ESPN’s Top 100 Athletes List Confirms NHL’s Bad Reputation

On Tuesday, ESPN released its second annual Top 100 Athletes list to the public. As expected, strong personal brands such as Lebron James, Christiano Ronaldo, and Usain Bolt made the top ten. The list was heavily filled with players from the NBA (13 athletes) and professional soccer leagues around the world (38 athletes). What I was surprised to see was that not a single NHL player was listed. Is this another hint to the NHL that their league is in trouble and their marketing efforts are garbage? Or is this just another lame ranking that pops up every now and then that nobody cares about. 

I usually don’t pay attention to a lot of these Buzzfeed-esque lists that pop up every other week, but when I dug a little deeper, I was impressed to find out that ESPN used methods to make the ranking as objective as possible. With help from analysts and journalists across the world, ESPN developed an algorithm that ranked players using the following metrics:

  • Endorsement Money
  • Twitter Followers
  • Instagram Followers
  • Facebook Followers
  • Google Trends Score

So it’s a popularity contest? It would appear so. Seeing as how you can’t actually rank the skills and abilities of athletes across a wide array of sports, we might as well rank them on how successful they are based on world perception.

So we know that Christiano Ronaldo has 52.7M Twitter followers and Alex Ovechkin only has 2.49M followers. Big deal, right? This seems like a pretty good fact for a lot of people to brush off and never think of again. I hope that’s not the case, though. I hope the NHL looks at this and realizes that it’s more than just an athlete ranking. In my opinion, this is more proof than ever that the NHL is falling behind in popularity amongst other sports across the world.

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Could this be due to the fact that NHL culture frowns upon anyone celebrating too hard after scoring a goal, or cracking too many jokes to the media? I wrote about some examples of how the NHL is sucking the fun out of everything last year. The NHL isn’t helping itself attract new customers to the sport, and frankly after all the offside, goalie interference, and video review garbage we put up with this year, I’m surprised we’re still here, too. We see some of the biggest sports personalities play in leagues like the NBA and NFL. That’s a huge reason why they’re so profitable and why so many of their players fall on this Top 100 list. Not only does the NHL lack charisma, but it purposely avoids it.

The next closest player I could find in terms of Twitter following is P.K Subban with just over 900K followers. Alex Ovechkin, P.K Subban, and Roberto Luongo have three of the highest social media followings in the NHL and are also three of the biggest personalities in the league. Surprised? And yet the media and league continue to criticize P.K Subban more than anything for it. Sidney Crosby, arguably the league’s best player isn’t even on social media! Maybe instead of publicity training these pros when they’re 14 years old, we should encourage them to have some fun and do whatever the hell they want.

Seeing how ESPN just recently cut the majority of their hockey department, I wasn’t really surprised to see hockey left off of this list. Living in Edmonton, one of the greatest hockey cities in Canada, it’s hard to believe that the sport lacks popularity across the world. I’d be curious to see the list using the same metrics, but for Canada only. I’m sure that 80% of the list would be hockey players.

  • Rob...

    The results article is clickbait and should not be used to proclaim the health of the league. Even if the NHL combines with the KHL, SHL and any other high level HL’s its athletes will have a difficult time cracking this list. This is not a reflection of the health of the NHL but a reflection of how few nations care about hockey as a sport. And we shouldn’t suffer any righteous indignation because of that.

    • I can agree with that point where it’s more of a hockey problem than the NHL. But as the biggest hockey league in the world, I think the NHL should be doing its best to market to non-hockey supporters to try grow the league/sport. Their clear goal is to make money so extending its audience will do that exactly.

      • Randaman

        Maybe you should realize that hockey is not a popular sport in the US. Besides that, ESPN is probably still pissed that NBC got the TV rights. Grain of salt Chris

        • Based on the ranking, hockey isn’t a popular sport across the world. As you can see with ESPN’s subjective method for their ranking, their picks have nothing to do for a ‘hatred for hockey’ or anything a long the lines.

      • Rob...

