10 Most Impactful Athletes of 2021 (Part 1)

In this final month of 2021, we have spent some time reflecting on the year's most impactful stories and most influential athletes. The following list consists of athletes Emory Marketing Professor Mike Lewis identified as the most impactful athletes in 2021. We dive deep into this list in the Fanalytics Podcast and welcome you to listen on the streaming platform of your choice here.



Here our the first 5 athletes and their respective roles in the sports world:


10. Megan Rapinoe – The Progressive Spokesperson

Megan Rapinoe has created a unique niche in the sports and entertainment category. She is the face of the US National Women’s Soccer Team, a spokesperson for Subway and Victoria’s Secret, part of a “power couple” with basketball star Sue Bird, and an advocate for increased female compensation. Megan is on the list because she almost perfectly fits the progressive media narrative. She has also feuded with Donald Trump and Hope Solo. There may be no better athlete for reaching the progressive feminist segment.


9. Justin Fields – The Media Darling

Justin Fields makes the list not for anything he has done but because of how he is covered. Fields has long enjoyed the media spotlight. He was a heralded high school recruit featured in the Netflix series QB1: Beyond the Lights. As the 1st or 2nd rated high school recruit in the country Fields chose Georgia. After failing to win the starting position as a Freshman, Fields became a high-profile transfer and ended up at Ohio State where he became the face of the movement to play during COVID. Fields again enjoyed significant coverage in the run Up to the NFL Draft where he fell to the Chicago Bears at pick 11. Fields has continued to garner media support during his rookie year despite ranking 32nd in the league in passing. Fields makes the list as an athlete that has enjoyed massive (and positive) media attention that outweighs any on-field accomplishments.


8. Kyrie Irving – The Cancelled Activist & Independent Thinker

Kyrie Irving has had a career that includes championships, movies, and widely embraced social activism. Irving has also been at the forefront of the trend of NBA athletes to create “super teams”. But Kyrie is also an independent thinker who has dabbled in flat earth theory. In 2021 Kyrie took a stand against the NBAs vaccine mandate. Some may view his stand as foolish or dangerous, but Kyrie is the athlete that stands the most on principle in 2021. Kyrie makes the list for the most principled stand of 2021.


7. Shaquille O’Neal – The Last Athlete Having Fun

Shaq is retired but has moved on to a lucrative post-playing career. Shaq’s has endorsed Pap Johns, Pepsi, Buick, Icy Hot, The General, and more. He is also part of TNT’s NBA show. Shaq is also making a cultural impact. In 2021 Shaq went “viral” with comments that he was retiring from celebrity status and telling his kids that “We aint rich, I’m rich.” Shaq makes the list by establishing a unique, lucrative, and fun loving athlete brand.

“These celebrities are going freaking crazy and I don’t want to be one. I denounce my celebrity-ness today. I’m done with it,” O’Neal told The Post, while discussing his new campaign with Kellogg’s.
“I don’t want to be in that category. Celebrities are crazy, they really are. Don’t call me that anymore. These people are out of their freaking mind with how they treat people, what they do, what they say. That’s never been me. I never want to be looked at like that.”


6. LeBron James – The NBAs Brand Manager

LeBron James has 104 Million Instagram followers. The Lakers have 18.3 million. LeBron is involved in every issue – racial justice, vaccines, anti-Trump, Kyle Rittenhouse, etc. He also makes movies and is Nike’s second most important shoe endorser. LeBron is on the list because he is the most prominent athlete in America who impacts politics, international relations, marketing, social movements, entertainment, and actual NBA games.


Stay tuned for 1-5, and subscribe to the Fanalytics Podcast for more in-depth discussion.

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