Sloane Stephens hasn't made it past the round of 16 of an event since her Australian Open run. (Alan Diaz/AP)
According to an annual list of the 50 most marketable athletes compiled by British sports magazine SportsPro Media, ATP No. 1 Novak Djokovic is the sixth most marketable athlete in the world. In a rather surprising selection, Sloane Stephens comes in at No. 9, making her the most marketable female athlete in the world. Djokovic and Stephens come in ahead of Maria Sharapova and Rafael Nadal, as well as Roger Federer and Serena Williams, who didn't even make the list.
Are you scratching your head? Me, too.
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The magazine compiled the list by taking into account "value for money, age, home market, charisma, willingness to be marketed and crossover appeal" over the next three years. The list of athletes, topped for the second straight year by Brazilian soccer star Neymar, includes eight tennis players: Djokovic (No. 6), Stephens (No. 9), Victoria Azarenka (No. 15), Sharapova (No. 16), Andy Murray (18), Caroline Wozniacki (No. 23), Nadal (No. 25) and Laura Robson (No. 40). Based on the publication's criteria, I'm guessing it was looking for young players with the talent to win the big titles whose endorsement portfolios aren't already filled to the brim.
The most notable absentee from the list is Federer, whom Forbes ranked at No. 2 on its list of the world's most valuable sports brands. Presumably, the list-makers knocked the Swiss for his age (31) and the fact that his is an established brand at this point (does he have room for more sponsorships?), arguably offering less value for money and marginal opportunity for growth. I can't say I'm convinced by the argument. His brand value is so strong and he has proven crossover appeal. I mean, he's not even on the list. At all.
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For both Djokovic and Stephens, the argument seems to be they still have tremendous tennis upside (arguable for Djokovic, 25, who already sits atop the game) and they can provide access to major markets. The magazine cites Djokovic's deal with Japanese clothing company UNIQLO as a move that shows he can provide value in the Asian markets. Having joined IMG at the end of 2012, the magazine believes he can fill the void left by Federer and Nadal, who cut ties with the management company.
Stephens (shockingly ranked two spots ahead of Tiger Woods and five ahead of LeBron James) has the American market behind her, one that's been primed by her win over Serena Williams at the Australian Open, and she's quickly been anointed the future of American tennis. But if being a charismatic young player with the potential to be America's future No. 1 is the standard, where's Madison Keys in all this? She's two years younger than Stephens and managed by Max Eisenbud of IMG, the same man behind Sharapova and Li Na, the two highest-paid female athletes of 2012, according to Forbes.
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Azarenka's being ranked ahead of Sharapova is also a tough sell. She's talented, and I have no doubt she will win more majors and become No. 1 again at some point, which will only boost her profile and value. But in a market already saturated by Sharapova, Wozniacki, Serena and Li, I just don't see what she can deliver to potential sponsors.
All this is to say it seems like a misnomer to say these are "the most marketable athletes" right now. From the tennis perspective, they may be the most underappreciated, undervalued, underutilized players right now. But the most marketable? I'm not not sure I buy that.
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