The standards in any one sport, but all sports overall, are set by a handful of people who are considered to be the peak. These superstars often transcend their own sport and have a wide-reaching impact across not only across the world of sport, but also into society. They represent what it means to reach the pinnacle of their chosen field, and something more beyond that.
For the purposes of this exercise, only athletes and sportspeople were included. While many coaches, officials, analysts and former athletes could easily be considered more important for their current roles, it adds unnecessary complexity. Does someone like Bill Belichick supercede the place of Tom Brady? It is problematic trying to narrow down exactly how important someone like Belichick is and what impact he has. Limiting it to the athletes, who are in the public eye and their feats are known, provides fewer variables.
- The individuals named next could each have a case made, but fall short of cracking the final list.
- Soccer: Luka Modric, Paul Pogba, Harry Kane, Mohamed Salah, Neymar, Alex Morgan
- American football: Drew Brees, JJ Watt, Andrew Luck, Russell Wilson
- Baseball: Mookie Betts, Max Scherzer, Aaron Judge
- Basketball: Kevin Durant, Kawhi Leonard, Anthony Davis
- Other: Ellyse Perry (cricket), Canelo Alvarez (boxing), Rafael Nadal (tennis), Naomi Osaka (tennis), Ashleigh Barty (tennis), Lewis Hamilton (Formula 1), Rory McIlroy (golf)
20. Kylian Mbappe (soccer)
Announcing himself to the world during the 2018 FIFA World Cup, Mbappe became recognised for his speed and technical ability. At just 20 years old, he will be the face of the sport for the next decade and beyond. He has already won numerous ‘Young Player of the Year Award’ across multiple competitions. He has also been part of a World Cup winning side and three Ligue 1 Champions (twice with PSG, once with Monaco). It wouldn’t be a surprise to see him become the world’s highest paid athlete within a few years.
19. James Harden (basketball)
As one of the NBA’s perennial top scorers, it’s hard to overlook Harden’s contribution to the sport. He makes the Houston Rockets contenders just with his presence on the team, and he is a multiple All-NBA First Team member. He is regularly in the conversation for MVP and he dictates how opposing teams approach the game. With basketball as one of the world’s most popular sports currently, Harden works his way onto the list through his importance to the NBA.
18. Odell Beckham Jr. (American football)
For many people worldwide, their recognition of the NFL is through OBJ’s one-handed catch in 2014 that went viral immediately after. He demonstrated the athleticism and skill required in any professional sport in a single instant. Although he is frequently criticised for his off-field behaviour and perceived ‘diva’ nature, none of his actions are harmful or criminal.
Where the NBA succeeds is in how individuals and its ‘characters’ promote the game. Odell Beckham Jr is in the same category, and is responsible for bringing a lot of attention to the NFL. He may not be the best Wide Receiver from a statistical standpoint, but OBJ is more important to the NFL for what he symbolises to audiences worldwide.
17. Tiger Woods (golf)
Still one of the most recognisable faces in golf, Tiger Woods continues to win Major Titles after over 20 years in the sport. Although his dominance was primarily in the early 2000s, he continues to hold a number of records. He also changed the image of golf as a sport in his youth, and like OBJ, is largely responsible for increasing its popularity. If not for his cheating scandal in 2009 that disrupted his career and changed people’s perception of him, he could have been higher on this list. Few people on this list are synonymous with their respective sports to the extent that Woods is.
16. Sidney Crosby (ice hockey)
Arguably the best player in the NHL currently, Crosby is one of the top scorers in the league. He has a large number of accolades in all areas, including personal records and awards, as well as for his teams. As part of the Pittsburgh Penguins he was won the Stanley Cup three times and Ted Lindsay Award three times. With Canada, multiple gold medals in the Olympics and World Cup. Although Crosby has name recognition outside of the sport, he isn’t higher on this list simply because of the NHL’s lack of worldwide popularity.
