Lists are often created by publications and websites for the sole benefit of said publication or website. No matter how accurate the formula is, the list will make you unhappy—and that’s by design. You will disagree with the list, envision your own list, argue with your friends about their list and, whether you like it or not, dump ungodly amounts of monetizable web traffic back to the original curators of the list. The list is sport media’s equivalent of the flu scare or weather disaster warning; a golden goose for ratings that really doesn’t depend on being right or altogether careful with the information.
That said, ESPN’s World Fame 100, which attempts to rank the most famous athletes in the world using a combination of Google search scores, endorsement earnings and social media presence, gave those of us existing in the air-conditioned NFL bubble a chance not just to fight with one another, but to realize something important about the sport we obsess over: How we think and feel about the game is still quite different than the world around us. (Edited for clarity, thanks to some voices from the United Kingdom.)
The highest NFL player on the list was Tom Brady at No. 38—and the five-time Super Bowl champion is married to model Gisele Bündchen, once called one of the most powerful women in the world by Forbes magazine (in another list). Ahead of Brady were eight NBA players—including Kyrie Irving and Derrick Rose, the latter of whom has not been a truly significant force in the league since 2012. There are golfers, tennis players and more than a dozen actual footballers—like No. 1 Cristiano Ronaldo, No. 3 Lionel Messi and No. 4 Neymar—on the list. The rest of the NFL’s most marketable names—Odell Beckham, Cam Newton, Aaron Rodgers and J.J. Watt—are bundled into the mid 50s or higher. Only seven made the list in total.
While the results are not overly stunning—soccer, cricket, golf and tennis have always had the worldwide cache that NFL teams could only dream about—it should provide a B12 shot in the arm of anyone at 345 Park Avenue who’s in charge of growing the sport’s global reach.
The league’s progress in the United Kingdom has been admirable, enough so that American-focused sports betting sites have been thriving for years now. Stumble into a bar off Regent street during a Jag-Ewars “home” game and you’ll find more knowledgeable British fans immersed in the team’s offensive line minutiae than any bar in the greater Jacksonville area. It’s more than Major League Baseball, which had no players featured on the list, can say. Their struggle for an identity within America is significant, nevermind globally.
If this list can be anything, it will act as a somewhat functional baseline test as the league begins a more aggressive international push; this season, we’ll see another game in Mexico City, actual quality football games in London and potentially some commitment in China after years of flirtation and ultimately ghosting. In state of the league addresses recently, commissioner Roger Goodell has also mentioned Germany and Brazil as potential business partners down the line.
Shoving its gaudy, firework-packed, uniquely American display into every corner of the world may be the one way the league can negate the central pillar they don’t have in common with all the other sports populating ESPN’s countdown—accessibility. The sport is still looked at by many as high-speed chess with heavily armored men. Stripping down the beauty of the sport to its rustic, backyard roots like they’re trying to do with a broadcast slate of flag football games this summer could help, too.
Until then, they will see themselves lapped by the NBA on lists like these, should the NFL care about such lists at all. For as volatile as the product has been over the last few years thanks to changing habits of television consumers, safety concerns and a scorched-earth political atmosphere, owners can rest assured knowing that their investments are largely safe and sound here in the bubble. The sport is an American juggernaut, with a legalized gambling crosswind that could create a financial titan.
But as long as there’s unmade money out there beyond the border, the NFL will continuously be reminded of how big a world this really is.
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