An athlete’s career has always been fleeting. In an industry-changing at breakneck pace every year, so, too, is their relevance.
As sports are contested and consumed and athletes acquired and compensated in increasingly different manners every year, goals, touchdowns and home runs still matter. Yet so, too, does personality, audience reach and staying power.
With that, USA TODAY Sports endeavored to identify the 50 sports figures in North American sports who matter the most – even if the term itself is impossible to quantify.
Sometimes, the talent is just too transcendent. Sometimes, a figure emerges like a book that’s impossible to put down, and you stay hooked.
And sometimes, you simply know it when you see it.
With that, a look at the greatest athletes and figures who perform at a high level – or force you to sit and watch their latest act:
The “Greek Freak” can be larger than life on the basketball court, with the skills of a shooting guard inside the body of a power forward. The two-time MVP and six-time All-Star led the Milwaukee Bucks to an NBA title last season.
“Sir Charles” is just a nickname; Barkley is much more a man of the people. His folksy (and frequently funny) analysis on TNT’s “Inside the NBA” broadcasts has made him an icon – even to those fans who don’t remember him as a tenacious, undersized and Hall of Fame power forward.
When Tom Brady departed and won a Super Bowl with the Tampa Bay Buccaneers, it did take some of the sheen off the Belichick legacy. Still, he’s the coaching OG until further notice, and his record six Super Bowl wins as head coach of the New England Patriots will likely never be matched.
The ESPN analyst has become the voice of reason on college sports and NIL issues as both a lawyer and former college athlete. When he speaks on a controversial topic, sports fans listen.
She is an American icon as one of the most decorated Olympians of all time, not to mention the first woman to perform the extremely difficult Yurchenko double pike in competition. She also has been an advocate for survivors of sexual abuse and a voice for change in USA Gymnastics. She took another stand to protect herself at the Tokyo Olympics in a time of immense scrutiny, pulling out of competition to focus on her mental health.
The super sports agent is well-known for his off-the-wall pronouncements, hard-nosed negotiating style and very wealthy clients – which include Alex Rodriguez, Gerrit Cole, Carlos Correa and Max Scherzer. Fun fact: In December 2019, Boras represented players signing contracts that totaled more than $1 billion.
The current face of the NFL. Soon, he will likely be the most powerful analyst in the media. Don’t be surprised if one day Brady gets bored with sports and jumps into politics.
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After 27 years, 23 World Series and six Super Bowls with Fox Sports, Buck made the jump to ESPN this year to take over play-by-play duties for Monday Night Football. He may be the announcer fans love to hate, but Buck is always prepared and always professional.
They really did (unofficially) name a luxury tax penalty after him, thanks to the hedge fund beast’s all-gas manner in running the New York Mets, who went from laughingstock to $300 million payroll in barely a calendar year. So far, the 2022 edition has backed up Cohen’s big-bucks plays.
A three-time NBA champion (so far) and two-time MVP, the Golden State Warriors guard may be the greatest pure shooter in NBA history. He’s second all-time in 3-point field goals and the career leader in free-throw percentage (.908) while averaging 24.3 points per game. Holey moley!
He won five gold medals at the Tokyo Games, taking the torch from Michael Phelps as the USA’s most dominant swimmer even as training for and competing in the Olympics took a mental toll.
A 12-time All-Star and 2-time NBA champion, Durant has cemented his legacy as an all-time great. The lanky kid from Maryland was a key member of Oklahoma City Thunder’s rise to prominence, the Golden State Warriors’ dynasty and now the Brooklyn Nets’ revival. And who could forget his speech to his mother, declaring her “the real MVP?” Not a dry eye in the house.
He’s not the smartest commissioner the NFL has ever had. Or the hardest working. Or the most imaginative. He doesn’t seem to care about the fans. He deals poorly with the myriad of issues the NFL faces. He is, at best, a mediocre commissioner. Where he excels, better than any commissioner in any sport ever, is making money for the owners. The NFL is an ATM machine and Goodell is more concerned with that fact than anything else. Goodell once said he was aiming for the league to generate $25 billion by 2027. He might get his wish.
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One of the world’s greatest basketball players now finds herself as a geopolitical pawn following her February arrest in Russia for allegedly possessing cannabis-derived oils. Griner’s arrest has drawn vows from the Biden administration to end her detainment in Russia, where she may face additional peril as a gay, Black woman. Griner, 31, is a two-time Olympic gold medalist and member of the WNBA’s 25th-anniversary team.
The son of a Hall of Famer, Vlad Jr. is already building a baseball legacy of his own at the age of 23. The Toronto Blue Jays first baseman tied for the major league lead with 48 home runs a year ago.
