The Only People in Sports Who Matter (to the Media)
There's no doubt that the athletes who dominate sports media coverage are often more than deserving of the attention.
We rarely question why Derek Jeter getting healthy is a story or why Peyton Manning leads the top headlines on SportsCenter.
But, it's undeniable that there exists a relationship between the media and its top newsmakers, which shapes sports coverage and dictates programming.
So, it's no surprise that a particular group of men and women dominate headlines in the sports media.
Do they grab every headline? No. But do they occupy a space in sports media that simply cannot be ignored? Yep. Is a story bigger because they are mentioned? Yep.
These are the only 25 people in sports who matter (to the media).
*Editor's Note: Tim Tebow missing the cut was intentional.
Most hockey fans know that, unfortunately, the sport doesn’t matter all that much to many media outlets. Aside from grabbing the occasional headline during semi-regular work stoppages and the playoffs, the NHL just doesn’t get a lot of love from the likes of, for example, ESPN.
That being said, a hockey story involving Pittsburgh Penguins center Sidney Crosby (or, perhaps his media-created nemesis, Alex Ovechkin) is far more likely to make a splash nationally than one not involving him.
Crosby has superstar talent, boyish good looks and a friendly enough disposition, making the NHL’s marketing of him such an easy sell. For the same reasons, he’s beloved in Pittsburgh and his native Canada—and bemoaned pretty much everywhere else.
Chicago Bulls point guard Derrick Rose has been one of the biggest stars in the NBA for years now, due in part to his obvious talent, but also because the sizable shoes he was symbolically filling in Chicago. That’s not to say Rose is, was or will ever be the caliber of player Michael Jordan was, but he is a marquee star.
Even being in the same conversation with Jordan is enough to drive the sports media wild, which is why Rose has been generating headlines since entering the league in 2008. Although his play on the court was always good for attracting attention, if it’s possible it seems that Rose has become an even bigger topic of discussion while he's watching from the bench.
Since going down with a knee injury during the playoffs in 2012, Rose has played just 49 games over the last two seasons. His absence in the Bulls lineup has been a constant source of discussion and speculation because of how greatly it has impacted the team’s prospects.
Now every time this guy dons a pair of shorts and is seen in the vicinity of a basketball, it’s a national story.
University of South Carolina coach Steve Spurrier has a particularly incendiary way with words. Eschewing traditional "say nothing" coachspeak in favor of biting commentary or flat-out insults, the Head Ball Coach may beat you on the football field, but he’ll definitely beat you in the press conference.
Although there are a lot of college coaches who make headlines during the offseason, none do it with the ease and frequency of Spurrier. At the most recent SEC media days event, HBC held court with reporters as he talked up his Gamecocks program—and casually talked down other coaches and programs with a disarming smile.
Unlike almost every other coach in American sports—college or professional—Spurrier is guaranteed to give the reporters in a room something to write about every time he steps up to the microphone. He loves ruffling feathers, and the media constantly rewards him for doing exactly what he loves. Love him or hate him, there’s no denying the HBC knows how to put on a show.
He may not be the other golfer you know, but Irishman Rory McIlroy has become a globally recognized athlete thanks in large part due to his association with the aforementioned other golfer. After enjoying a large amount of success at a very young age, McIlroy was dubbed “the next Tiger Woods” by the sports media.
In the years since, McIlroy’s career has continued to ascend, while Woods’ has gone the opposite direction, causing the very same sports media to decry the endless Woods-McIlroy comparisons.
Whether or not he’s anything like Woods at this point doesn’t even matter. McIlroy is now a bona fide superstar in his own right, with his personal life making headlines almost as often as anything he does (or doesn’t do) on the golf course. Having recently turned 25 and coming off his third career major, McIlroy’s media allure will only grow for the foreseeable future.
U.S. women’s soccer star Alex Morgan followed teammate Hope Solo into the world of superstardom, but her America’s sweetheart thing has proved a much bigger hit with the media and fans alike. Whereas Solo only makes news these days for very questionable behavior, almost everything Morgan does is deemed newsworthy.
Having been sidelined with nagging injuries since late 2013, Morgan’s recent return generated a number of headlines—and that was with the World Cup in full swing. But interest in her extends well beyond the pitch, with Morgan’s marital status and bikini-clad trips to the beach often becoming international news.
Though it’s steadily been gaining in popularity, the UFC is surprisingly short on superstars. With few exceptions, company president Dana White is pretty much the most recognizable face and name in the UFC. And unlike commissioners in the major sports leagues, he doesn’t just make headlines by enforcing the rules and doling out discipline.
Google “Dana White” on a given day and there is almost certain to be several news stories less than a few days old in which he’s a key figure. That’s because he’s actively involved on every level—from negotiating contracts to getting publicly pranked by fighters. White isn’t just the president of the UFC, he is the UFC.
