The National Football League is the most popular sport in the United States. It’s hard to deny, when a second-round NFL playoff game last season drew more viewers than a historic Game 7 of the 2016 World Series.
But when it comes to having famous superstars? The NFL doesn’t stack up, at least according to ESPN’s second annual ranking of the top 100 most famous athletes.
It’s no surprise that New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady is the first NFL player listed in ESPN’s “World Fame 100,” but it is surprising he was only No. 21. Ahead of Brady were four golfers, including Tiger Woods, whose last major win was 2008. There were five tennis players, four soccer players and two Indian cricket players. We can chalk up all of that to ESPN ranking worldwide fame, but three NBA players (LeBron James, Kevin Durant and Stephen Curry) were in the top 20, as was MMA star Ronda Rousey.
Even if you want to argue about the accuracy of the ranking – it’s done with a formula that takes into account endorsements, social media following and Internet search popularity, ESPN says – it’s clear the NFL doesn’t have the individual star power of many other sports.
It’s not just that the NFL’s top star doesn’t rank in the top 20. The second NFL player to make the list was Carolina Panthers quarterback Cam Newton, all the way down at No. 47. He ranked 14 spots behind oft-injured New York Knicks guard Derrick Rose, who hasn’t made an all-star team since 2012 and has never played in an NBA Finals.
Only seven NFL players ranked higher than Chinese tennis table star Ma Long at No. 71. Here are the only NFL players who made the list: Brady, Newton, Drew Brees at No. 52, Russell Wilson at No. 55, Aaron Rodgers at No. 56, Eli Manning at No. 60, Odell Beckham at No. 64, and J.J. Watt at No. 74.
Again, if we want to argue with the validity of a list that has Dwyane Wade, who is in the twilight of his career, only three spots behind the most famous NFL player or Watt three spots behind a table tennis player, that’s fine. But if we take the list at face value, there are a few takeaways:
1. Roger Goodell is probably right in wanting to expand the international market
Part of the reason the NBA does much better on this list than the NFL is the NBA has a much bigger worldwide presence. It’s hard to believe Wade or Rose are much more famous than Aaron Rodgers, until you factor in the international markets. The NFL seemingly has some real untapped growth abroad if only one of its players make the top 46 in a worldwide fame list. There’s a reason regular-season games are being shipped to other countries, whether we like it or not.
2. The NFL is lacking in true stars
The lack of high rankings for NFL players might seem weird that to an American audience that consumes the NFL at an astonishing rate, but who really needs to be higher on the list? Even some of the names on the list – Eli Manning? – seem a little out of place. Philip Rivers or Matt Ryan might be fantastic players, but they’re not causing a mob scene when they leave the house. There are plenty of great players in the NFL, but not many who transcend the sport like Brady does, or Peyton Manning did.
3. The NFL doesn’t need (or want?) true stars
Players retire. When Michael Jordan left the NBA, the league went through a lull. When you avoid marketing your league around individual players, players leaving the sport is not as much of a concern. It’s probably wise for the NFL, considering it has a more rapid turnover than the other sports. People seem to enjoy rooting for NFL teams and not players, and the laundry doesn’t change. Could the lack of stars be a reason NFL ratings dipped a bit last year? Maybe, but ratings for everything are sagging, due to the changing media and entertainment landscape. The NFL isn’t exempt. Overall the league is in great shape, given its ratings compared to other American sports and its revenue. It has done so despite a relative lack of individual superstars. That could be the league’s strategy, and it seems like a smart one.
It’s clear the NFL doesn’t have a glut of international superstars. The league seems to be doing just fine without them, though.
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