It's official: Lionel Messi is an icon in American sports

Posted by Roger Bennett

Getty ImagesLionel Messi is the first soccer star to place in the top 10 of most popular athletes in the American sports scene.

Lionel Messi's nine seasons as a professional have been notched by eye-popping achievement, be it the record-breaking 324 goals he has netted for Barcelona, the 91 goals struck for club and country in 2012, or the four Ballons d'Or landed along the way. Yet the Argentinian star's most recent accomplishment may prove to be among his most astonishing: The 26-year-old has just become the first international footballer to break into the top-10 list of America's favorite athletes, according to the vast ESPN Sports Poll (October 2012-September 2013.)

"It is a staggering statistic" said Seth Ader, ESPN's senior director of marketing who oversees the company's soccer-related World Cup marketing strategy. "It is the first time in the history of this poll that a soccer player has shown up inside the top 10 for entire year."

Messi's achievement is even more seismic when viewed through the lens of the 12- to 24-year-old demographic, who proclaim the Barcelona star to be the fourth-favorite athlete in the United States (the study tracks the fan base sizes and demographic trends for all major sports through a monthly telephone survey of 1,500 Americans ages 12 and over).

The statistic is determined by collecting responses to the open-ended question "Who is your favorite professional athlete?" Michael Jordan, Peyton Manning and LeBron James make up the top three, but only one MLB player, Derek Jeter, finishes ahead of Messi in seventh place. The "Atomic Flea" tops Aaron Rodgers (9), Drew Brees (11) and the top female, Serena Williams (16).

"If you consider the World Cup is on the horizon," says Ader -- as he reflects upon a top fifty that also includes Cristiano Ronaldo (21, seventh among ages 12-24) and David Beckham (47) -- "you can project out a year from now and see these players rising even higher."

When asked to analyze the reasons behind Messi's rise, Ader contextualizes it against last year's discovery that soccer has become America's second-most popular sport for those age 12-24, outstripping the NBA, MLB and college football.

"It is a constellation of factors," he says. "International soccer has become an increasing favorite of sports fans. The more they are exposed to broadcasts of elite leagues, the more they fall in love with it.

"World Cup ratings are rising on a 45-degree angle up to the sky," Ader continues. "The EA Sports factor cannot be exaggerated. Their FIFA game is the No. 2 best-seller in the U.S. sports category, behind the Madden franchise, and the more the Hispanic community assimilate ... the more they fuel the overall conversation."

Stefan Szymanski, professor of sport management at the University of Michigan, and the co-author of "Soccernomics," also sees the silent hand of EA Sports at work.

"Their power is unbelievable" he says of the FIFA franchise for which Messi has just been the advertising face. "The games give you the hands-on experience of running a team so you can learn quickly and deeply. American kids used to lack a way of experiencing or learning about the game. Now they know much about football tactics and star players as Europeans and South Americans. They are outsiders in football conversations no more."

Both Ader and Szymanski agree Messi is just the vanguard.

"There will be others," says Ader, "but the real question is, when will an American soccer star crack the top 50?"

The marketer is quick to answer his own question. "If you were to stop 100 people on the street and show them Michael Bradley right now, you would not get a high percentage of awareness," he admitted. "That will change over the next six months. The U.S. team will become household names but it will take a deep [World Cup] run -- into the semifinals at least -- for them to crack the top 50."

When challenged to predict which player might achieve that feat, Ader suggests Clint Dempsey before second-guessing himself and offering up coach Jurgen Klinsmann in his stead. Yet Szymanski believes the debate may be irrelevant.

"For the last 30 or 40 years we have said that soccer will only 'go' in America if the nation experiences a deep World Cup run driven by homegrown stars who are world-class," he explains. "That model may not be true. MLS currently rides on the coattails of the Premier League, Barcelona and the Champions League. It may be heretical to say this, but soccer may well become a major league sport in America without the nation ever having produced a single homegrown world-class player."

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