Stephen A. Smith and Skip Bayless
ESPN’s Stephen A. Smith and Skip Bayless “embrace debate” five days a week on their morning screamfest First Take. The thing about embracing debate is that it often means that these two become the story, rather than just discussing the story.
Whether it’s by design or purely by accident, Smith and Bayless are as much a fodder for gossip as the athletes they “debate” 10 hours a week. Bayless’ smug, condescending demeanor with guests is well documented and his lack of racial sensitivity has been as well.
Recently, Smith has proven himself to be more of an (accidental) flame-thrower with a seemingly endless ill-advised “discussion” about Ravens running back Ray Rice's suspension for physically assaulting his wife and the ways women could stop contributing to being the victims of domestic assault.
Although it’s never for reasons that are anything but ridiculously unpleasant, Smith and Bayless find themselves in the news more often than most athletes could ever even dare to dream.
Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning has made it easy for the media since the beginning—the son of Ole Miss legend Archie Manning was a star at the University of Tennessee and was juxtaposed against ne'er do well uber-bust Ryan Leaf ahead of the 1998 NFL draft.
Since then, Manning has broken records, shot dozens of commercials and hosted Saturday Night Live. Manning is the face of the NFL—so it's no surprise he's one of the most visible faces in the league. When Manning is up, the media is there; when Manning is down, the media is there.
For better or worse, Manning is the most famous member of the closest family we have to football royalty. The fact he left the Indianapolis Colts to become the franchise quarterback of the Denver Broncos—a team adrift since John Elway retired—just made Manning an even more hot media commodity.
Long gone are the days of John McEnroe, Andre Agassi, Pete Sampras and even Andy Roddick, although mentioning Roddick in the same breath as the first three probably qualifies as criminal negligence. The U.S. is tragically lacking in men’s tennis stars, which only adds to the star power of women’s great Serena Williams.
Even if there were male competition, Williams' success, not to mention that of her sister, Venus, would be more than enough to stand out on its own volition. But the lack of other headline makers combined with her own unique (sometimes abrasive) personality means that she almost never finds herself lacking for a camera in her face.
The legendary Mike Krzyzewski generates substantially more headlines than any other college basketball coach, because not only has he been the head coach of the storied Duke Blue Devils since 1980, Coach K. has also been coaching USA Basketball since 1979.
No matter how successful (or unsuccessful) it is in a given season, Duke is always among the most buzzed-about teams in college basketball. That’s thanks in large part to Krzyzewski, who passed Bobby Knight for the most wins in men's college basketball history back in November 2011.
In April 2014 Coach K. got a monster raise and now earns just shy of $10 million a year, almost double the salary of his closest competitors, Rick Pitino of Louisville and John Calipari of of Kentucky. The national distaste for Duke, outside of its fan base, and Krzyzewski’s bloated paycheck make him constant media fodder.
When defected Cuban outfielder Yasiel Puig was brought up by the Los Angeles Dodgers on June 3, 2013, he became an instant superstar, becoming one of just a few rookies in MLB history to make a legitimate case as an All-Star. Although he didn’t ultimately make it, Puig has been one of the biggest stories in the league ever since.
Although playing for the Dodgers, the highest-spending team in the league, doesn’t hurt, Puig’s colorful personality and impressive, record-setting production on the field continue to delight fans in Los Angeles and enrage his opponents. He may not have made it to the 2013 MLB All-Star Game, but he was still one of the biggest stories of the event.
In 2014 Puig easily made the NL roster and even participated in the Home Run Derby. Given that L.A. is the second-most populated urban center in the U.S., Puig’s status as the second-most popular athlete in the city (behind Kobe Bryant, of course) is all the more impressive for the 23-year-old.
Dallas Cowboys owner and general manager Jerry Jones wants to be on this list. He needs to be on this list. The man who runs America's Team won three Super Bowls, but since Y2K, Jones and the Cowboys have been great at grabbing the spotlight, but not so good at justifying it.
Jerry Jones is the ultimate sports celebrity—an oil tycoon who was part of the 1962 NCAA champion Arkansas Razorbacks. When he bought the Cowboys in 1989, he instantly became one of the NFL's biggest personalities.
With one foot in the owner's box and one in the GM's role, Jones has continued to be a newsmaker by making the Cowboys one of the NFL's most profitable brands but failing to match the success of the pre-salary-cap era.
So, whether Jones is driving coverage over his almost drafting of Texas A&M sensation Johnny Manziel or deflecting speculation over head coach Jason Garrett and quarterback Tony Romo, he does his best to keep the largely irrelevant Cowboys...relevant.
