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10 Sports Stars Who Are Way More Popular Overseas Than You Realized

Amber LeeSports Lists Lead WriterAugust 16, 2014

10 Sports Stars Who Are Way More Popular Overseas Than You Realized

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    Jeff Gross/Getty Images

    Let's be real: Outside the United States, soccer reigns supreme over the sports kingdom.

    This isn't to say that other major sports are ignored; the NFL has courted pro football fans in the U.K. through its series of games in London, and the NBA has found a passionate and largely untapped well of pro basketball fans in China and throughout Asia.

    Meanwhile, hockey and baseball continue to depend on various pipelines of talent from around the world to bring into their development programs and hopefully become the next Sidney Crosby or Yadier Molina.

    But, outside of Olympic competition, many of America's star athletes derive their fame from sports and achievements with a fraction of the same captive audience they enjoy here.

    And with the exception of U.S. women's tennis queen Serena Williams, the 21st century has not been kind to American athletes competing in sports that are globally popular.

    Some athletes, however, unexpectedly transcend market share and cultural differences—often by sheer volition of their unprecedented talent, sometimes by virtue of their personal story and on occasion, without much explanation at all.  

    These are 10 sports stars who are way more popular overseas than you realized . 

Ronda Rousey, UFC

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    Alexandra Wyman/Associated Press

    Since professional boxing spiraled into a dull abyss of pay-per-view events showcasing Floyd Mayweather handily defeating inferior opponents (by decision), MMA—underscored by UFC's popularity—has stepped into the vacuum and given fans some truly compelling storylines.

    UFC superstar and Olympic judo gold medalist Ronda Rousey is not only a complete beast in the Octagon, but also gorgeous, multi-talented and perfectly attuned to what makes great theater.

    Yet, at its core, her fame is built around her ability pummel other female fighters; most famously, by virtually dislodging arms from their sockets.

    In the United States, it's a tried-and-true formula; for our friends overseas? Maybe not. But Rousey is different—she's one of the most recognizable American athletes in Europe, per sports marketing firm Repucom (h/t Bloody Elbow), beating out fellow globetrotter Serena Williams.

      

Tracy McGrady, Retired NBA

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    ChinaFotoPress/Getty Images

    Retired NBA shooting guard Tracy McGrady's career seemed to evaporate almost overnight.

    The star was a dominant player for the Orlando Magic and Houston Rockets for much of the first decade of the new millennium; a seven-time NBA All-Star, T-Mac's status as one of the league's elite went from unquestioned to buried after the 2007-08 NBA season.  

    Unable to secure an NBA roster spot in 2012, McGrady proved that a falling star is still a star nonetheless when he signed with Qingdao of the Chinese Basketball Association. 

    A former teammate of towering Chinese basketball star Yao Ming, T-Mac is a popular figure among China's basketball fans...and was a legit (former) NBA star. 

     

     

     

Rickie Fowler, PGA

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    Bradley Kanaris/Getty Images

    An inoffensive orangecicle, sometimes freshly-mustached spectacle on the course and a charismatic goofball off of it, there's little doubt that on personality alone, PGA golfer Rickie Fowler could easily find his place as one of the subdued sport's most popular players.

    Fowler isn't just an interesting diversion, however, but a burgeoning force to be reckoned with—as evidenced by his third-place finish at last week's PGA Championship, which moved him to No. 13 in the world rankings.

    He's draw everywhere he goes, including international venues, because he makes it easy. So easy, that Fowler has raked in the endorsements, including global sportswear brand Puma, which has only increased his visibility on the world stage.

Kobe Bryant, Los Angeles Lakers

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    Luca Bruno/Associated Press

    Los Angeles Lakers star forward Kobe Bryant has virtually reserved his spot in the the Naismith Memorial Basketball Hall of Fame.

    Though injuries...and time...have blunted the (inevitably) final few seasons of his career, during the bulk of it Bryant cemented his place among the ranks of the basketball's most dangerous and prolific scorers.

    And he has those five championships to sweeten the personal accolades. 

    Despite those achievements, his career has also been defined by a perceived aloofness, bordering on detachment, with the media and even his own teammates. But what drives some people nuts can be a strength—and in Bryant's case, he is tailor-made for international stardom and ease on the world stage.

