Does Fame Turn Into Fortune?

By Adam Grossman

ESPN has released its World Fame 100 ratings to answer the question: “Who are the most famous athletes on the planet?” Through a formula developed largely by ESPN’s Director of Analytics Ben Alamar, the World Fame 100 examines endorsements, social media following, and Google search results to create a 1 to 100 rankings for players. Cristiano Ronaldo and LeBron James were the “winners” securing the first and second spots on the list, respectively.

B6A has examined a similar question using our Revenue Above Replacement (RAR) product offering. Rather than asking who the most famous athletes in sports are, however, we ask who is the most valuable player within each sport (i.e. looking at MLB players as compared to other MLB players rather than looking at MLB players versus NBA players).

On the surface, this could appear to be to a distinction without a difference.  More specifically, being famous often translates to being highly valued and being well compensated for that value. In fact, our Revenue Above Replacement model does factor in social media audience and endorsements into our calculation of off-field value in a comparable way to how the World Fame 100 utilizes it in its formula.

This, however, is the end of the similarities between the two approaches. In particular, the World Fame 100 fails to account for any type of “On-Field” value. More specifically, “Salary is not used as a factor because of differences among sports. For example, players in a league with a salary cap would be at an unfair disadvantage when measured against players in uncapped league.” There are several issues with this assertion. First, even leagues without salary caps have ways of restricting salary. For example, UEFA has introduced Financial Fair Play rules to make sure that teams cannot spend money on players’ salaries without being able to “prove they have paid the bills” (i.e. teams cannot consistently lose money even if owners are willing to pay for these losses). Alamar and ESPN could also introduce controls that are typically included in other studies that account for differences in payroll. For example, Alamar could compare athletes who earn similar salaries or make adjustments based on how a player's salary compares to that of the average player in the sport.

Second, if you are not using salary then how would this formula account for the fame generated by a player’s “On-Field” performance? In particular, what a player does on the field is what makes him famous in the first place. Salary could actually be a good indicator of performance. Generally, higher paid players are typically (but certainly not always) higher performing players. Using salary as a proxy performance metric and then doing some comparison to social media, endorsements, and search history would serve to enhance the model. What makes this omission particularly perplexing is that the list specifically does not include retired athletes, which should serveto further enhance the value of on-field performance. Therefore, it appears Alamar and ESPN acknowledge that the on-field considerations are important without examining this as a factor in the analysis.  

B6A’s RAR model examines how a player’s on-field and off-field performance generates top-line revenue growth for his / her team / league. One of the reasons we developed our RAR model is that we did not think that players were being fairly compensated for their off-field “fame”. More specifically, players’ drive value to teams through their ability to engage with fans, media, and sponsors. Highly visible athletes and star power often does ultimately lead to revenue generation for teams. However, we recognize that on-field performance needs to be properly evaluated and that it impacts off-field performance, particularly when it comes to social media and endorsements. That is why our RAR model does examine a player’s ability and salary in relation to their off-field performance.

While we appreciate ESPN’s objective in compiling this list, we do not agree that it effectively answers the question of who is the most famous athlete.  It is interesting and important to create a framework to evaluate star power across different sports. This is particularly important when it comes to endorsements and corporate partnerships with athletes. While fame can lead to fortune, however, it is critical to understand why fame is created in the first place. By failing to look more in-depth at on-field performance, however, ESPN does not provide the best answer to its own question.