In the build-up to this year’s U.S. Open, Forbes published a list of the world’s 10 highest-paid tennis players. The rankings were based on players’ year-to-date earnings, on and off the court. In other words: winnings and endorsements. On average, 75 percent of these athletes’ combined earnings come from off-court sources (eight of the 10 players currently have four or more concurrent sponsorship deals). Athletes’ on-court earnings aren’t always a consistent predictor of their popularity — or “sellability” — with consumers. In tennis, this is no different. In fact, the correlation between the two for these 10 athletes is just 0.14, which suggests the value of endorsement deals is driven by factors beyond player performance. Among these? Charisma, sex appeal, recognition in key markets, and — we believe — digital savvy.
The title of this post is slightly misleading, because as those of you familiar with our research know, the methodology behind our Digital IQ Index reports is extensive and robust: analysis of 350 data points across at least four distinct areas. For this exercise, we undertook a much more abbreviated examination of several key data points to determine each tennis player’s perceived digital aptitude. These included: (1) prevalence of the player’s name in search queries, (2) traffic to the player’s official fan site, (3) size and growth of Facebook and Twitter communities, and (4) player-specific mentions on blogs. To see these results, contrasted with Forbes’ ranking, see the chart below:
What we discovered is that the digital aptitude of these 10 players is more closely correlated to career earnings than year-to-date earnings. Intuitively, this makes sense. A player’s online equity, especially their social media profile, is largely a function of the fan base they have accumulated over time. Legacy players like Serena Williams, for example, who’ve established lengthy, consistent track records, typically have a digital edge over the courtside sensation of the month. The one notable exception to this is Andy Murray, whose back-to-back performances at Wimbledon and the London Olympics registered a palpable online response: 40+ percent increase in Facebook fans and Twitter followers in the last 90 days. It has yet to be seen if his success will translate to off-court earnings.
On September 20th, L2 Think tank will release its inaugural Digital IQ Index: Sportswear study. Look for this upcoming report to include additional analysis of celebrity athletes and brand sponsorship.