December 15, 2011

The Year of the Quarterback

Is Aaron Rodgers the greatest of all time? For now, it seems he’s at least the greatest of 2011. That’s according to a Marist Poll done in conjunction with the Marist College Center for Sports Communication that asked sports fans nationwide to pick the player that had the biggest impact on their sport in 2011. Green Bay Packer quarterback Aaron Rodgers was the runaway victory, selected by 32% of all survey participants. Miami Heat forward LeBron James finished second with 19%, followed by rookie NFL quarterback Tim Tebow with 15%. Foreign athletes Dirk Nowitski and Rory McIlroy finished in fourth and fifth with 13% and 12%, respectively, confirming America’s preference for American sports talent.

So even as the NBA has traditionally been promoted as the sport of individual stars while football remained a team sport, the overall popularity of professional football has made its top players true stars. Perhaps this also has to do with the polarizing nature of LeBron James over 2011, who clearly lost some fan support in his move from Cleveland to Miami. It would be interesting to see whether greater success and a less abrasive public relations campaign for James might change those numbers. We’re also reminded that foreign athletes do not resonate with American sports fans as much as American athletes.

A deeper look in the statistics reveals more. While Rodgers led the overall poll, there were large differences between white and non-white survey participants. 35% of non-white sports fans choose LeBron James vs. the 19% who choose Aaron Rodgers. This was nearly flipped for white sports fans, 38% of whom chose Rodgers against 14% for James. Clearly, race played a part in sports fans perceptions of star athletes. At the very core, it may reveal that sports fans tend to gravitate towards star athletes that they perceive as being similar to them in some way. This would explain the dominance of Aaron Rodgers with white fans, and it would also further explain the relative disinterest with foreign athletes. Without a greater breakdown of race, it is difficult to fully analyze the impact of race on the choice of LeBron James by non-white sports fans, but there is obviously a strong correlation.

There were also some distinct differences amongst generations. Millennials (18-30) were the only generation to pick LeBron James as first with 32%, with Aaron Rodgers finishing second with 29%. This is a reminder of the importance of stars to this younger generation, a group that was raised on YouTube videos of spectacular play and ESPN’s Top 10, where greatness is isolated for consumption. Basketball is well suited for that type of sports spectatorship and likely drives younger, more technologically savvy sports fans towards basketball stars like James.

On a final note, Tim Tebow finished third with 15%, although a bit higher (20%) in the south, where he finished second to Rodgers. This is fairly impressive for a rookie quarterback that barely began to start when this poll was conducted. While Tebow was already a noted and visible figure during the polling period in November, it is likely his poll numbers may have increased as the calendar progressed, given his success and increasingly intensive media attention. Assuming Tebow continues to start and thrive in the NFL, it will be very interesting to see how he fares in a similar survey for 2012.

For more analysis, visit the Center’s YouTube Channel for video commentary of the results. For complete results and methods, visit the Marist Poll.

About the Poll: Marist Poll National Adults: Interviews conducted November 8th through 10th, 2011, N=1026 MOE +/- 3%. National Sports Fans: N=624 MOE +/- 4%. Totals may not add to 100% due to rounding.

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