Major fan survey reveals most popular global athletes in 16 countries; who wins the great Messi-Ronaldo debate?

Harry Kane is the UK’s most popular sports star 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). The survey analysis also quantifies the significant financial effects of global stars – like Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo – on sports teams.

“Sport has long been defined by the idiom ‘no player is bigger than the club,’ but that has been changing. Clubs are now able to translate star popularity into bankability, and in particular the opportunity to grow revenue outside of the established models. For investors and clubs, the difference between winners and losers in generating eye-catching financial returns beyond traditional revenue streams could be decided not only by the success on the field or the dominance of the club, but by who invests in the most bankable stars with the largest global appeal,” said Altman Solon Partner Ian Lube, a sports media expert.

Footballers top UK stars, but F1’s Hamilton biggest globally

Altman Solon’s 2021 Global Sports Survey is based on the opinions of 18,000 respondents – including more than 1,000 in the UK – in 16 countries across Europe, the Americas, and the Asia-Pacific. Three Premier League stars – Harry Kane, Marcus Rashford, and Raheem Sterling – top the chart of the most popular UK athletes. Two-time Wimbledon champion Andy Murray came in fourth, followed by defending Formula 1 champion Lewis Hamilton.

While the top five stars are all British, international stars make up the rest of the UK’s Top 10 – including Argentina’s Lionel Messi, Swiss tennis legend Roger Federer, Manchester City’s Belgian maestro Kevin de Bruyne, Manchester United’s returning Portuguese superstar Cristiano Ronaldo, and Spanish tennis powerhouse Rafael Nadal. Conversely, UK athletes are not cutting through internationally, with only Lewis Hamilton making a global impact, appearing in the Top 10 lists of six countries, including Australia (10th place), Brazil (6th place), Germany (10th place), Italy (8th place), Poland (7th place), and Spain (8th place).  

“It’s important to note that the list shows the current dominance of male stars amongst sports fans. With growing investment and TV coverage of women’s football and cricket, plus the breakout success of Emma Raducanu in tennis, we would expect to see a much better gender balance in future,” said Altman Solon Partner Ian Lube.

Footballers – and local roots – important globally

Homegrown football stars are also the top athletes in Germany (Thomas Müller), France (Kylian Mbappe), Italy (Giorgio Chiellini), and Poland (Robert Lewandowski), while tennis player Rafael Nadal tops Spain’s list. The top 10 athletes in the U.S. are all homegrown, led by NFL quarterbacks Tom Brady and Patrick Mahomes. Football dominates Latin America, topping the list of stars in every country: Argentina and Brazil (Lionel Messi), Colombia (Radamel Falcao), and Chile (Alexis Sánchez). Boxer Canelo Álvarez is the favourite of fans in Mexico, while the National Hockey League’s Sidney Crosby is Canada’s choice.

Click here for the top athletes in all 16 countries along with additional findings from the survey.

The Great Debate: Messi vs. Ronaldo

Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo topped the list of the most popular worldwide athletes. The survey adds fuel to the ongoing rivalry between the two stars and their fans, identifying a clear winner based on fan demand. Messi has higher interest than Ronaldo in nine countries, while the latter is more popular only in Poland. Both stars have already made huge contributions to the financial success of their new clubs, PSG for Messi and both Juventus and Manchester United for Ronaldo. The top two global stars headlined the trend of marquee player signings directly driving various financial benefits for their new teams or parent companies, spanning areas like stock price, sponsorship deals, merchandising, and digital fan tokens.

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 analyse the data. More results will be published over the coming months, including global trends in sports interest, awareness of OTT services, Direct-to-Consumer strategies, international fandom of top US / EU leagues, and strategies for media partners.