Everyone wants to be the Michael Jordan of their sport, and a handful of superstars have actually succeeded. So far, the NFL is the exception.
If you’ve followed the National Football League over the years, you know that no player, coach, or executive — no nothing — is bigger than the shield.
The league has endured, grown, prospered, and flourished, for over 100 years by making the overall brand a singular one above any individual player, team, and product.
If anyone would be the exception to this rule, you’d think it would be Tom Brady.
The greatest football player of all time — a 44-year-old seven-time Super Bowl champion — makes his 300th career regular season start Thursday as his defending champion Tampa Bay Buccaneers host the Dallas Cowboys, the most valuable franchise in the NFL.
With endorsement deals from the likes of Aston Martin, Tag Heuer, UGG, Under Armor, and FTX and a fast-growing NFT platform in Autograph, Brady isn’t just a world-renowned figure with a supermodel wife and a reputation of being an ageless wonder.
He’s the strongest one-man brand football has ever seen.
And yet, nobody would argue that Brady is bigger than the NFL — which is surely how the league likes it. They’re always the only game in town. There’s not a true international market for talent, and zero leagues compete with the NFL to sign players. Even the NBA and MLB can’t quite say that for themselves.
Aside from baseball and hockey, which have their own branding issues, just about every other major athletic competition has global superstars who rise above the game itself to become legitimate cultural forces. Everyone wants to be the Michael Jordan of their sport, and some have succeeded or very nearly done so:
- Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo transcend the Beautiful Game.
- The current NBA has LeBron James, Kevin Durant, and Steph Curry.
- Serena Williams, Wayne Gretzky, Roger Federer, Usain Bolt, Tiger Woods, Michael Phelps, and Rafael Nadal are all world-renowned figures who lift up the games they play like Atlas holds up the earth.
But trying to cultivate a personal brand to similarly titanic size in professional football? Many of those players can end up frowned upon, or even accused of “antics” and “distractions.”
It might not even be possible at all. If TB12 hasn’t managed to become another Michael Jordan after 20-plus years of essentially non-stop success, it’s hard to imagine how anyone else could ever manage to do it.
Perhaps that’s all the motivation guys like Patrick Mahomes and Lamar Jackson could ever need.
But seven Super Bowl rings and almost guaranteed billionaire status down the line is a whole lot to live up to as it is.
The NFL positions itself as being about the 22 players on the field. The sacrifice. Putting the collective above the individual. Doing whatever it takes to get the win. And it has to be mentioned that helmets don’t exactly help superstars stand out.
Nor does the notoriously short career of the average player, which stands at just barely over three years.
Tom Brady is an outlier. He’s forced us to rethink a whole lot of what we thought we knew. However, he’s also proof that not even the GOAT of a sport more than a century old is bigger than the almighty shield.