Welcome back to UPROXX’s Athlete Heat Index, where sports marketing executive and self-described “brand geek” Michael Ehrlich ranks athletes by the strength of their personal brands.
The latest ranking is inspired by the WNBA’s historic 25th season tipping off Friday and explores the top athlete brands heading into the new campaign. Over the last few years, the W’s brand has exploded – through history-defining political and social justice reform – led by athletes who have redefined what it means to be a role model. The momentum around women’s sports overall and the nation-altering impact of WNBA players in particular have made this season the most celebrated and anticipated in recent memory.
Here are five athletes who are case studies for how to build an authentic brand that resonates far beyond their sport.
5. Liz Cambage, Las Vegas Aces
Cambage’s brand ceiling extends even higher than her 6’8 frame. The Australian’s international reach and personal passions have elevated her to the upper echelon of athlete narratives in the W. She has already set herself up for multiple post-playing career paths while still dominating at her All-Star pace; a rarity for any athlete in any sport.
Music has been a key pillar of Cambage’s life since she was a kid and after years exploring the craft, she’s now a major player in the industry. A renowned DJ who has headlined league events, Cambage has performed all over the world (even virtually during the pandemic) and earned a shout out from Drake in his appearance on Travis Scott’s “Sicko Mode.” She already has the equity and authenticity in the space to pursue a long and lucrative career in music once her basketball days are done, if that’s the path she chooses.
Fashion has also been a staple of Cambage’s persona and brand portfolio since she entered the league and this offseason, the IMG-signed model became the first athlete ambassador for Rihanna’s Savage x Fenty line. A massive crossover opportunity from sports to high end fashion, lifestyle, and culture.
Continuing her offseason brand momentum and leading up to her return to the hardwood after a year away, Cambage achieved another first as she became the inaugural WNBA player to join Wilson Sporting Goods’ advisory staff and was the face of the league’s official ball launch, a huge moment for personal brand authentication in a very competitive WNBA athlete landscape. Cambage’s personal brand roadmap is set and by continuing to tap into her passion points, authenticity will always be at the core of her narrative.
4. Candace Parker, Chicago Sky
Parker’s personal brand might be one of the strongest in WNBA history and her continued preparation for her next career — while still playing — is a case study for all athletes.
While dominating in the W the last 13 seasons in Los Angeles (Rookie of the Year, MVP, WNBA Champ, Defensive Player of the Year), Parker was able to leverage her on-court excellence and off-court charisma in a major media market to become one of the W’s top pitchwomen, with longtime partners such as adidas, who created a signature sneaker for the Sparks star. Until Puma signed reigning Finals MVP Breanna Stewart this week, Parker was the last WNBA player to have a signature shoe, a brand-defining accomplishment.
It’s Parker’s work in front of the camera though that sets her brand apart as throughout her career she’s spent her offseasons getting reps as a basketball analyst, signing with Turner to contribute to NBA on TNT, NBA TV, and NCAA Tournament coverage. Some athletes make the move to TV after they retire, but Parker has been able to transition to broadcast while still playing at her elite level.
But she isn’t just contributing to Turner’s broadcasts, she’s standing out in segments with Shaquille O’Neal, breaking down how 3-point shooting has changed the pick-and-roll and hitting jumpers in the studio blowing up on social media. When Parker is on the air, it’s must-see TV and her work in front of the camera has set her up for a long career after basketball.
In a major free agency move this offseason, Parker heads back home to her native Chicago, a great personal brand move to come full circle and close out this chapter where her basketball journey started.
Outside of basketball and broadcasting, Parker made a few other moves that will set up her brand for continued success and relevance even when she hangs up her sneakers. Parker and her daughter became part of the star-studded ownership group of Angel City FC, the Los Angeles-based NWSL team set to join the league in 2022. Gatorade appointed Parker to an advisory board to help drive change for women and girls in sports. This offseason was certainly transitional for Parker but her continued focus on her basketball and broadcast crafts further cement her legacy as one of the league’s all-time greats.
3. Chiney Ogwumike, LA Sparks
Like Parker, Ogwumike has leveraged her stature as a big-name WNBA player to make major moves across the media landscape, culminating this offseason with multiple career-defining projects.