The former Ohio State quarterback is the leading voice in college football as the primary analyst for ESPN’s College GameDay since 1996 and ABC’s Saturday night games since 2006. More recently, he’s called Monday Night Football games on ABC and this fall will join Al Michaels in the booth for Prime Video’s Thursday Night NFL broadcasts.
Kobe Bryant himself saw Ionescu as his heir when she tore up the court with the Oregon Ducks. Ionescu continued her greatness with the New York Liberty and was the youngest player to ever score a triple double in the WNBA when she did so at 23 years, 163 days old. She’s tremendously helped grow the game of women’s basketball and remains a fierce advocate for equality.
There may be no greater sporting achievement than James’ nine NBA Finals appearances – with three franchises – between 2011-2020. Even as his Lakers flounder, few can move the needle on or off the court with just a tweet, a gripe or a call to justice like King James.
After winning a record-tying seven NASCAR Cup championships, Johnson retired from the series at the end of the 2020 season at age 45. However, he soon began dabbling in open-wheel racing and is now driving full-time in the IndyCar Series in his familiar No. 48.
A Hall of Famer and five-time NBA champion with an electric smile during his playing days with the Los Angeles Lakers, Johnson has arguably had a more successful second career as a businessman. Included in his empire are ownership stakes in MLB’s Los Angeles Dodgers and the WNBA’s Los Angeles Sparks.
It’d be enough if he lorded over the most valuable sports franchise in the world. But the $6.5 billion Dallas Cowboys are just part of the picture in a league where, often, nothing happens until Jerry decides it’s so. Both the venue (SoFi Stadium) and the franchise (Los Angeles Rams) aren’t in position to host and win the most recent Super Bowl without him.
“The Last Dance” enthralled a locked-down country for weeks. Jordan Brand is the stamp of approval almost any athlete craves. He’ll never not matter.
To some, Kaepernick is a pariah. He was attacked by the President of the United States, and the entire right-wing media ecosystem. The truth is, however, history will remember Kaepernick as one of the great heroes of his time, one of the leading voices during the Black Lives Matter era.
Ten years after her Olympic debut as a 15-year-old in London, Ledecky is a Stanford graduate, a seven-time gold medalist, holds three world records and is a 15-time world champion, with more on the horizon. Four victories at the upcoming world championships will tie her with Michael Phelps for most by any swimmer, and her recent move to train at the University of Florida will get the consensus greatest female swimmer of all time on an even faster track for Paris 2024.
The Kansas City Chiefs quarterback already has a Super Bowl ring and an MVP award at 26. If anyone is poised to take over for Brady as the face of the NFL, it’s this sneaker-head.
The commissioner of Major League Baseball since 2015, Manfred has presided over the sport through the Houston Astros cheating scandal, the COVID-19 pandemic and a 99-day lockout. His willingness to enact rules and equipment changes hasn’t won him many fans – except among the league’s owners, who’ve continued to prosper financially during his tenure.
Manning used his Hall of Fame career as a launching point to one in broadcasting and as a pitchman that few saw coming. Manning wasn’t the first to do it, but he’s been among the best. His ESPN show with brother Eli, also a former NFL QB, is must-watch television.
A Hart Trophy finalist with a 60-goal season to his name at 24, Matthews is quickly fulfilling his destiny as one of the NHL’s generational stars. Now, to get the Toronto Maple Leafs out of the first round …
Funny, smart and gregarious. He was also a conduit for a massive disinformation campaign from Aaron Rodgers. He’s a talented mixed bag who has an immense following that continues to grow.
The Super Bowl win sealed the belief that McVay is one of the best offensive minds in football. But he represents something bigger than that. McVay is one of a handful of head coaches who get the 21st-century player, allows them to be themselves, while also earning their respect.
Trailblazers rarely get plum gigs out of the gate and Ng took over the Miami Marlins at the ground floor, methodically building a .500 team in a challenging market. Ng, MLB’s first female general manager, will try to take them to the next level without Derek Jeter, the former CEO who hired her.
He hits! He pitches! And he’s an All-Star at both. The reigning AL MVP is like no other player in MLB history, hitting 46 home runs and posting a 3.18 ERA in 2021. They even changed the rules so he can stay in the game after a relief pitcher replaces him on the mound.
“The Great 8” finally got his name on the Stanley Cup in 2018 after 13 mostly frustrating seasons with the Washington Capitals. Still going strong at 36, Ovie ranks third all-time with 780 career goals, behind only Wayne Gretzky and Gordie Howe.