    As a member of the the U.S. men's Olympic basketball team, he has always been one of the team's biggest draws.

     

     

     

LeBron James, Cleveland Cavaliers

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    Dean Mouhtaropoulos/Getty Images

    LeBron James is always the biggest story in the NBA and in one of the biggest news makers in sports—period. 

    After his Miami Heat squad was thoroughly pummeled in June by an "old" San Antonio Spurs team in its failed bid to win a third consecutive NBA championship, King James blew up the narrative by returning to the Cleveland Cavaliers and their jilted fans.

    As one of the best ever to play the game and a star boasting major endorsements, it would be shocking if he weren't one of the most recognizable names internationally. 

    However, from the "The Decision" to undoing it, James' great career on the court and somewhat shaky management of public relations has felt very local, very American.

    But make no bones about it, he isn't an international afterthought: James sits at the top of the NBA's global list of best-selling jerseys and has (like the sport itself) proven to be a hot commodity regardless of the locale

Troy Polamalu, Pittsburgh Steelers

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    Mark Humphrey/Associated Press

    When the Pittsburgh Steelers traded up to take Southern Cal safety Troy Polamalu in the 2003 NFL draft, it was obvious that he was going to be a different kind of NFL player. 

    Excluding the fact he possessed insane athletic ability, everything about him—from his trademark, massive head of wavy locks, contrasted by his soft-spoken nature, to his unorthodox training methods—was uniquely Troy.

    His jaw-dropping, acrobatic big-play ability helped Polamalu become one of the NFL's marquee stars, but it's his Polynesian roots—and his efforts to raise awareness about issues impacting American Samoa—that make him one of the island's most revered figures today.

Derrick Rose, Chicago Bulls

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    Nathaniel S. Butler/Getty Images

    Chicago Bulls star guard Derrick Rose hasn't played much actual basketball since suffering serious (and seriously unfortunate) knee injuries in 2012 and 2013, but he remains a star here and abroad.

    Since 2012, Rose's jersey has shared top-three billing for the NBA's international sales, company that includes fellow superstars LeBron James and Kobe Bryant.

    Rose's global popularity is due in no small part to the growing and ravenous NBA fanbase in China—a market the league and its stars have embraced in an effort to grow the sport's presence.

     

     

Floyd Mayweather Jr., Boxer

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    Julian Finney/Getty Images

    As professional boxing's biggest draw and undisputed welterweight champ, Floyd "Money" Mayweather Jr. dictates whom he fights and how many millions he stands to earn from the match.

    Undefeated—and taking on opponents who rarely pose a real threat to his perfect record—Mayweather Jr. often seems most challenged by something more quixotic...his global star power.

    By agreeing to fight English boxer Amir Khan at Wembley Stadium (most likely in 2015), "Money" ensured his place as hot commodity in the U.K.—promising a sell-out and creating a buzz both here in the U.S. and abroad.

Tim Howard, Everton FC

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    Michael Regan/Getty Images

    One legendary 16-save performance in a valiant but losing effort against Belgium during a round-of-16 match during the 2014 FIFA World Cup, and United States goalkeeper Tim Howard vaulted from relative obscurity to household name in his native country.

    Yet before soccer emerged from its four-year pop culture slumber here in America and made Howard a star, he was thrilling soccer fans in the U.K. as Everton's keeper.

    An eight-year veteran of the Premier League club and previously Manchester United's keeper, Howard is no stranger across the pond—reportedly dating the former Miss Edinburgh and ex-Big Brother U.K. contestant Sara McLean—and parlaying his recent success into a new four-year contract.  

Ian Kinsler, Detroit Tigers

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    USA TODAY Sports

    Detroit Tigers second baseman Ian Kinsler is a great player—a potential 2014 Gold Glove winner.

    And because he's Jewish, he could also be the starting second baseman for Israel's national baseball team, along with several (as in an entire team) other notable MLB players.

    Israel failed to move past the first round of the 2013 World Baseball Classic, which would have allowed Kinsler to suit up.

    The prospect of a stacked roster, with Kinsler perhaps being the best of the group, has been big news in Israel.

    And when Kinsler was traded to Detroit by the Rangers, after the Tigers hired Israel national team manager Brad Ausmus, it guaranteed that the loaded roster idea wasn't going to fade with the news cycle.    

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