Fox Sports’ Erin Andrews has been almost as big a story as anything she’s reported on ever since she rose to prominence at ESPN almost a decade ago. A statuesque blonde with model good looks, Andrews constantly finds herself the target of horrifyingly unwanted fan attention and the subject of needlessly harsh verbal attacks, often by fellow members of the sports media.
For Andrews, her looks have truly been a blessing and a curse. For every door that’s been opened for her, there’s been a barrage of criticism blown back her way from those who resent her success. And for every dedicated fan out there, it seems there’s someone else who legitimately believes she’s built a 15-year career on nothing more than blonde hair.
At this point, regular public attacks on Andrews are commonplace and mundane, but that doesn’t stop it from blowing up into a ridiculously overhyped story every time it happens. Sometimes the attacker apologizes, sometimes they double down.
Either way, the whole thing is driven into the ground because Andrews is, was and will continue to be a draw.
American swimmer Michael Phelps became a worldwide superstar at the 2004 Olympics in Athens when he stunned the world, winning eight medals (two bronze, six gold). He was the biggest star of those games and has been the biggest star at each successive Summer Games since.
At the 2012 Olympics in London, Phelps broke every record ever and became the most decorated Olympian of all time with 22 career medals. In fact, he won so many golds in London that only eight countries in the whole world matched or exceeded his total that year.
When Phelps announced his “retirement” in 2012, NBC—and the rest of the sports media—covered the whole thing as though Jesus himself was retiring from heaven. The only Olympic story that was a bigger deal than Phelps’ retirement was his not-so-surprising comeback two years later.
Following in the sizable footsteps of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Magic Johnson and Shaquille O’Neal that came before (and right along with) him, Los Angeles Lakers legend Kobe Bryant has been among the most famous and successful players of his time.
And much like O’Neal, whom he ultimately supplanted as the future of the Lakers, Bryant has a reputation for speaking his mind and providing relatively entertaining sound bites for sports reporters desperate for someone to say something…anything.
Kobe might not be quite on the same level as Shaq when it comes to turning a phrase, but he does have a reputation for doing and saying what he wants, whenever he wants. He also has a reputation for doing what he wants, when he wants—like leaving the country well over a week before the regular season ends.
At this point, if the commissioner of the National Football League was a box of packing peanuts, he/she/it would still be coveted by the media; the NFL is the king of America's pro sports leagues and is an oasis of headlines.
However, commissioner Roger Goodell is not a pile of Styrofoam, and whether he's consolidating power via the collective bargaining agreement or negotiating multimillion dollar deals with cable companies, the youngest person to ever take the reins of the NFL (at 47 years old in 2006) makes headlines.
When he replaced his predecessor, Paul Tagliabue, Goodell was largely an unknown entity, but his aggressive approach to imposing discipline and the concussion crisis have made him as big a story as the multibillion dollar enterprise he manages.
Floyd Mayweather Jr.
For the casual sports fan, Floyd Mayweather Jr. is more often than not the only active boxer they can name. A close second would probably be Manny Pacquiao, mostly because of his association with Mayweather and the fact that people really want to see them fight.
Mayweather is unquestionably the sport’s biggest draw, although pay-per-view watchers for his last fight dropped dramatically. Not that it matters to him—Floyd Money’s $30 million-plus purses are always guaranteed.
Mayweather is usually the only way boxing makes its way to the front page, but he constantly makes headlines independent from the sport. Although the headlines aren’t always particularly flattering, it’s clear Mayweather cares more about being discussed than the reasons behind it.
It doesn’t matter how many not-first-place finishes Danica Patrick racks up. Even without a single win to her name she remains among the most popular race car drivers, first in IndyCar and now in NASCAR. She's universally known (but not always liked) among racing fans and as well-recognized to outsiders as any of NASCAR’s historically famous names.
Patrick’s GoDaddy Super Bowl spots over the last seven years have been some of the most buzzed-about spots during that time. She’s also made high-profile appearances in the Sports Illustrated swimsuit issue and men’s magazines like FHM and Maxim. And her current romance with fellow driver Ricky Stenhouse Jr. makes for even more headlines.
It may not be great for racing, and it may not do much for the perception of women in sports, but there is no question that Patrick remains among the most famous females in the industry—for better or worse.
Portuguese superstar footballer Cristiano Ronaldo shares the bulk of individual international soccer headlines with Argentina’s Lionel Messi. Just recently he was named the best player in the world by Goal.com’s 600 editors.
Ronaldo began the year by winning his second FIFA Ballon d’Or award, which recognizes the sport’s most exceptional player annually. He was one of the biggest stars of the World Cup, despite Portugal not advancing to the knockout round.
As the No. 4 scorer in Real Madrid’s history, Ronaldo attracts plenty of attention, but his high-profile gigs as an underwear model and a romancer of some of the world’s most beautiful women really add fuel to his already white-hot fire.
