Who Are The Most Popular Athletes In Sports In 2016?

In January 2015, I conducted a small survey to figure out who the biggest names in American sports were. At the time, it was done to show the impact that Derek Jeter had on baseball in his last season and how the Yankees, sports media, and brands had done a great job of celebrating him. On top of that, it was to show how baseball might have an issue filling the void in having a superstar.

This year, I wanted to do the same thing with no specific mission in mind. Who are the biggest names in major American sports? Who are the athletes that brands can use as endorsers for products? Who are the stars that the public and the media gravitate to?

Below are the results of each survey. Each sport is also broken down and on separate pages. Please feel free to leave your input and your feedback.


The Biggest Names In The NFL

Note: Jim Kelly is so high up because my network is primarily from the Western New York area. If anything, this is a testament to the popularity of retired stars from the NFL who get involved in their community.

The NFL is a quarterback-driven league, as they are the ones that control the pace of an offense and have the game on their shoulders. It shows in these results, as all of the top selections in this pole play that position.

While the top two spots are players who are near the end of their careers, younger players like Newton and Rodgers (as well as others like Russell Wilson) are ready to represent the league when they retire.

Lastly, it’s understandable when people say that Roger Goodell is the most powerful man in sports. His decisions help drive a day of the week in the fall. that, too, shows as he got more votes as a commissioner than any other one in any sport.


The Biggest Names In The NBA

Every team has different focal points in basketball, which allows for more positions to be recognized amongst the most popular players unlike the NFL. Some teams rely on shooters and guards. Others rely on big men down low.

There has been one signature player or players that define a certain era. That success lasts, going all the way from Jordan to Bryant to James and Curry today.


Most Popular MLB Players

If you shine in one of the big markets (New York, Boston, Los Angeles), you’re more likely to be known by the casual baseball fan than most players.

Pitchers were not featured in the Top 5. Unless there is a monumental postseason performance (a la Madison Bumgarner in 2014), the lack of playing every day decreases your popularity compared to everyday players.


Most Popular NHL Players

Note: Like with the NFL, Jack Eichel is so high up because of the large number of survey takers in Western New York. This shows the popularity of NHL players in their local communities as well as the exciting potential of the newest crop of young stars (Eichel, McDavid, Larkin, etc).

The NHL does not have nearly the exposure of the other major sports in America and as a result, their stars do not have anywhere near the name recognition to casual sports fans like in football, basketball, or baseball.

Communities with NHL teams are drawn to their exciting stars (Washington, Pittsburgh, Buffalo, Chicago, Boston). If they bring success, the fans will come and be able to put them top of mind.


Most Popular Soccer Players

To the casual fan, soccer is a 2-man game, with Messi and Ronaldo leading the way. Their success year over year on and off the field help catapult them to become superstars in the USA.

The effect of the Premier League’s deal with NBC hasn’t been seen notably with specific players. Only time will tell to see if players like Harry Kane and Mesut Ozil, who are stars in England and to English soccer fans in America, will have crossover with casual fans.


Most Popular American Soccer Players

Most people (in this survey) could not think of one individual player. As a result, fans know and support the national team and culture of soccer, regardless of the players.

Despite the recent success of the 2015 women’s team, more of the individuals on the men’s team are remembered by the casual fan.

MLS teams have made plenty of moves to bring in international superstars and legends. They, however, do not have the name recognition that homegrown stars have.


Most Popular Golfers

With golf being an individual sport, the stars are easy to point out. Success at major tournaments with a large TV audience is important to determining a golfer’s popularity.

Despite stars like Woods and Mickelson being past their prime, golf has their next stars in the wings with Spieth, McIlroy, and Fowler.


Most Popular Tennis Players

Like in golf, it’s an individual sport, so winning on the biggest stages helps to raise the popularity of a player.

We don’t know just yet who will take over for Djokovic and the Williams sisters once they go past their prime. There have been 3 or 4 players consistently winning every tournament every year so the next star isn’t known just yet.


Most Popular UFC Fighters

The fighters that are dominant as well as exciting are the faces of the sport.

Despite one fighter separating herself from the rest, the others are not as well known. The UFC still has some work to do to capture the casual fans and make them more aware of their other fighters.

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