        But given that this was an international comparison, how do you get the high density, warm climate countries to give a crap about hockey? On the world stage it’s not worth it for any hockey organization to try to push hockey in countries like Mexico or India. I’d like to see the list with a climate filter applied. If you select political regions (down to the state/province level) where at least 3 months a year are below 0 Celsius, what would the list look like.

  • McRaj

    Chris, another professional league that had nobody on the list was MLB (correct me if I’m wrong). The one thing that MLB and NHL have in common is deep traditions and unwritten ethics. In today’s world of social media and culture, these leagues have stayed true to their identity and culture which is both good and bad. Personally I used to like the old NBA over the new 3 point shooting, hip-hop NBA, but the results cannot be ignored. NBA salary cap is sky rocketing while NHL is flattening. NHL needs to adapt with the times as does MLB.

  • FISTO Siltanen

    I never know if the NHL is just stupid or arrogant.

    No best on best hockey for at least 5 years at best. They are negotiating themselves into a corner with the IOC with upcoming Olympics (IMO) and the World Cup of hockey isn’t going to happen for some time. Three seasons away and the NHL is already planning its next work stoppage.

    I love hockey.
    I love the Oilers.

    I loathe the NHL. Absolutely loathe it.

  • fisherprice

    I think characterizing this list as a Top 100 Athletes list is kind of disingenuous. It’s actually a list of the 100 most famous athletes as indicated by the name “World Fame 100”. There are also absolutely 100+ athletes more famous than any hockey player.

    There’s a lot of reasons hockey isn’t as big as other sports, including the inept marketing of it’s players and culture of off-ice blandness. I find the thing people don’t really want to admit is the fact that hockey just is not a sport built for the casual viewer. It moves too quickly, is a little too chaotic, and the athletes on the ice change up too frequently for casual viewers to get a quick handle on what’s going on. I can’t tell you how many blank stares I’ve gotten by just explaining what icing is to new viewers.

    When the Cavaliers play the Warriors in the NBA finals, even if you’re not a hardcore NBA fan, you’ll be able to understand and watch the conflict of Lebron squaring off against Durant or Curry on every single play. The ball is in constant motion toward one net at a time instead of pinballing all over the field of play. Even to a casual viewer, the skill, strength, and speed of the top athletes is clearly discernible. It’s easy to follow.

    I find there’s just a little too much needy “like my sport” with hockey fans in general. Despite what I wrote above, hockey is my favorite sport to watch by a huge margin. But I’m a hardcore fan, it’s a sport built for hardcore fans. I geek out wondering if teams will match their top offensive line or shutdown line against McDavid and what line combinations the Oilers will deploy in response. I love seeing how Nashville loops a forward back on defence as a safety net while their defenders aggressively chase the puck and try and move it back in transition. I live for that stuff. Casual viewers have no idea what these things even mean and why should they?

    Hockey fans just kind of need to get over it. It’s a niche sport and accepting this has only made me love the game even more. Hockey is not less or more of a sport than any other because of popularity. Just enjoy the game, man.

  • Petrolero

    the explosion in popularity of basketball and the NBA has largely been accredited to the 1992 dream team that crushed the Olympics. The world was exposed to the best players on the planet for the first time and we became enamored. Bettman on the other hand thinks the Olympics are not worth it….

    • Reg Dunlop

      There are a billion Africans and half a billion South Americans who play soccer or basketball with a rolled up ball of socks and have never seen an ice rink. I doubt that Olympic exposure of NHL players can trump that, as their presence in the last few winter games has shown.

      • Petrolero

        so you conveniently leave out of your remarks the one billion plus Chinese who the nhl is actively trying to woo? this is specially important given the fact that the winter olymics next year are next door in south Korea.

  • BlueHairedApe

    I’m not a soccer, NBA, or even much of a MLB fan. Golf and curling are sports that I’ll watch but only on a Sunday afternoon when I need a nap. The NHL is my sport and if the six billion other people don’t watch it I don’t really give a flying ####.