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As the sun sets on sport’s 21st century superstars, what comes next?

Sports fans are a heterogeneous bunch, each engaging with the medium in their own unique way. Ultimately, though, they still fit into two broad categories. 

For the first group, sport is about the collective experience; a forum where one can feel part of a wider community, brought together by a shared passion. For the second, it’s all about the individual; marvelling at the sheer dominance one athlete can enjoy over a particular sport.

If you belong to the latter, you’ve been spoilt in recent years. Across many of the world’s most popular sports, the 21st century has been characterised by the prevalence of a few superhuman stars lording it over fellow competitors. From Tiger to Tom Brady, to the Williams sisters and the ATP Tour’sBig Three”, we’ve been living through the era of the GOAT(s)

Tennis is perhaps most instructive. From 2000-2017, Serena Williams won nearly a third of all women’s Grand Slam singles titles. Whilst from 2004 to the present day, the 60 Grand Slam titles shared between Rafa, Roger and Novak represent a collective win rate of 82%. Brady, meanwhile, has appeared in just under half of all Super Bowl’s to take place in his 22-year stint at the top of America’s Game.

What’s most impressive is the longevity; each of these stars striving tirelessly to establish a never-ending empire over their sport.

It’s what allowed us to witness Phil Mickelson becoming golf’s oldest major champion at 50, Tom Brady the NFL’s oldest Super Bowl winner at 44, and Serena the oldest female Grand Slam winner in her mid-thirties. To see Lewis Hamilton come within one lap of securing a record 8th World Championship at the tender age of 36. Or Rafael Nadal, aged 35, win his 21st major title in a Herculean effort under the Melbourne sun.

To many, they are a marketer’s dream.

Being able to rely on instantly recognisable stars, synonymous with a certain sport, makes the product easier to sell to prospective audiences. Billions of people across the world are emotionally invested in the fortunes of these athletes, deeply in thrall to the individual dynasties they are building. This “superstar effect” brings eyeballs and sales.

When Tiger Woods returned to competitive golf in 2018, it drove a huge uptick in TV audiences, including an increase of 206% for the final round of the Tour Championship on CBS. His Masters win in 2019, meanwhile, resulted in a significant sales increase in golf balls for his main sponsor, Bridgestone Golf

Yet there is also a flipside to the outsized influence that these stars hold over their respective sports. Brady, Nadal, Federer, Williams, Woods and Hamilton are all in the twilight years, with retirement not far away. Despite their best efforts, sooner or later the sun will set on these careers, and when it does, the shadow they cast will be a vast one.

That leaves governing bodies with a dilemma because, as the big names depart, will extra effort be required to sustain fan interest? And what approach will they choose to help fill the void? 

  1. One option is to stick with the status quo and focus on building a new generation of superstars who can tap into the inclinations of the athlete-first fan. Patrick Mahomes in the NFL is a prime example.
  2. The other is more radical, signalling a move away from marketing sports through the lens of high-profile personalities, and instead focusing on the depth and diversity of the collective

Whilst we enjoy watching individual dominance, we also value competitive integrity and the unpredictability inherent in any sport. To tune in to an event without a preconceived idea of who might emerge victorious is engaging in its own right.

Deliberate or not, it’s a process already in motion for the likes of the PGA Tour and LPGA Tour, who, in the absence of a singular leading light, have come to understand that the whole may be greater than the sum of its parts.

The overall strength of competition across golf has rarely been fiercer. In the past five years, there have been 18 debut major winners on the LPGA Tour. And it’s a similar picture on the PGA Tour, with 12 first-time major winners since 2017, including the latest Masters champion Scottie Scheffler. Viewing figures for the PGA – up 30% in 2021 on NBC in the US – would suggest that this greater strength-in-depth is appealing to audiences, too. 

That should provide food for thought for governing bodies and rights holders, as they contemplate life without the megastars who have powered them forwards in recent years. Do they double down and continue to pump marketing spend behind one or two individuals? Or do they highlight the breadth of competition, investing in its ability to throw up a broad spectrum of rivalries and characters? 

The latter is something F1 and Netflix has tapped into with huge success in Drive to Survive. Undoubtedly, our interest is piqued by a gripping title fight. But the show also teases out several more compelling narratives that encompass the entire paddock. McLaren vs. Ferrari, Norris vs. Ricciardo and the inner workings of the Haas team are just a few of the stories providing added colour and value to the world’s leading motorsport series. 

The superstar paradigm is a seductive one. But it can also be reductive at the same time. Beyond the main characters, there’s a much more eclectic pool of competitors out there, who, if dedicated a greater portion of time, money and coverage, might just unlock a more diverse audience base. As the sports market becomes ever more saturated, and the competition for viewers increases, it could be a risk worth taking.


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