15. Justin Verlander (baseball)
Verlander earns his way into this list for not only being one of the top pitchers in the MLB, but also for his leadership. He has fantastic career successes, including a World Series title in 2017, strikeout leader in five seasons, a triple crown in 2011, American League MVP and Cy Young Award. But he has also been outspoken about issues relevant to the MLB, including recently the suggestion that balls are ‘juiced’, as well as about domestic violence in 2018. It’s hard to separate some players when they’re close, but Verlander has done it with his actions and words.
14. Aaron Donald (American football)
There are few players in the NFL who stand head and shoulders above their peers. Aaron Donald is one of the few who does, largely considered the best defensive player in the league. In his five seasons in the NFL, he has two Defensive Player of the Year wins (2017, 2018) and a Rookie Defensive Player of the Year, alongside five Pro Bowls. He played in his first Super Bowl following the 2018 season, when he also finished two sacks off the all-time record for a single season. Donald is in his prime, and with continued success, could go down as one of the all-time greats.
13. Giannis Antetokounmpo (basketball)
Known as the ‘Greek Freak’ for his talents and size, Antetokounmpo won his first MVP of the NBA in 2019. At age 24, he has been made three NBA All-Star teams and one All-NBA First Team. He is one of the most feared players with the ball in hand, and will dominate the NBA for another decade. With just one NBA title in their history, and their first division title since 2001 coming in 2019, Antetokounmpo has also made his team (Milwaukee Bucks) relevant once more. In a sport where individuals draw all the attention, Antetokounmpo is right there with the storied veterans.
12. Megan Rapinoe (soccer)
Featuring this high on this list is less to do with Rapinoe’s talent on the field, but what she symbolises. Highly divisive, in another moment in time she would perhaps not be given the same consideration for her ‘importance.’ Fresh off another FIFA Women’s World Cup victory as the Golden Boot winner, Rapinoe has made headlines for her comments on gender equality and other issues. Whether you agree with her position or not, she has forced a conversation that has been going on in Women’s Soccer for over twenty years. If sport is about more than what happens on the field, then in the middle of 2019, Rapinoe is completely emblematic of that.
11. Cristiano Ronaldo (soccer)
One of the top-paid sportspeople worldwide, Ronaldo has been a prolific goalscorer throughout his career. Among his 11 titles across his time in the English Premier League, Spanish La Liga, Italian Serie A and UEFA Champions League, he has also been part of a European Championship winning Portuguese side. He has five Ballon d’Or trophies, tied with Messi for the most all time, and is the all time leading goalscorer in the UEFA Champions League.
As the most followed person on Instagram, Ronaldo has mass appeal and is instantly recogniseable. The only thing holding him back from being higher on the list is his legal troubles off the field. Although he was not found guilty of rape, charges were dropped in multiple cases due to a lack of evidence.
10. Novak Djokovic (tennis)
Currently the men’s number one tennis player, Djokovic could finish his career as the greatest of all time. He has 16 Grand Slam titles, and the first to hold all since Rod Laver in 1969. In an individual sport, he is entirely responsible for his own success. With his place among the pantheon of tennis already secured, and still with time to close the gap on Federer’s Slam titles, Djokovic continues to draw attention. He ranks this highly simply because of his place in the sport.
9. Stephen Curry (basketball)
The face of the most recent dynasty in the NBA, Curry has impacted the sport greatly. A clinical shooter, Curry has increased the importance of three-pointers. With the Golden State Warriors he has won three NBA titles and two MVP awards. The lynchpin of the team to beat in the NBA, Curry represents exactly how the game is played now, as well as how teams try to build through the draft. In a league filled with superstars, Curry is one of the few that rise above the rest.
8. Mike Trout (baseball)
With his recent contract, Trout signed the largest deal in North American sports. Multiple times he has been a leader in runs and times on base, and he is widely considered one of the best current players. There is every possibility he finishes his career as one of the all-time greats. Between his contract and contributions on the field, Trout is the epitome of modern sports and baseball.
