ESPN normally pounds readers and viewers with coverage of major U.S. sports, helping reinforce the American-centric notion that our sports are the world sports.
They are, in fact, not — and ESPN jarringly reminds of that, too.
In the third installment of ESPN’s “World Fame 100,” another attempt was made at picking the 100 biggest names in sports. The methodology for the list took into account how often an athlete’s name is searched for, how much they make in endorsements and how many social media followers they have.
The results are pretty sobering for every U.S. pro league except for the NBA.
I added up the representation by sport, and 33 out of 100 athletes on the list are soccer players. That’s not terribly surprising given the sport’s worldwide status.
Next up? 13 NBA players, led by LeBron James at No. 2.
After that, there are 12 tennis players, 10 cricketers and 8 golfers before we get to the seven NFL players — none of whom rank higher than Tom Brady at No. 38 on the world fame 100. There are eight NBA players before we get to Brady — including Derrick Rose, most recently (and maybe soon again) of the Timberwolves at No. 36.
Rounding out the list, we find six boxers, three swimmers, two table tennis players, and one athlete each from the world of snowboarding, MMA, Formula One racing, skiing, figure skating and badminton.
You’ll notice there are exactly zero MLB or NHL players on the list. So yes, a badminton player (India’s Saina Nehwal, at No. 50) is more famous worldwide by these metrics than Mike Trout, Sidney Crosby or anyone else from two of the four biggest U.S. pro leagues.
Unbelievable? Well, not really when you consider the table tennis players and swimmers (China) as well as cricketers and badminton player (India) come from countries with populations topping 1.3 billion people. More than 36 percent of the world’s people live in those two countries. The United States? At roughly 326 million people, the U.S. chugs in at just over 4 percent of the world population.
The U.S. occupies a very small sliver of the population — and really, a much smaller slice of the overall sports landscape than we think.
Of course, sports are massively popular in the U.S. and the pro leagues are doing just fine. But only the NBA really seems to have tapped into international popularity. The other leagues are trying to play catch up, and it isn’t really going very well.