Now 23, the man long considered the future of U.S. soccer has had an uneven career for Chelsea, which has him under contract through 2024. The most skilled player for the men’s national team will be at the center of its success – or failure – when the World Cup commences in Qatar in November.
Outstanding on the pitch and outspoken off it, Rapinoe has been the spark that’s fueled the U.S. Women’s National Team to a pair of World Cup titles (2015, 2019) and an Olympic gold medal in London (2012). She and her partner, WNBA star Sue Bird, may be the most accomplished power couple in sports.
Perhaps the most physically gifted quarterback to ever play the game. He’s the very definition of a superstar, in every way you define the word. Rodgers’ reputation took a massive hit once he came out as an anti-vaxxer. It has practically destroyed a once-solid reputation.
Forget the 248 touchdown passes for the Dallas Cowboys: Romo’s greatest legacy will be his prescient analysis in the TV booth and a 10-year, $180 million CBS contract that reordered the market for ex-QBs. Tom Brady, for one, is grateful.
Whether he’s the greatest college football coach of all time can be debated, but his unofficial title of most successful in the sport’s modern era is indisputable. Despite coming up short of another championship in January, his six top finishes at Alabama with another earlier from his time at LSU are unmatched.
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When “Prime Time” talks, people listen. The former two-sport star is still making headlines as the football coach at Jackson State, where he hasn’t shied from recruiting against the power programs.
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He likely isn’t a household name among casual sports followers, but he is arguably the most influential figure on the administrative side of college athletics. Since assuming the reins as commissioner of the Southeastern Conference in 2015, Sankey has helped leverage the league’s dominance of the College Football Playoff landscape with lucrative media rights deals.
Forget the Mount Rushmore of pitchers during his career – Scherzer could be the greatest, with three Cy Young Awards and strikeout titles. Off the field, Mad Max did the dirty work as the most prominent public face for players during the contentious, 99-day lockout that ultimately kept the industry on the field.
Silver has helped the NBA become a global icon. When he became commissioner in 2014, he was following the footsteps of polarizing figure David Stern. Perhaps 2020 was a defining year for Silver’s legacy as he navigated the COVID-19 pandemic, created the NBA Bubble, and also allowed the league to speak out against police brutality and social injustice.
He earns $12 million a year to blurt things that gain attention. And absurd though it can be, the ESPN personality has a knack for driving national conversations, for better or worse.
The former collegiate and Olympic standout is now the face of women’s college basketball after leading South Carolina to its second of what could be many NCAA championships. The Philadelphia native is the first female African-American coach to win multiple national titles, and she fervently hopes she won’t be the last.
After eight years at ESPN covering everything NBA and colleges, Taylor made the jump to NBC in 2021. She handled the brouhaha around her exit with aplomb, and hasn’t looked back. Earlier this month, NBC tabbed her as the host for Football Night in America. An advocate for diversity and opening avenues for women in broadcasting, Taylor will be a must-watch on Sunday nights.
He’s not a sportscaster so much as he is a Silicon Valley unicorn, adding blue-chip events the way tech companies acquire rivals. The short list: Host of NBC’s Olympics and Triple Crown coverage and, beginning in September, manning the most prestigious spot behind the mic in the most popular sport: Sunday Night Football on NBC.
His generational greatness on the field – three MVP awards, 321 homers and a lifetime 1.005 OPS by age 30 – hasn’t been fully appreciated across the sporting spectrum, even if his unassuming mien isn’t spotlight-friendly. Still baseball’s gold standard of performance.
The greatest female athlete in history? OK, name someone who’s been more dominant in her sport. She’s won 23 Grand Slam singles titles – trailing only Margaret Court – plus 16 in doubles and she’s not done yet.
He’s less than four years shy of his 50th birthday and 15 months removed from a single-car accident in which he traveled as fast as 87 mph in a 45-mph zone and suffered broken bones in his right leg that jeopardized his career. Woods’ startling 2019 Masters championship may be his last transcendent moment – though he won’t fail to captivate an audience every time he tees it up.
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The reigning Heisman Trophy winner’s bid to become the first repeat recipient since Archie Griffin nearly half a century ago figures to be a dominant storyline this fall. Alabama’s incumbent QB and potential top NFL draft choice will also be looking to add a national championship to his résumé. If you were to bet on a player who could be the face of the NFL in five years, he’d be a good bet.
Contributing: Mike Freeman, Eddie Timanus and Heather Tucker from USA TODAY Sports; Victoria Hernandez from USA TODAY Sports+
An athlete’s career has always been fleeting. In an industry-changing at breakneck pace every year, so, too, is their relevance.