Branding the World of Sports

Who are the most popular athletes in America?

Posted by ZA on July 30, 2009

Americans love sports, so naturally we love the athletes who play the games.  But which athletes are our favorites?  Who are the top 10 most popular athletes in sports today? The Harris Poll recently released the results of their 2009 survey that asked 2,177 U.S. adults to tell who were their favorite sports stars.

America’s Favorite Male Athletes (2009):
1. Tiger Woods (Golfer)
2. Michael Jordan (Retired, NBA star)
3. LeBron James (Forward, Cleveland Cavaliers)
4. Kobe Bryant (Guard, Los Angeles Lakers)
5. Derek Jeter (Shortstop, New York Yankees)
6. Jeff Gordon (Driver, Nascar)
7. Peyton Manning (Quarterback, Indianapolis Colts)
8. Dale Earnhardt Jr. (Driver, Nascar)
9. Brett Favre (Retired, NFL star)
10. Albert Pujols (Baseball player, St. Louis Cardinals)

America’s Favorite Female Athletes (2009):

1. Serena Williams (Tennis player)
2. Venus Williams (Tennis player)
3. Danica Patrick (Driver, Indy Racing)
4. Candace Parker (Forward, WNBA)
5. Mia Hamm (Soccer star)
6. Maria Sharapova (Tennis player)
7. Annika Sorenstam (Golfer)
8. Chris Everett Lloyd (Retired, Tennis star)
9. Anna Kournikova (Retired, Tennis player & model)
10. Michelle Kwan (Figure skater)

What stands out to me about the lists, particularly among the guys, is the influence that Nike has among the list.  7 of the 10 guys on the list endorse Nike, you could count Brett Favre as an 8th since he endorsed Nike brand, Starter.  The only 2 guys who do not have endorsement deals with Nike are the two Nascar drivers, who wouldn’t be a target for a shoe/apparel endorsement deal.  So you could say that Nike has a clean sweep of the eligible males.  Among female favorite athletes Nike’s percentage drops down a bit, but they still have four of the top 10 and the #1 overall.  Serena Williams, Mia Hamm, Maria Sharapova and Chris Everett Lloyd all cash endorsement checks signed by Phil Knight.

Other brands are well represented; Gatorade has deals more than half of the two lists.  That number is even greater if you factor in all of the Pepsico clients, Gatorade’s parent company, on the two lists.  Nike’s chief competitor, Adidas, also has a couple of current (Parker) or former endorsers (Kournikova) on the list.

But no brand is as well represented on the two lists as Nike.  The question it brings up is whether Nike’s marketing is helping to make these stars more popular or whether Nike has just picked the most popular athletes?  My thought is that it’s a bit of both.  Nike has always been one of the innovative marketers in sports.  They’ve revolutionized the game of sports marketing with campaigns they built around athletes, starting with Michael Jordan and continuing today through Tiger Woods.

Consider that Nike did not even make golf shoes or clubs prior to signing Tiger in 1996.  Nike’s original endorsement contract with Tiger Woods was $40 million dollars over five-years, which was then followed by a five year, $100 million dollar extension.  But their spending did not stop there, Nike has spent tens of millions more to promote their association with Tiger Woods.  And for their efforts, it’s estimated that Nike Golf pulled in $725 million in sales in 2008.  Through their endorsement deal and promotion, Nike essentially created a new billion dollar revenue stream for the company.  That type of innovative marketing will generate the cash to pay for a lot of endorsement deals.

And Nike has never been shy about spending for top talent.  They signed quasi lifetime endorsement deals with a few of the top names (Jordan, Woods & Serena Williams) to make sure they locked up their stars.  Other deals might as well be lifetime contracts because you won’t see Jeter or Sharapova pitching anyone else’s shoe brand anytime soon.  And Nike jumps at the chance whenever their has been an opportunity to add a big, new star to their roster.  Just recently they solidified long-term agreements with two members of the top 10 list above who happen to be the most popular players in the NBA; LeBron James and Kobe Bryant.

All of the athletes above are some of the biggest stars in sports; a feat they achieved because of their superior talent and lots of hard work.  But to ascend to the top of the list of America’s favorite athletes also requires a little help from sponsors.  And from their dominance on the two lists, it appears that Nike is a really good sponsor to have.

5 Responses to “Who are the most popular athletes in America?”

  1. Kobe said


    If kobe and carmello arent up there than u must be some sad cavs fan who watches p*rn all day and dont know sh*t about basketball

    Real top 10:

    1. Tiger Woods
    2. Kobe Bryant
    3. Alex Rodriguez
    4. Chase Utley
    5. Carmello Anthony
    6. Michael Phelps

    F you lebron suks

    • ZA said

      I think Lebron is popular outside of Cleveland. This poll survey over 2,000 sports fans around the country, many who voted for James.
      Your man Kobe is obviously popular as well, but I don’t think Carmelo is at the level yet nationwide where he’ll appear in these type of polls.


  2. syrym said

    i would go with either Kobe or Lebron
    these guys best for now not only in bball but also in sports
    and F the rest

  3. kgm said

    the list is accurate for both men and women athletes because Tiger, and Serena are truly the # ones. And Kobe (f… him, we hate him) has reach the popularity , endorsement, style, and ability of Michael Jordan. Kobe is a selfish f…ing media favorite. He won’t have the rings without Shaq, Fisher, and now, Pau Gasol. If Gasol was not with the Lakers now, they’ll be down. The proof was from 2004-2007.Kobe is completely shit without the nearest “Help.” He was trashing the Lakers from 2004-2007. Wanted to get traded…because alone he could not tackle and bring it on the Lakers championship. And if you contradict this comment, then you are in denial. and you need a wack doctor, f… you Kobe. Lebron James is the closest to Jordan’s style, explsiveness, charisma, vibrance, originality, and the cavs won’t be able to bring it on without him. On the contrary, The Lakers won’t be able to bring it on in Championship without Pau Gasul—that’s the difference Between Lebron and Kobe beef. Lebron is the golden one that’s why he has those big endorsement that Kobe can hardly match. The list is accurate. And as much as I like Carmelo Anthony more than Kobe beef, He hasn’t earned what Peyton Manning has done and doing (with his wisdom of play strategies and fidelity to his coach and the whole COLTS organization. Peyton Manning, like Farves, is a legimate choice for popularity and heroism stature. End of discussion!

  4. kgm said

    correcting error: “Kobe beef has not reached Michael Jordan’s achievements, marketing ability, and likeability (charm); Kobe beef stinks like a fish and he has a personality of a skunk.”

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