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2022's Most Influential Sports Figures with Emory Professor Tom Smith

Today’s podcast is our annual look at the top sports figures of the past year. The list is about cultural impact or influence rather than top athletic performances. It's an effort to identify the people with the longest-lasting impact. My discussion for the list is with Tom Smith – an economist and fellow Emory faculty. We begin from number 10 and count towards 1 (full article below).


Watch/listen to the full discussion here:

Also streaming on Apple Podcasts, Spotify, & Stitcher.

10. Michael Jordan

According to Forbes, the Jordan brand is worth about $10 billion. Forbes also estimates that the Chicago Bulls are worth about $4 billion. Jordan remains the figure around which modern sports marketing was created. Jordan remains on the list for the foreseeable or until an athlete uses TikTok to create something bigger than the Jordan brand.


9. Britney Griner

I’m reluctant to include Griner because the story is primarily about politics rather than sports or marketing. The fascinating thing about the Griner case is the snippets we get about the negotiations for a prisoner swap. This article suggests that she might be traded for Viktor Bout. This trade has been speculated for six months. That a US basketball player would be exchanged for a Russian arms dealer says something profound about the modern world. I’m also reluctant to include this one because the sources of the potential trade are murky at best.


8. Sam Bankman-Fried

The former CEO of FTX is a different kind of entry on the list. SBF was a stereotypical business celebrity. A whiz kid who created a massive company out of seemingly nothing that was later revealed to be a highly connected fraud. While this kind of manufactured celebrity is a cornerstone of modern America culture, SBF is on this list because of FTX’s massive investments in sports marketing. FTX bought the naming rights to the Miami basketball arena and had endorsement deals with athletes like Steph Curry and Tom Brady. Bankman-Fried and FTX may change the way that stadiums think about naming rights and the endorsements athletes are willing to provide (no more financial advice).


7. Herschel Walker

Walker has been famous to varying degrees since the 1980s, and with his run for the US Senate is probably better known than any current NFL running back. Walker represents an effort to use sports stardom in a non-sports category. The Walker campaign is especially interesting in terms of the degree of polarization it inspired. Sports has been a traditional unifier, but the most famous football player in the history of the University of Georgia became the most polarizing figure in Georgia politics. Walker has been targeted with a remarkably aggressive negative advertising campaign. Walker makes the list as a prime example of the changing and politicized nature of sports fandom. After Walker, athletes may be less willing to pursue politics, and political parties may be less inclined to use celebrity candidates.


6. Aaron Judge

Aaron Judge brought MLB back into the limelight. He also revealed the weakness of the MLB brand. His home run chase attracted attention from new and established fans. His quest even diverted college football broadcasts. But, the home run chase also revealed the damage done to baseball’s record book during the PED era. What does 62 home runs mean? Is this the new honest record? The New York record? The media coverage also revealed the weakness of baseball and the fragmented nature of US sports fandom. Shifting to Judge using a split screen generated significant twitter hate. The reaction almost seemed to be “why are they interrupting my football with a niche sport?”


5. Kyrie Irving

Irving continues to attract controversy. It's impossible not to link Irving with Kanye West as well. However, Irving and Kanye West are topics that are impossible to discuss meaningfully in the current political environment. But they are also potentially the most important stories of the moment. Kyrie may fade into oblivion, or he may become a pivotal cultural figure.


4. Serena Williams

Serena Williams stepped away from tennis this year. Serena is (was?) the top US female athlete in terms of marketing and name recognition. Tennis is general, and women’s tennis, in particular, is lightly watched. Despite the lack of viewership, Serena is a massive celebrity. As a case study, Serena reveals the potential power of a female sports brand. In my annual fandom survey, Serena actually rates higher with male respondents than female respondents. She transcended her sport to become a household name and sports icon. The question is, what happens next?

3. Lamar Jackson

Jackson is on the list because of his approach to his contract negotiations. The NFL QB market if fairly inefficient. Salary records are set regularly, as each new deal is centered on the previous deal. The premium earned by a true top 5 QB is minor compared to a top 15 QB. Most QBs seem to take the money a little early to lock in the guaranteed dollars. It’s a rational risk-reward strategy. Jackson, however, shut down negotiations with the Ravens and seems destined to experience a true open market. I don’t put Jackson in the group of true elite QBs, so this will be fascinating to watch if Jackson recalibrates the QB market.


2. Tom Brady

Brady is the GOAT. But Tom Brady has also transcended sports to become a mainstream cultural figure. This is no small feat in 2022. The downside is that Brady now takes heat in the same way as a celebrity when his relationships fail. His divorce is a media event, and when he partners with a failed crypto-exchange, there are calls for Tom to be blamed for providing flawed financial advice. At this moment (12/1), the Bucs are a below 500 team, and there are the inevitable questions of whether Brady has stayed too long. But he is 4th in the league in passing yards and has a 7-1 TD to Interception ratio. Brady is the iconic sports figure of his generation, and the stories are just being layered upon stories. Brady is the only current athlete with Michael Jordan-like potential to influence our culture.


1. Tiger Woods, Rory McIlroy, Justin DeChambeau, Phil Mickelson, and Greg Norman

LIV Golf is critical sports story. LIV Golf is an effort to create a global sports property. FIFA, for example, is a global sports property with an audience in the billions, while major US leagues championships barely reach ten million viewers. The future seems to be in consolidation that creates broader audiences. But the local leagues are not going down without a fight. The PGA is fighting back aggressively against LIV. Internationally, the Soccer Super League seems paused, but within the US, the Big Ten and SEC seem on the path to creating a Power 2 conference structure. The list of folks for this entry is some of the key players involved in LIV Golf and the PGA. Mickelson was LIV's initial big name and publicity disaster. DeChambeau is their top golfing recruit. McIlroy is the one that stayed with the PGA. Tiger Woods is the biggest brand out there. And there are now reports that no negotiations can occur until Greg Norman is removed from his leadership role at LIV. The key to this story and all the efforts to build global sports entities is the importance of collecting the top brands.

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