Jul 27, 2009

What Google tells us about the global obsession with sport

By Simon Kuper

Last year, the world carried out many more Google searches for the footballer Cristiano Ronaldo than for the then US president George Bush.

We know this, thanks to possibly the most advanced public-opinion tool ever invented: Google’s own “Insights for search”, launched last year. This tool could sweep away all the surface-scratching consumer data and dubious surveys to tell us what the world really cares about.

Every day, more than a billion people search on Google for information. Much of what they search for is sport. In fact, checking sports “news” online is now probably the most common way of consuming sport, ahead of watching or playing or talking about it. “Insights for search” tells us what people search for. It also locates searchers geographically, down to the level of individual US towns.

Here are some initial findings about the world and sport:

The most searched-for athletes in the world since 2004 (when Google’s public records begin) seem to be: Cristiano Ronaldo, David Beckham, Ronaldinho, Tiger Woods and Lance Armstrong. (The exact order is hard to establish, as it depends on whether searchers looked for the athletes’ surnames only or their full names.) I tried many other candidates – Roger Federer and Kobe Bryant, for instance – and this quintet won.

Since 2004, Beckham has inspired as many searches worldwide as Bush. The country that in 2009 continues to devote the highest proportion of its searches to the Englishman is, incidentally, Burma.

Globally, Cristiano Ronaldo would have beaten Bush even more thoroughly last year but for the boost the president got from the very popular news item that San Franciscans had voted not to name a sewerage plant after him. In all the world, Angolans have searched most devotedly in 2009 for the sulky Portuguese winger. Even Americans have searched more for Ronaldo this year than for many of their own best athletes, such as Alex Rodriguez, Derek Jeter and Shaquille O’Neal.

However, we shouldn’t exaggerate Ronaldo’s fame. So far this year, Michael Jackson has beaten him globally by a factor of about 12. Jackson also leaves Barack Obama standing. (“Insights for search” only reports a search’s relative popularity, not its absolute frequency.)

Football – the gridiron version – was the most searched for team sport by Americans in 2008, but soccer lagged only marginally behind baseball and basketball. The relative proportions were: football 38, baseball and basketball 18 each, soccer 16. Worryingly for soccer, though, its search trend in the US has been flat since 2004.

The US town most likely to search for football was Columbus, Ohio. The keenest football-searching state by a mile was Alabama. There was a striking political divide between “football states” and “soccer states”: eight of the 10 states that devoted the highest proportion of their searches to football voted for John McCain in last year’s election, while nine of the top 10 soccer-searching states voted Obama.

Worldwide, US sports clubs are relatively puny brands. The New York Yankees, Boston Celtics and New England Patriots – biggest in their sports in recent years – have each inspired only about a fifth as many global searches as Manchester United since 2004. Real Madrid’s lead is even bigger: it has prompted almost seven times as many searches as the Yankees, the most searched-for American team.

Some peculiarities: Filipinos search for the Celtics even more than Americans do. Kenyans seem to be the world’s keenest followers of Manchester United, though the Irish and Malaysians also search for United more than Britons do. And El Salvadorans adore Real Madrid.

Sport has a big impact on a nation’s brand. Searches for “Spain” and “Germany” in 2008 peaked during football’s European championship. No other political or economic or trivial event involving these countries inspired nearly as much interest.