It is widely assumed that celebrities are imbued with political capital and the power to move opinion. To understand the sources of that capital in the specific domain of sports celebrity, we investigate the popularity of global soccer superstars. Specifically, we examine players’ success in the Ballon d’Or—the most high-profile contest to select the world’s best player. Based on historical election results as well as an original survey of soccer fans, we find that certain kinds of players are significantly more likely to win the Ballon d’Or. Moreover, we detect an increasing concentration of votes on these kinds of players over time, suggesting a clear and growing hierarchy in the competition for soccer celebrity. Further analyses of support for the world’s two best players in 2016 (Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo) show that, if properly adapted, political science concepts like partisanship have conceptual and empirical leverage in ostensibly non-political contests.
Perspectives on Politics, 2020, forthcoming