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Is Cristiano Ronaldo The World’s Most Marketable Athlete?

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Three years ago Real Madrid announced that Cristiano Ronaldo would join the club from Manchester United for a transfer fee of $132 million, which made Ronaldo the most expensive soccer player in the history of the sport. Real knew it was getting a wildly talented and marketable star.

Ronaldo’s presence allows the Spanish club to cut deals like its recent eight-year Adidas shirt deal that is reportedly worth a record $50 million annually.

Ronaldo has also cashed in on his fame and success, earning $22 million annually off the pitch from sponsors like Nike, Castrol and Konami.

He ranks second among soccer players when it comes to endorsement earnings, trailing only David Beckham, who brings in an estimated $37 million a year thanks to lucrative deals with Adidas, Samsung Electronics, H&M and more. During the past 12-months, Ronaldo made $42.5 million, including his Real Madrid salary, which ranks ninth overall in our look at the world’s highest-paid athlete.

Ronaldo does not lead our top earners list, but he has the potential to be the most marketable athlete in the world. Ronaldo can check all the boxes that appeal to marketers.

Ronaldo plays the world’s most popular sport allowing him to appeal to consumers in Asia, Europe and the Americas. It is something lacking from the endorsement resume of a Peyton Manning or Derek Jeter. UEFA expected 350 million people to tune into at least part of the Euro 2012 final last month between Italy and Spain. The finals of the World Cup drew an audience of 700 million in 2010.

Ronaldo has had massive personal success including finishing first or second in player of the year balloting three of the past four years. He averages more than a goal per game for Real Madrid ensuring a regular spot on the highlight reels. Lionel Messi is his only current competition for the label of “world’s best player.”

Ronaldo plays for one of the most popular sports franchises in the world and Real Madrid team is a consistent winner, including a record 32 La Liga titles, most recently during the 2011-12 season.

He is the prototypical modern athlete with a social media following unmatched by any other sports star. Ronaldo has the most Facebook fans among athletes with 46.5 million and his 11.5 million Twitter followers are second most, a tick behind Brazilian midfielder Kaka. Ronaldo attracted more Twitter mentions than any other athlete during Euro 2012 with 268,000.

More Ronaldo selling points: he is entering the prime of his career at age 27 and can continue his reign among soccer’s best for at least another five to six years. Lastly, he is a good looking guy with broad appeal among women. Ronaldo showed off his sculpted physique in a series of underwear ads for Armani, following in the footsteps of fellow metrosexual Beckham.

Of course it is never so simple with Ronaldo, who is a hugely polarizing figure in soccer the way LeBron James is with NBA fans. Ronaldo has a multitude of critics and every move is scrutinized. He has been criticized for diving while being tackled and for not performing up to par with Portugal’s national team. He silenced some of those critics by nearly single handily carrying Portugal to the semifinals of the Euro 2012. Yet, he once again was attacked when he was slotted in the fifth spot and never got to take a shot during the penalty kicks phase of Portugal’s loss to Spain in the semis.

Ronaldo is a celebrity gossip magnet and has reportedly been involved romantically with both Paris Hilton and Kim Kardashian. He does not always help his cause with comments like this in response to being booed last season: “It’s surely because I’m good-looking, rich and a great footballer.”

Ronaldo is all of those things and many more. Is he the perfect pitchman? No. The perfect pitchman among athletes disappeared when Tiger Woods crashed his car into a fire hydrant on a November night nearly three years ago. The next in line for the throne, LeBron James, torched his candidacy when he made his “Decision” on TV in 2010 to join the Miami Heat. Ronaldo is not perfect, but he might be as marketable as any athlete in the world.

© 2014 Forbes | This article first appeared in Forbes on 7 November 2012.

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