Sports Extra – While Asia covers about 8.6 percent of the Earth’s total surface, the continent is home to nearly 60 percent of the world’s population. Out of the 20 highest-paid athletes around the world, three originate from Asia.
They include boxer Manny Pacquiao of the Philippines (earning close to $38 million within the past year, as estimated by Forbes), baseball star Ichiro Suzuki of Japan ($37 million), and basketball player Yao Ming of China ($34 million).
GALLERY: Asia’s Most Popular Athletes
By far, Tiger Woods (who is half Asian) is the highest-paid athlete in the world (at close to $90 million) in combined earnings from sports and endorsements. However, the American golfer, who was born in California, cannot be included on this list.
Financial compensation does not entirely measure global exposure. Career achievements, number of championships, historical and / or cultural relevance, volume of online searches, extent of followership, appeal to mainstream sports fans, and media exposure in non-sporting events (such as television, music, film, etc.) are variables that comprise overall popularity and stature.
Performance and Popularity >
Take Kim Yu-Na of South Korea, the figure skater who won gold at the Winter Olympics in Vancouver in 2010 with the highest-ever score [ video ]. She is South Korea’s most popular athlete and perhaps its most followed celebrity, generating close to 1.4 global monthly searches on Google.
Kim, as an Olympian, does not nearly earn as much as athletes competing in money-heavy sports. Additionally, she competes in a sporting event that occurs infrequently.
The Olympics is the most watched sporting spectacle in the world with close to 400 million television viewers, followed by the World Cup at close to 300 million. However, figure skating is largely ignored by mainstream fans unless there is a persuasive life story behind an Olympic achievement (such as overcoming racism, death of a family member, overcoming a painful injury, etc.).
Athletes from golf, basketball, soccer, American football, and racing earn much larger paychecks due to mass following, high-powered marketing and business partnerships, and heavy involvement from global media entities. Kim, despite her immense South Korean following, is not a crossover star, and is not part of the global business ecosystem.
Ichiro Suzuki, who plays for the Seattle Mariners, is one of the most accomplished baseball players to come out of Asia and make the transition to Major League Baseball. Suzuki has set batting records, won MVP awards, and received Gold Glove accolades. Despite a strong career, Suzuki’s performance hardly compels baseball analysts to regard him as one of the best ever. Thus, Suzuki is a great player but he is not historically significant.
Yao Ming has ignited a much larger following of basketball from China – with its immense population and especially from the younger demographic, thanks in part to NBA commissioner David Stern’s aggressive campaign to globalize the league.
Importantly, the 7’6″ center is a media darling. When Ming is healthy, the Houston Rockets center routinely scores over 20 points per game, grabs at least 10 rebounds, with multiple shot blocks. However, Ming is no longer the “future of Chinese basketball” and has been contemplating retirement after yet another injury-plagued season. Ming briefly played to his potential until his health broke down. He is popular, but does not reside at the apex of his craft.
The Man >
There is constant regional interest from South Asia, such as India and Pakistan, in popular cricket players. To the east, China and Japan frequently produce popular athletes that compete in both the Summer and Winter Olympics. These athletes attract a niche following that rarely capture a global audience. If they do, the sizzle typically fades as U.S. mainstream media move on to traditional sports coverage.
With over five million global online monthly searches, boxer Manny Pacquiao of the Philippines is clearly Asia’s most popular athlete. (Contrast that with Yao Ming who barely gets half a million online searches per month.)
Pacquiao is the fifth-highest paid athlete from outside of the U.S. behind Roger Federer of Switzerland (tennis), Lionel Messi of Argentina (soccer), David Beckham of England (soccer), and Cristiano Ronaldo of Portugal (soccer).
GALLERY: Asia’s Most Popular Athletes
The Filipino boxer’s public stature is rewarded by the marketplace in terms of monetary compensation. Having won a record-extending eight titles in as many weight classes this past November, the “Pacman” meets our criteria of compelling performance.
He is historically and culturally significant, and possesses a life story that enables any individual (from wherever they are) to identify with the narrative of struggle, resilience, and hope. A loyal fan base of over 90 million Filipinos and an increasing grip over Western mainstream fans, combined with continuous media coverage, have created buzz that propels Pacquiao on top of the popularity chart in Asia.
After being elected as a congressman in his native Philippines this past May, along with multiple platinum albums, films, television shows, and endorsement deals, Pacquiao also conveys his personal brand in mainstream channels outside of sports.
After the “Pacman” retires, who might take over as the continent’s most endearing sports athlete? He or she will be unsurpassed in his chosen field. Will enjoy interest from major media entities. But also convey, perhaps in mythic terms, a life story that compels the globe to provide premium shelf space on a crowded world stage.
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