Most popular sports athletes in 2021
While many sports stars can lay claim to being ‘popular’, it is fair to say that there are different levels to how an athlete’s popularity is judged.
For example, many American Football stars are hugely popular in their own country, but their name barely causes a ripple on the world stage.
Soccer has traditionally produced popular athletes, with past stars such as Diego Maradona and David Beckham transcending their chosen sport.
That ethos rings certainly true in the modern era, with several of the current crop of players at the top of the list in terms of social media followings and earnings.
However, there are plenty of other sports that produce genuine global superstars including basketball, tennis, mixed martial arts and motor racing.
Read on as we take a closer look at some of the most popular sports athletes in 2021 and assess why they have made it onto the list.
Cristiano Ronaldo – Soccer
With more than 340 million followers on Instagram, it is impossible to ignore Ronaldo’s right to be classed a modern-day sporting icon.
The 36-year-old’s recent return to the Premier League sparked plenty of excitement on United fan sites including Man Utd News, and he will undoubtedly dominate many of the headlines this season.
Ronaldo has won five Ballon d’Or awards and will be keen to add a sixth to his tally to draw level with Argentinian superstar Lionel Messi.
The Portuguese star’s popularity transcends sport, with his CR7 brand likely to keep the cash tills ringing long after he has hung up his boots.
Lionel Messi – Soccer
Debates over who is the greatest player between Ronaldo and Lionel Messi divide opinion amongst football fans across the world.
The Argentine forward lags behind Ronaldo on Instagram with 263m followers, but that crucial sixth Ballon d’Or award probably softens the blow somewhat.
Messi spent most of his professional career with Barcelona, before leaving the La Liga club this summer to sign for Paris Saint-Germain.
Watching Messi play in a different club’s shirt is unlikely to dilute his popularity with most fans, although diehard Barca supporters will probably be heartbroken.
Neymar – Soccer
The PSG and Brazil star is a hugely talented soccer player, but his penchant for play-acting and diving often leaves fans feeling infuriated.
However, that clearly doesn’t matter to his 160m followers, who seemingly love Neymar’s sporting skills and celebrity lifestyle.
His link-up with Messi and Luis Suarez at Barcelona will be forever remembered as one of the most prolific attacking units in the history of soccer.
With Messi reuniting with Neymar at PSG, the Brazilian could end his long wait to win a second Champions League winners’ medal.
Virat Kohli – Cricket
While cricket remains an alien concept to most people in North America, it is tremendously popular across several other continents.
Indian star Virat Kohli is unquestionably the star of the show in terms of publicly popularity having recently become the first Asian celebrity to have 150m followers on Instagram.
Kohli has starred in numerous advertising campaigns for major brands such as Pepsi, Puma, Colgate, Xiami India and many more.
It has been widely reported that he is the highest-paid celebrity in India when it comes to making money through Instagram, demonstrating his popular appeal.
LeBron James – Basketball
The NBA has often created global superstars with Michael Jordan, Shaquille O’Neal and Magic Johnson amongst the most notable examples.
LeBron James deserves his place alongside those icons, with his achievements in basketball marking him down as one of the finest players to ever play the game.
His accomplishments include four NBA championships, four NBA MVP awards, four NBA Finals MVP awards, 17 NBA All-Star appearances and two Olympic gold medals.
With over 97m followers on Instagram, the Los Angeles Lakers star fully deserves to be included in any list of the most popular sports athletes of 2021.
Roger Federer – Tennis
The 21st century has been a golden era for tennis with Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Novak Djokovic elevating the sport to a whole new level.
The trio have each won 20 Grand Slams during their respective careers, and any of them could argue a case to be classed as the greatest player of all-time.
Federer is arguably the pick of the bunch in the popularity stakes, with his clean-cut image proving to be extremely popular with fans and sponsors alike.
He boasts lucrative sponsorships with brands such as Rolex, Credit Suisse and Uniqlo, while his stake in Swiss athletic apparel company On should keep his bank manager happy for years to come.
Conor McGregor – Mixed Martial Arts
It would be fair to say that Conor McGregor has done more than most to help mixed martial arts cross firmly into the mainstream.
The Irish fighter was ranked as the world’s highest paid athlete by Forbes in 2021, raking in a reported $180 million.
He has expertly used his fame to crossover into boxing and business, and is set for life despite losing three of his last four fights in the UFC.
McGregor is currently on the sidelines with a leg injury, but it would be a major surprise if he didn’t return to competitive action once he is fully recovered.
Lewis Hamilton – Formula 1
Lewis Hamilton is on a mission to become the greatest Formula 1 driver of all-time and it would be a brave move to back against him achieving the feat.
The British star is currently tied with Michael Schumacher on seven World Drivers’ Championships, but is in with an excellent chance of setting a new record in 2021.
Hamilton’s opinionated stance on racism hasn’t found favor with everyone, but that says more about his detractors than it does about him.
Endorsement deals with the likes of Tommy Hilfiger, Monster Energy and Puma don’t happen unless you are a popular sports athlete – whether people like it or not, Hamilton fits that description.
Story by Michael Black