the majority of the time. There’s more focus on the NFL, NBA, NHL, PGA, NASCAR and many other sports before swimming. Once the Olympics start to rolls around, Phelps steals the spotlight. Additionally, Phelps’ future is uncertain after the 2012 games. If he no longer participates in the Olympics, there will be fewer endorsements in the future.

Despite swimming not being mainstream, Phelps has become one of the most recognizable figures in the world, meaning any of his endorsement will carry clout, even if it’s not during the Olympics.

Below are some of Phelps’ sponsors:

  • Subway
  • Hilton
  • Omega
  • Speedo
  • Visa
  • Procter & Gamble
  • Under Armour 

1. LeBron James 

When LeBron bolted from Cleveland to South Beach, the negative sentiment towards LeBron was astronomical. From Lake Erie to Louisiana, it seemed that everyone and their mom hated LeBron. “Cocky” and “Arrogant” were the words media members used to describe LeBron. Fans backed this sentiment.

When LeBron missed a clutch shot at the end of a game or lost to Dallas in the NBA Finals, fans reveled in LeBron’s failures.

Something funny happened. LeBron James won his first championship while carrying the Heat on his back. Months later, he won a gold medal in London. LeBron was busy proving to the world (and his haters) that he’s the most dominating athlete in his sport since Michael Jordan.

People forgot about LeBron’s great personality. He has character and charisma that translates well into clever and witty commercials (unlike Kobe, his closest US competition). He’s savvy with social media and brands don’t have to worry about a PR catastrophe a la Tiger Woods.

LeBron pulled a horrible publicity stunt at the Boys and Girls Club of Akron announcing his decision to leave Cleveland on live television. He has always avoided off the court issues and other than a couple of comments to the press that he’d like to have back; he has been the perfect role model on and off the court.

Below is a list of some of the notable sponsorships of LeBron James. He is one of the only NBA players to make more in sponsorships than his salary. 

  • Nike
  • Coca-Cola
  • Upper Deck
  • State Farm Insurance
  • Dunkin Donuts and Baskin-Robbins
  • McDonald’s 

In Closing – Why We Chose The King 

Manning, Woods and Phelps are likely past the prime of their career. LeBron James is still in his prime and has turned his brand image around for the better after the “Decision” debacle. Because of this, LeBron is “The King” of most marketable U.S. Athletes. There’s more upside for LeBron versus the other athletes on this list because he can still dominate for another decade.