ESPN has come up with something called the “Fame 100,” otherwise known as a pointless list with dubious methodology to stir up some debate amongst sports fans about which athletes are more or less “famous.” From their blurb:
It started off with a simple question: Who’s the most famous athlete in the world? Ben Alamar, ESPN’s director of sports analytics, devised a formula that combines salary and endorsements with social media following and Google search popularity to create the ESPN World Fame 100 rankings. The names might be familiar, but where the planet’s biggest stars land on the list could surprise you.
As with some other ESPN-created stats and their usage, there are big problems with this one. For one, what does salary (a measure of how valuable an athlete is on the field, but an imperfect one that’s affected by everything from the year they become a free agent to the market at that time to their sport’s salary cap and CBA terms) have to do with fame? Endorsements are better, but they’re highly dependent on measures such as likeability, which don’t really have much to do with fame (if fame is taken as “the state of being widely known, recognized, or of great popular interest,” which doesn’t imply a good or bad value judgement). They also favor athletes from specific markets. Social media following has its merits, but it also is only part of how well-known someone is, and it’s affected by how active and interesting the athlete is on the services measured, how many fans of their team and sport use those services, and how many people strongly care about an athlete (versus knowing who they are). Some well-known athletes (like #38 on the list, Peyton Manning) don’t really use social media, so including it in here hurts their ranking, but it doesn’t mean any less people know about them. Google Search data has some value for this kinds of analysis, but it also has problems too (as some flawed FiveThirtyEight studies have shown); people searching for an athlete’s name doesn’t necessarily illustrate that athlete is well-known (in fact, sometimes it shows the opposite; people don’t know who they are and want to find out), and people not searching for an athlete doesn’t mean they aren’t well-known. Let’s illustrate just how bad these are with 10 of the worst results:
10. Non-Tiger golfers: Tiger Woods is obviously still an incredibly well-known figure, even with his career in decline, but it’s much harder to argue that the likes of Phil Mickelson (#13), Rory McIlroy (#20), Jordan Speith (#50), Justin Rose (#51) and Billy Horschel (#83) deserve to be where they are on this list. This is something likely thrown off by the inclusion of salaries/earnings (hot golfers can pull in huge amounts of prize money) and endorsements (golfers have substantial individual equipment and apparel deals that many athletes in team sports can’t get).
9. Sania Mirza (#41): Mirza is currently the top-ranked women’s doubles tennis player, and she does have the benefit of being incredibly well-known in India (which has a massive population), but it’s questionable how well she’s known outside of that, especially given that she won just one WTA title in the more-prominent singles game. Her ranking here’s likely boosted by recent winnings (she’s won three doubles majors in the last year with partner Martina Hingis) and endorsements in India, but it seems unlikely she’s as globally famous as this ranking would suggest.
8. Matt Kemp (#100): How did Matt Kemp make this list? Who, other than diehard San Diego Padres fans (I had to look up where he was playing), even knows that Matt Kemp is still in baseball? Kemp is currently batting .229 and hasn’t even been an All-Star since 2012. His contract was so bad that the Dodgers traded him in a salary dump in 2014. But that contract’s probably why he’s on here.
7. Ryan Sheckler (#64): Sheckler, a skateboarder, is known in the extreme sports world and to people who watched his MTV show, but it seems odd to suggest he’s more globally well-known than the likes of Kevin Love (#67), Andrew Luck (#69), Rob Gronkowski (#72) and Venus Williams (#74). Even within the extreme sports world, Sheckler is placed ahead of Shaun White (#76), and White would seem to be far more well-known globally thanks to his Olympic successes.
6. Rudy Gay (#91): Yes, the NBA is huge globally. But how many NBA fans know what team Rudy Gay’s playing for now? (It’s the Sacramento Kings. I had to look it up.) Gay has never been an all-star, and his NBA career highlight is an all-rookie team nod.
5. Carson Palmer (#99): It’s difficult for many casual NFL fans to remember that Carson Palmer is still a starting quarterback in the league. Not sure that means he’s famous globally.
4. Tim Duncan (#90): How is Duncan so low here? The NBA has global popularity and Duncan has long been one of its stars. Granted, he isn’t the flashiest, but putting him one spot ahead of Rudy Gay, 11 behind Amar’e Stoudemire and 51 back of Carmelo Anthony feels wrong. It’s likely because Duncan is on a very cheap contract he signed to give the Spurs more cap space.
3. Tim Howard (#96): Soccer is indisputably a huge sport globally, but Tim Howard is not a huge global figure. He’s a well-known American soccer figure who’s now set to join MLS’ Colorado Rapids. He did have a long run in England with Everton (and a brief one with Manchester United), but it’s hard to argue he’s a well-known global soccer figure.
2. Cricket: Indian cricketers Virat Kohli and Mahendra Singh Dhoni undoubtedly deserve spots on this list given their popularity in a huge nation, but putting them eighth and 14th overall seems like a stretch given that there are huge parts of the world that ignore cricket. They’re boosted by being big in a technology-saavy nation and pulling in massive endorsements in India. That doesn’t necessarily make them in the 15 most-recognized athletes globally.
1. Formula 1 and NASCAR: Formula 1 is huge globally and not as huge in the U.S., while NASCAR is big in parts of the U.S. and almost non-existent elsewhere, but the numbers came out the other way here. Every F1 driver on the list, from #59 Lewis Hamilton to #97 Kimi Raikkonen, seems way below where they should be compared to the numbers of people around the world who know about them. Meanwhile, there are five NASCAR drivers on this list (#57 Dale Earnhardt Jr. to #94 Kyle Busch), and there are probably many in the U.S. who have never heard of them, to say nothing of the global audience. This is probably to do with winnings and sponsorships, which are both high in NASCAR, but neither makes it popular globally.
Throw this all together and you get what’s essentially a new version of 2007 ESPN flop “Who’s Now,” but at least that actually proved something; it showed which athlete regular ESPN readers (plus those who went to the site specifically to vote) picked in a head-to-head popularity contest. This “Fame 100” really doesn’t illustrate anything, other that you can get some very weird results with this formula, results that would not seem to illustrate at all how many of the world’s people actually know each athlete. So, nice work on creating a debate with a table of results that don’t really prove anything, ESPN.