BrainPower: Are American Athletes National Icons or Hometown Heroes?

|Rich Ullman

Last month, we noticed that the start of the NFL season here in America would coincide with the first ever FIBA Basketball World Cup happening in Spain. That started some internal debate on the popularity (or not) of American athletes. Several global Outbrainers further stirred the pot by suggesting that outside of New York, there’s little difference between King JamesKing Felix, and the King of New York.

So we looked at content consumption across our platform for a clearer answer. Unlike our World Cup analysis in July, this time we looked solely at the United States and Canada. We also ignored soccer stars, because that study showed us enough about Christiano Ronaldo, Lionel Messi and their global popularity.

This time, we looked in the other direction. Inward. Regionally. Toward the local markets where most fans focus their attention and where most stars develop a following. We chose 10 players from each of the three major sports leagues to see what we’d find.

How different is the popularity of stars on the local stage versus the broader national one? And can that tell us anything about the games they play?



Although this wasn’t a pure look at national popularity, the data showed the usual suspects at the top of national interest: Lebron. Peyton. Kobe. Not surprising. But we were looking for diamonds in the rough.

Here’s one:

Andrew McCutchen, last year’s most valuable player in the National League. The Pittsburgh Pirates’ star centerfielder is 17x more popular at home than he is nationally. Playing in the nation’s 23rd largest media market can’t help, and that ‘s probably why his national score is low. They do love him in Pittsburgh, though. It makes us ponder his popularity if he played centerfield in New York – for the Yankees?

A similar trend holds true as you look at the top of our list. It’s the stars from cities without the largest and brightest lights: New Orleans (#51). Milwaukee (#34). Detroit (#11). St. Louis (#21). Denver (#17). It would appear that local appeal doesn’t translate to the same fame across the country.

Does pay to play in New York and LA? Scanning to the bottom of our list would support that theory. Four of the bottom five players are from America’s two biggest markets, suggesting the stars in these markets are the national stars.

We also found it notable that five of the top six regional spots are baseball players, including two of the game’s best: Miguel Cabrera and Troy Tulowitski.  Maybe the national pastime is moving more regional, with its preeminence replaced by football — and futball. Feel free to dig deeper into that argument on Reddit.

But for now, just consider our list of who’s a big fish in a small pond.  And remember: Not everyone can be Messi.


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Rich Ullman

Rich Ullman

Rich Ullman is Vice President, Marketing at Outbrain, who is responsible for the Outbrain brand and product positioning. Read more

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