Forget the next Tiger Woods (aka McIlroy), as long as there’s an actual Tiger Woods, in the U.S. he will continue to be the biggest—if not the only—story in golf. His quest to break Jack Nicklaus’ record mark of 18 majors is a constant source of debate.
It doesn’t matter how terrible he plays or how long he’s out with injury, after the unprecedented early success Woods enjoyed early in his career, the only way he’s ever counted out of a given tournament is if he’s not playing. In fact, until Bubba Watson surprised by repeating, Woods not playing was the biggest story of the 2014 Masters.
Even if he’s returning from a serious injury and coming off a terrible playing stretch, Woods is almost always named the immediate favorite—or second behind McIlroy—upon announcing his intention to play. And then, of course there’s Woods’ private life, which has made its fair share of headlines as well.
Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban is the most visible, headline-generating owner in American professional sports. There must be something in the water down in Dallas! Between his role on ABC’s hit show Shark Tank, regular appearances on late-night talk shows, and the NBA fines he racks up courtside, Cuban maintains a very high profile.
His outspoken personality and willingness to say the unpopular mean that when Cuban speaks, the media listens. Comments about Kobe Bryant, Donald Sterling and a frank discussion about race and bigotry have all created individual media firestorms, each lasting well beyond the 24-hour news cycle.
If the New York media is the closest ancestor of today’s hyper-responsive, multimedia sports press, then rookie Cleveland Browns quarterback Johnny Manziel is the 21st century iteration of NFL Hall of Famer “Broadway Joe” Namath.
A superstar and Heisman winner at Texas A&M, Manziel was an electric escape artist on the field, upsetting juggernaut Alabama almost single-handedly in 2012. Between his play on the field and his party-boy antics off the field, he’s been walking the fine line between famous and infamous.
Leading up to his selection in the 2014 NFL draft, Manziel was one of the annual spectacle’s hottest topics of conversation. Rumors about where the talented lighting rod would land were published in the same space now occupied by stories about Johnny Football’s bathroom romps and drunken swims with inflatable swans.
Now the very un-Broadway, but quarterback-needy, Browns are squinting under the bright lights always positioned directly on their new star—and the media is loving every second of it.
Yankee great Derek Jeter is currently in the midst of a season-long retirement tour that has seen him celebrated on the road with almost as much enthusiasm as he gets at home in New York. It’s hard to imagine that happening for any other athlete in any other sport.
With a winning combination of talent, good looks and likability, Jeter has had as many or more headlines than almost any other athlete since becoming a starter in 1995. And that’s in spite of being a career Yankee, a team that gets absolutely no love from outside its own fanbase.
Jeter often makes headlines off the field—his always intriguing dating life and epic adventures in real estate are constantly in the news. Yet there never seems to be the least bit of Jeter fatigue. Seriously, who else could pull off a season-long victory lap like The Jeet?
If there is any one fighter in the UFC who has eclipsed the star power of president Dana White, it has to be former Olympic bronze medalist in Judo, Ronda “Rowdy” Rousey. Now 10-0 in competition, in 2012 Rousey became the first female signed by the UFC in a landmark deal. Three months later she became the first woman to ever headline a UFC event.
More often than not, Rousey has easily bested her opponent via submission armbar, but she also brings it via trash talk in the weeks leading up to her matches—particularly against rival Miesha Tate, whom she’s beaten twice now. She’s also made headlines for very successful forays into modeling and acting.
One of the biggest reasons the media loves Rousey as much as it does is because she legitimately embraces the villain role—not being apologetic attracts far more attention than faux humility. Most recently ESPN announced the 14-minute short film Rowdy Ronda Rousey, which spans the entire length of her career.
Further proof of Rousey’s star power is the announcement that she is "likely" to become the face of the UFC’s first apparel deal. Although the company in question has not yet been named, Nike, Adidas, Reebok and Under Armour have all been the subject of speculation.
LeBron James' decision to leave the Cleveland Cavaliers for the sunny skies of South Beach as a free agent was the biggest sports story of 2010. His decision to leave the Miami Heat for the gloomy skies of Northeast Ohio as a free agent was the biggest sports story of 2014. And everything he did each year in between ranked among the biggest sports stories that year.
There is something about James that the media, and the public at large, simply cannot get enough of—good luck finding someone with lukewarm feelings about the guy. People either love King James or they love to hate him, either way they can’t get enough of him. And since James does nothing to dissuade the media attention—if anything he fuels it—the end result is a perpetual circus.
Considering the success he’s already had in his career and the talent he now has around him in Cleveland, James’ appeal with the media will only continue to grow. At this point it’s hard to imagine his star climbing any higher, but if King James brings the Cavaliers a championship in his first season back, you’ll look back at today as his low-profile days.
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