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Illustration: Aïda Amer/Axios

Today's athletes have more power than ever to build their own brands and significantly bolster their own earning potential.

What's happening: Social media has created new outlets for athletes to communicate directly with fans, take part in conversations around issues that matter to them, and attract endorsement money.

  • LeBron James made more money from endorsements ($52 million) than from playing basketball ($35.6 million) last year. He also has a combined 111.9 million social media followers, 10 million more than his employer, the NBA.
  • Top, media-savvy athletes like James help define their sport and boost a team's popularity (and thus, revenue).

Be smart: The NBA is better suited to creating stars than other sports, partly because of aesthetics.

"When you look at an NBA game, the players are in shorts and tank tops. You can see their faces, there’s no helmet.... When you start to look at other sports, with helmets and pads, the stars may not be as recognizable. That makes it harder for brands.”
— Michael Keenan, sports practice leader at PwC

It's not just superstars: Even lesser-known athletes are using their platforms to land smaller-scale sponsorship deals, while others are launching their own product lines and businesses.

  • Klay Thompson inked a massive $80 million deal with Chinese apparel company Anta and has his own signature shoe.
  • Donovan Mitchell signed a smaller deal with Stance Socks in December after missing out on last year's NBA Rookie of the Year award.
  • Lacrosse player Paul Rabil became an investor and even launched a new professional lacrosse league.

Bottom line: As athletes become more powerful, they're changing the way sports are marketed — and even how they're consumed.

  • A new partnership between the NBA, Twitter and Turner Sports will let users vote on which player the camera should follow with an isolated camera feed. It's a prime example of a league, a network and a tech company all coming together to leverage the power of an individual superstar.

Go deeper

Updated 3 hours ago - World

Reports: Up to 17 U.S. missionaries kidnapped in Haiti

Haitian soldiers guard the public prosecutor's office in Port-au-Prince earlier this month. Photo: Richard Pierrin/AFP via Getty Images

Children were among up to 17 American Christian missionaries and their relatives kidnapped by a gang in Haiti on Saturday, the New York Times first reported.

Details: The missionaries had just left an orphanage and were traveling by bus to the airport to "drop off some members" and were due to travel to another destination when the gang struck in Port-au-Prince, Haitian security officials said, per the NYT.

4 hours ago - World

Melbourne, "world's most locked-down city," to lift stay-at-home orders

Victorian Premier Daniel Andrews during a news conference in Melbourne, Australia, on Sunday. Photo: Quinn Rooney/Getty Images

Melbourne's stay-at-home orders will end five days earlier than planned, officials in Australia's second-biggest city announced Sunday.

Why it matters: The capital of the state of Victoria has had six lockdowns totaling 262 days since March last year. That means Melbourne spent longer under lockdown than "any other city in the world" during the pandemic, Reuters notes.

Venezuela suspends talks with opposition after Maduro ally extradited to U.S.

Venezuelan President Nicolás Maduro in Caracas, Venezuela, in June. Photo: Gaby Oraa/Bloomberg via Getty Images

A key ally of Venezuela's President Nicolás Maduro was extradited from Cape Verde to the U.S. on Saturday to face money laundering charges in Florida, Bloomberg first reported.

Why it matters: Venezuela's government called off negotiations with opposition officials that were scheduled for Sunday in Mexico in response to the extradition of Alex Saab, a Colombian businessman and financial fixer for Maduro. Security forces placed six U.S. oil executives under house arrest hours later, per AP.