Being the best - or even a legend - does not ensure brand classification. Beckham, Jordan and Tiger Woods succeeded but Ali and Pele did not. Jamie Cunningham explains
A Sport is really about heroes - those demigods who can do the impossible when it matters most.
When they do it on the biggest stage in front of millions worldwide, they can become legends.
They may live in the memory of sports fans, but the best legends live in the present and it is our privilege to watch them perform live.
On Sunday, Rory McIlroy is tipped to go head to head with Tiger Woods at The Masters, held at America's renowned Augusta National golf course.
Ideally one of them wins with the final putt on the 72nd hole. If that proves to be McIlroy, 22, the golf superstar from Holywood, Northern Ireland, would it make him a brand? No. But it would be another big step towards this goal.
Tiger is a global brand. So is Jack Nicklaus. So is Greg Norman, or rather his Great White Shark logo.
Outside golf, the names of Michael Jordan and David Beckham spring immediately to mind as perhaps the two greatest sporting brands. Both are global.
While Jordan was the greatest basketball player of his era, Beckham is a stylish, hard working, "be the best you can be" sportsman. He married a pop star and has played at Manchester, Madrid and Milan - before his current stint in Los Angeles. Beckham was a great sportsman, not a legend. As sportsmen, he and Jordan are not in the same sentence. As brands, they are.
Jordan played in his own shoes, the Nike Air Jordan range, from the start of his professional career. Today his Jordan brand with its "jump man" logo still generates US$1 billion (Dh3.67bn) of annual revenues for Nike, according to Forbes magazine. His brand also sponsors 19 NBA players.
Beckham is top of the football class as a brand. That does not mean that he is the top earner or the best footballer. That is undoubtedly Barcelona's Lionel Messi. However, the little Argentine genius is focusing on football and his brand - if it follows - is work in progress.
Beckham, though, has a wider product appeal - partly because of his status as a style icon and his marriage to Victoria. There is the football shirt, the fragrance, the underwear, sorry, "body range", the clothing range. For some, he also looks likely to have an Olympic brand range when he is picked by the British Olympic Association as one of the best three footballers over 23 - or should that be 32 - for this summer's London Games.
The reality of professional sports is that there are many sportsmen who think they are "brands" when they are actually just names who trade on their success and personality. Nothing wrong with that. They are just not brands.
There are many varying definitions of a brand. For the purposes of this article, let's propose that a brand is a product, service or concept that distinguishes itself from other products, services or concepts through its essence, or rather various characteristics, that produce an essence. The essence becomes a promise when it is delivered regularly by a product, service or concept to a buyer.
Complicated? Yes. But simple when you consider what adidas, Apple, BMW, Coke, Nike, Pepsi mean to you.
When personalities are involved, there is a difference between a legend and a brand. However, most agents would never say that to a client. They talk of their client's brand, when they really mean their attributes or character.
Most personalities act as promotional platforms for brands as a result of both their success and their personality in the public domain. Rarely are they a brand that can sell products or services outside of their sport without a consumer brand alongside the celebrity's name or logo.
That is probably the acid test for a celebrity brand. Can you sell products or services outside of your sport after your career?
Woods is about to enter an interesting place. If he can win his 15th major - and win Woods style by making the impossible possible under the most pressure from McIlroy, "go on, be a Tiger", then he can revert to having similar attributes to a decade ago, rather than the Boris Becker cupboard-style innuendo that exists today. His brand will evolve and perhaps allow for more edgy commercial opportunities.
McIlroy needs to look Woods in the eye and beat him - preferably with some outlandish attacking golf and a big Irish grin. Ideally McIlroy's superstar tennis-player girlfriend Caroline Wozniacki is watching in a Team Rory visor to hug him as he leaves the green - and he will be well on track.
His name, though, is a challenge. He probably needs a logo or a symbol. Conventional wisdom in sports marketing may mean using his initials (think Roger Federer and his RF logo) but let us hope that McIlroy's new agent, Conor Ridge from Horizon Sports in Dublin, gets some professionals on board to develop a long-term brand and commercial strategy - outside of the traditional golf agent model.
Of course, there are many sportsmen who failed to become brands. Pele, Muhammed Ali, Bjorn Borg, Seve Ballesteros, Diego Maradona among others. Their sporting and commercial success is not in doubt. Just that they missed the global brand boat, for a variety of reasons.
The common factor is probably the quality of the advice they received. You can also debate whether Andre Agassi, Pete Sampras and Michael Schumacher chose not to pursue the brand route but to stick to ambassadorial services and endorsements. They all had good, experienced commercial advisers.
In a decade, it will be interesting to see whether Messi, Usain Bolt, the Klitschko brothers, Michael Phelps, Rafael Nadal and McIlroy have made it as brands in their own rights.
Today, Messi and Bolt look the pick of the bunch.
However, if McIlroy wins his first Masters on Sunday, then watch out for the Rory Range appearing at a shopping mall near you over the next decade.
Jamie Cunningham is the founder and chief executive of Professional Sports Group