Social media has certainly changed the game for athletes and sports influencers around the world, at every level of play. And with a recent survey citing over 3.5 billion active social media users worldwide, it’s safe to say that these influential individuals have ample opportunity to change the face of social media, influencer, and advocacy marketing — and they have.
The medium has rapidly evolved, and with it, the power has shifted back to the hands of the individual. From macro-influencers to NBA All-Stars, what influential people say on social carries weight that brand and property accounts just can’t match. Today, brands are leaning on athletes and ambassadors to not only enhance the engagement with their audience, but to drive real business outcomes through social media.
The athletes highlighted below have proven they are more than just powerful in their respective sports; they have become a global force when it comes to creating the ultimate social media experience for their fans.
We’ve compiled data that offers a glimpse into how the world’s most recognized athletes perform on their social platforms by measuring their audience, activity, engagement, and growth throughout the year.
Soccer stars stand alone on social
With unmatched reach and passion from massive fanbases around the world, international soccer stars hold a clear advantage on social media. This year’s results show that 63 of the 100 most-followed athletes are soccer players, including the three most-followed athletes across Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram.
Not surprisingly, Cristiano Ronaldo has the largest audience by a wide margin, holding court with nearly 400 million fans and followers. Neymar came in second with an audience of 236 million across all channels, with Lionel Messi sliding into the third slot at just over 230 million followers. It should be noted that Neymar and Ronaldo are active on all three major social networks, while Messi does not have an active Twitter presence.
In keeping with the theme of soccer players commanding the attention of the social scene, of the 21 of the 30 fastest-growing athletes on social are soccer players—with Cristiano Ronaldo, Lionel Messi, Neymar, Mohamed Salah, and Kylian Mbappe leading the pack.
LeBron, basketball dominate U.S. market
It should come as no surprise that LeBron James dominated the U.S. social media landscape by landing in the number four spot in our report. James also trailed only Cristiano Ronaldo in terms of total video views and ranked inside the top ten for total engagements.
Led by James, current and retired NBA players were tied with Cricket as the second-most represented sport behind soccer, claiming 11 of the top 100 most-followed athletes.
Kohli, cricket are on the rise
Closing out the year’s top-five most-followed athletes is Indian cricketer, Virat Kohli, whose follower growth surged by 18.7 million new followers on Facebook and Instagram in 2019. But he wasn’t the only cricketer that saw a massive amount of growth; M.S. Dhoni saw a jump of 7.1 million followers in 2019 while Sachin Tendulkar and Hardik Pandaya have also earned the titles of social media all-stars with a growth of 5.7 million each.
And the rise of the cricketer on social media doesn’t stop there. When it comes to overall engagement rates on social postings across all platforms, Hardik Pandya, Rohit Sharma, and M.S. Dohni all put up very impressive numbers by increasing their engagement by 5.3%, 3.6%, and 3.2%, respectively.
Below is our 2019 analysis of the 100 most-followed athletes in professional sports. The ranking includes data for each athlete from Twitter, Facebook, and Instagram from January 1, 2019 to December 31, 2019.