New fan survey in 16 countries reveals most popular global athletes; analysis shows surprising benefits to teams even after stars leave

Boston, MA – Tom Brady, Serena Williams, and NBA stars are the most popular – or “bankable” – U.S. sports stars in 2021, according to analysis from the 2021 Global Sports Survey conducted by Altman Solon, the world’s largest strategy consulting firm focused exclusively on Telecommunications, Media, and Technology (TMT). Analysis of the survey and other data also revealed significant financial effects of global stars – like Brady, and soccer players Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo – changing teams.

“Global sports franchises, teams, and media partners understand that star players drive revenues and fan interest,” said Altman Solon Director Matt Del Percio. “The survey identifies which players are generating fan interest domestically and internationally, and our analysis shows that these bankable stars can have a positive impact on a franchise even after they’ve moved on.”

Stars reap $ for new teams, but former teams still thriving

Tom Brady’s impact on the Tampa Bay Buccaneers was apparent on the field, as he led them to a Super Bowl victory, and off the field, as the team vaulted from the bottom third of teams in popularity in Altman Solon’s 2020 team rankings into the top 10 in 2021. For Tampa Bay, signing Brady also delivered financial gains, increasing merchandise sales (from near the bottom to the top of the league) and boosting franchise valuation by nearly one-third over 2020, according to Forbes. While Brady’s departure from the New England Patriots after winning six Super Bowl titles resulted in the team’s first losing record in 20 seasons, the franchise remained one of the NFL’s most popular teams (moving from 1 to 5) and still has the league’s second highest valuation at $5 billion.

Altman Solon’s analysis also showed big benefits for European soccer clubs from top player transfers and signings leading to various financial benefits for their new teams or parent companies, including in areas like stock price, sponsorship deals, merchandising, and digital fan tokens.

“There are a lot of emotions among fans when top stars leave their teams for greener pastures, but our analysis shows that, at least from a financial and popularity standpoint, the former team is able to retain most of its fan interest,” said Del Percio.

Brady top U.S. star, Serena most popular on world stage

Altman Solon’s 2021 Global Sports Survey, which gauged viewing and fandom among 18,000 sports fans in 16 countries across North America, Europe, Latin America, and the Asia-Pacific, identifies two players from the U.S.’s popular sports league – the NFL’s Tom Brady and Patrick Mahomes – as the top two most popular athletes. Tennis legend Serena Williams is the top-ranked female athlete at six. Four NBA players – Steph Curry, Lebron James, Kevin Durant, and Kyrie Irving – also cracked the top 10.

Everyone on the U.S. top rankings is a domestic athlete, which is unique on the world stage. In all 15 of the other countries surveyed, at least half of the players are foreign. Conversely, U.S. athletes are not very popular internationally, aside from Williams, who is the world’s most popular female athlete. Williams appears on nine top-10 rankings of other nations, the only U.S. athlete that made more than two top 10 lists.  However, sports fans in China, a critical market for international leagues and media partners, are enchanted by NBA stars, with five players ranked in the top 10.

Click here for the top athletes in all 16 countries and other survey data on global stars.

What does this mean for sports entities?

The “stickiness” of financial benefits from “bankable” players should encourage teams to use caution in signing top stars to long-term contracts or as they end their careers, but it also shows that investing in and promoting top talent is critical to a team’s popularity and financial viability.

“Top athletes are key pillars of international growth for teams, leagues, and investors,” said Del Percio. “Our analysis indicates that growing a fan base, increasing fan intensity and loyalty, and subsequently targeting investments outside of home territories may be better served through marketing and monetizing top athletes over the team or league itself.”

Altman Solon conducted the 2021 Global Sports Survey in August-September with more than 18,000 respondents across 16 countries. Altman Solon tapped its expertise across its 13 global offices to implement the survey and analyze the data. More results will be published over the coming months, including global trends in sports interest and viewership, awareness of OTT services, Direct-to-consumer strategies, international fandom of top US / EU leagues, and strategies for media partners.