And the world’s most marketable athlete is … Eugenie Bouchard

Editor’s Note: Simon Chadwick is a Professor of Sport Business Strategy at Coventry University. The opinions expressed in this commentary are solely those of the author. CNN is showcasing the work of The Conversation, a collaboration between journalists and academics to provide news analysis and commentary. The content is produced solely by The Conversation.

CNN  — 

David Beckham recently celebrated his 40th birthday, which prompted much discussion about the legacy and longevity of “Brand Becks.” Ten years ago, Beckham was arguably at the height of his career, playing for Real Madrid’s “Galacticos.” But now he is reportedly earning more in his retirement than he ever did as a player.

This says something about the equity that Beckham built up in his brand over a 22-year playing career. In terms of where next, Brand Beckham has entrepreneur, sports diplomat and fashion leader among his many options. While Becks and his advisers contemplate these issues, Sports Pro magazine has just revealed the latest list of his heirs apparent in its 2015 Most Marketable Athlete chart. Canadian tennis star Eugenie Bouchard has topped this year’s list, with Brazilian footballer Neymar coming in second and American golfer Jordan Spieth third.

The list is partly based on the Celebrity Davie-Brown Index, which measures consumer perceptions of more than 5,600 celebrities in 15 markets around the world. This involves surveys run every month, capturing data from a nationally representative sample of 500 people in each market.

On an annual basis, that’s a significant amount of data and, in spite of Eugenie Bouchard appearing at No. 1, there remain some crucial questions such as “where are the women?” (only 12 of the 50 people on the list are female.) But the most fundamental question is, when people judge athletes as marketable, what are they actually judging?

The top stars

In a previous study, a colleague and I identified a mnemonic to aid understanding of athlete brands and the basis upon which people engage with them. This was TOPSTAR: team, off-field activity, physical characteristics, success, transferability (of their appeal across different markets), age and reputation. Further work in this area dictates that TOPSTARRRS is now more appropriate – with representation of the athlete, receptiveness to their becoming involved in commercial activity and social media savvy also playing an important role in the strength of their brand and its marketability.

For sports personalities who are part of a team, their association with and position in the team in question sends a powerful message about the nature and positioning of their brand. It is no coincidence that at the time David Beckham was at the peak of his commercial appeal, he was playing for the world’s most commercially appealing and successful teams – Manchester United and Real Madrid.

And then, as Beckham emerged as the epitome of a naughties metrosexual male, his destinations became Milan and Paris, two of the world’s most important fashion capitals. In between, Becks headed to LA Galaxy, intent on building his U.S. profile ahead of a potential post-career transition to sports entrepreneur.

As the Beckhams headed west, they were repeatedly photographed with Tom Cruise and his then wife Katie Holmes. This was great brand visibility and association, particularly in the way that it conveyed a set of values and associations to consumers in the target markets of North America. Off-field activities are important.

Top level success in sport is a seductive, compelling element of any athlete brand – just ask Roger Federer. Some celebrity lists have estimated the Swiss tennis player to be worth $300 million. It is far easier to sign lucrative business deals and sell products branded with your name on them if you are hugely successful in a sport with a strong global profile.

Nowhere is this more apparent than with Tiger Woods. Now fading somewhat, following personal transgressions and a dip in form, he is still the most significant commercial phenomenon in the history of golf. There are many reasons why Woods became such a compelling brand proposition, but one of them has been his transferability – the ability to appeal to a wide audience.

As someone of mixed heritage, Woods’ brand transcended golf’s traditional marketplace, taking the sport into new territory. This is something one of his main sponsors, Nike, was well aware of and made effective use of in its “I’m Tiger Woods” advertising campaign.

Going the distance

For any athlete brand – injury and indiscretions aside – one of the biggest threats is age. A time will inevitably come when the brand begins to lose its luster as the athlete gets a little slower and their qualities a little less seductive than perhaps they once were. Enter the likes of Bouchard and Neymar onto the stage in place of Federer and Beckham.

Whether as a young hell-raiser, an esteemed mid-career professional or a wise old campaigner, one’s reputation is always important. Fans, commercial partners and other customers seek image benefits through being associated with an athlete. In the same way, an athlete can build a brand on the basis of either a perceived or constructed reputation – Beckham was the good father; Bouchard is part fashion icon, part social media sensation; and Neymar is all brooding attitude.

While the raw materials might be in place for an athlete’s brand to be created and successfully exploited, it is increasingly important that an intermediary or agent represents an athlete’s interests to get the best deals with commercial partners. In David Beckham’s case, his commercial breakthrough came when he signed with 19 Entertainment. This is the company set up by Simon Fuller, former manager of the Spice Girls, and which now boasts a roster including the likes of Lewis Hamilton.

The final element in this elaborate mix of ingredients that make up an athlete brand is something that, when my colleague and I wrote our first paper, was still to take hold – social media. Here Bouchard thrives. Active on both Twitter and Instagram, she is credited in Sports Pro’s write up of her for “sharing what life as a young professional athlete looks like.” Being active, communicating something relevant and actively engaging with followers has brought a particular vibrancy to brands like hers.

And so, at least for the next 12 months, Bouchard sits at the top of the pile with her combination of success, off-court activity and representation. Bouchard is clearly one of sport’s TOPSTARRS and is likely to be so for years to come. As a result, we can expect the young woman from Montreal to be harvesting revenues while her brand remains at its peak.

Read: Canada and tennis, eh? Yes, really