7. Tom Brady (American football)
An argument could easily be made for Brady to be higher on the list, but we are splitting hairs at this point. With the most number of Lombardi trophies as a player (6), 3 NFL MVP awards, and 14 Pro Bowls, Brady is often considered the greatest Quarterback of all time. He has name recognition around the world, even among those who know little of the sport. There isn’t much that needs to be said more about why he is ranked highly.
Why isn’t he higher? Any season now could be his last, even though he has said he wants to play a few more years. When you also factor in the role of Belichick, Brady isn’t a self-made superstar like many of the other top ten. Undoubtedly among the best in all of sport right now, a place in the top five wouldn’t be questioned.
6. Aaron Rodgers (American football)
How does Rodgers rank above Brady, many would be asking. Rodgers is physically a more talented QB, but he lacks the wins that Brady has. When we compare them on similar statistics, Rodgers pulls slightly ahead, even if he currently lacks the accolades that Brady has. Rodgers has one of the highest QB ratings of all time, as well as one Super Bowl victory and two MVP titles to go with it. The other reason Rodgers edges slightly ahead is that he has (potentially) a few more years in the league. His importance to the NFL is marginally greater long-term.
5. Virat Kohli (cricket)
The captain of the Indian cricket team, Kohli is on track to finish among the best ever when his career finishes. He has been ranked the best batsmen in the world in both long and short forms of the game for the last few years. Coming from one of the most populous countries in the world, Kohli is a role model to millions, and is one of the most valuable ‘brands’ in the world. He invests much of his money into community endeavours, particularly the health and education of children. For his reach and mass following, Kohli cannot be overlooked as one of the essential sportspeople to the world currently.
4. Lionel Messi (soccer)
The other half of the debate over the best footballer currently is Lionel Messi. His dribbling and on-the-ball skills have separated him from everyone else. Like his rival, Ronaldo, Messi has also won five Ballon d’Or awards, while holding the record for most goals in the Spanish La Liga. Messi has been a part of a Barcelona team that has ten league titles and four UEFA Champions League wins.
As one half of the discussion about the greatest player currently in ‘The World Game’ Messi forces his way into the discussion of greatest active sportspeople. He has promoted the game and supported youth charities, including as a UNICEF ambassador. Messi is representative of athletes able to overcome childhood adversity, while simultaneously being positioned at the peak of his sport.
3. Roger Federer (tennis)
Currently the male tennis player with the most career Grand Slam titles (20), Federer is one of the greatest sportspeople of all time. Federer will finish his career as the top male ever. Beyond the court, he is also beloved for his emotion and charisma, recognised for his sportsmanship, and for his charity work. It’s hard to look past the resume of Federer when discussing the current greatest sportspeople.
2. Serena Williams (tennis)
If there is one sportsperson with a greater resume than Federer, it is Serena Williams. She has 23 Grand Slam singles titles, the second most of any man or woman ever, as well as 14 Grand Slam doubles titles. Her power and court coverage separated her from her competition. There is no need to discuss whether she could beat a male tennis player or not. It’s irrelevant.
She is the greatest tennis player of all time, and has been just as active off the court. Williams has played a role in many businesses, not just for endorsements, in addition to discussing issues relating to race and gender. She is important for all areas of her life, and proves that sport goes beyond what happens in the arena.
1. LeBron James (basketball)
The fact that James was able to force a conversation about whether he or Michael Jordan is/was the greatest basketball player of all time speaks volumes. He has a number of achievements, notably four MVP awards, three titles as a member of the Miami Heat and Cleveland Cavaliers, plus his rank in a number of significant statistical categories. Within the NBA currently, he is also important for how he has shaped the way teams recruit talent and approached competing for titles.
Off the court, James is also notable for his work in the community and what he represents to many people. For the city of Cleveland he helped break the ‘sporting curse’ and he has spoken about a number of issues, particularly racism, but also ones affecting NBA players. His activism and work in breaking barriers make him important beyond what he has achieved as a player.