As a full-time and multi-platform commentator for ESPN, Ogwumike recently became the first Black woman to host a national, daily sports-talk radio show. But her media footprint didn’t stop with radio and TV — she added filmmaker and executive producer to her growing off-court resume — when she brought to life the ESPN Films documentary 144, chronicling the historic 2020 WNBA season on and off the court.
Producing this doc, while not being in the WNBA bubble (due to injury) is a testament to Ogwumike’s creativity and media savvy and the project garnered rave reviews for its honest look at how the 144 players inside the bubble overcame unprecedented circumstances and challenges with the pandemic, social injustice, mental health, and motherhood.
Another first this offseason for Ogwumike was her starring role in DoorDash’s “Made by Women” national TV campaign. The last WNBA player to have such a role of this scale was Sue Bird in 2008. Beyond her incredible media and marketing work this offseason, Ogwumike’s social media presence is a case study for all athletes. Very rarely do public figures use just their first name as their social media handle but @Chiney is such a great brand differentiator and builder, especially in sports. Returning to the court and with an incredibly productive offseason behind her, Ogwumike’s brand impact will only continue to rise.
2. Sue Bird, Seattle Storm
The authenticity and longevity of Bird’s brand sets her apart amongst a stacked roster of athletes on this list. Entering her 18th season, the Storm star continues to reinvent herself and further establish her narrative and cultural impact beyond the hardwood.
One of the most decorated players of all-time (4-time champ, 11-time All-Star, 4-time gold medalist), Bird’s resume off the court is as impressive: social activist, style icon, sneakerhead, media mogul, and breakthrough pitchwoman. Her work as VP of the WNBA Players Association fighting for equal pay, gender and LGBTQ+ rights, social justice reform, and being one of the leaders behind the players’ VOTE WARNOCK movement has elevated her beyond the court to icon status.
Bird’s engagement to fellow all-time athlete and activist Megan Rapinoe and their recent cover of GQ’s Modern Lovers issue, accurately positions them as “the most beloved couple in sports.” The duo’s off-court/field brands and passions as changemakers work in perfect tandem, further building their individual and collective legacies, while also leaving a lasting impact across the social and political landscape.
Her recent work in a marketing campaign for Carmax blew up on social media by using misdirection to make a statement about gender bias in sports. The humorous spots featured Bird as the prized endorser with NBA star Stephen Curry taking a backseat to the more decorated basketball legend.
This continued challenge of the status quo mirrors everything Bird represents and was the perfect precursor to her co-founding TOGETHXR — an innovative media brand that elevates women’s voices and stories — with fellow legendary athletes Alex Morgan, Simone Manuel and Chloe Kim. (Side note: Check out Robby Kalland’s incredible interview with TOGETHXR’s Chief Content Officer Jessica Robertson.)
As the defending champ and oldest player in the league, Bird is showing no signs of slowing down both on and off the court. Whenever she does decide to move on from basketball, her cultural impact will no doubt continue.
1. Renee Montgomery, Atlanta Dream
Although she hasn’t seen the hardwood since the 2019 season, Montgomery’s monumental impact off the court this past year easily earned her the top spot on this ranking.
Opting out of the 2020 season to focus on social justice reform, political activism and to fight voter suppression, Montgomery was front and center in the face off against former Dream owner and now-former Georgia senator Kelly Loeffler, who opposed the league’s support of Black Lives Matter.
Among the many drumbeats of Montgomery’s impact, she wrote an open letter to Loeffler, launched her own voting education initiative “Remember the 3rd,” created “The Last Yard” to raise money to improve education at HBCU and joined LeBron James’ “More Than A Vote” campaign, among many other workshops, pep rallies and events. Her tireless work throughout the season clearly influenced Loeffler’s forced sale of the Dream, the November Presidential election, and January Georgia Senate run-off, cementing her legacy beyond anything an athlete could accomplish on the court.
She was named to TIME Magazine’s Next100 list — highlighting 100 emerging leaders who are shaping the future — with a dedication from Atlanta Mayor Keisha Lance Bottoms.
After officially retiring from the WNBA earlier this year, Montgomery became first former player to be both an owner and executive of a WNBA team as she joined the new ownership group of the Dream. A historic achievement in any sport in any year, but especially after the journey the league, team and Montgomery had been on the last 12 months. Her impact transcends any athlete or brand conversation and the history books will absolutely highlight Montgomery contributions in 2020 and beyond.