One of them, Michael Jordan, has been the favorite athlete of Americans for 16 of the last 20 years, including the last three, 2011-13. Ten years after he quit playing, he is still No. 1. Shouldn’t that be a bit surprising?
The ESPN Sports Poll measures the most popular athletes in America from across all sports by asking the open-ended question, “Who is your favorite athlete?” Respondents can name anyone. Thousands of athletes have been mentioned over the last 20 years. There are some incredible athletes playing today, and yet, the most-favored hasn’t played a game in 10 years.
Montana: Out of the spotlight, still a fan favorite
Who is picking retired players? From the ESPN Sports Poll over those
Jordan: 10 years after retirement, still No. 1
When you break it down by age, if you follow an active player, you are more likely to be more engaged in that sport than someone your age whose favorite is retired. The difference is not dramatic, though.
Favorite Athletes in 2013
|Dale Earnhardt Jr.||0.6%|
|Robert Griffin III||0.5%|
* Effectively retired (because he is no longer being paid by the NFL) but not included here in the ranks of the retired.
** Retired now, but active in 2013 for NFL postseason.
So what? The value of an athlete does not end when the player retires, and the fans who loved them the most continue to love them after their playing days are over, no matter what. The most enduring love for retired pros is reserved for the very best, even if they were not the most honored athletes. Pete Rose left baseball 25 years ago, when he agreed to be banned from the game, yet in the last 20 years, only once did he miss the top 100 favorites list. For perspective, in 2013, he was tied with active six-time NASCAR champion Jimmie Johnson in 46th place.
Tiger Woods is another powerful story about fans “no matter what.” Woods entered the list at No. 40 in 1996, the year he joined the PGA Tour. In 1997, he won the Masters and jumped to No. 2. He dropped back a couple years, then returned to No. 2 as he won four major tournaments in a row. From 2007-09, Woods overtook Jordan as America’s favorite athlete. Then, at the end of 2009, he lost three things: his No. 1 status as fan favorite, his run of winning majors, and his family life. In 2010, he dropped to No. 5, and he was No. 9 in 2012. But with everything that wasn’t working in his life for much of the last five years, most of his fans stayed with him — enough to keep him in the top 10 in America — no matter what.
So what? There are about 100,000 retired athletes scattered all over America, and we, as an industry, are not really doing a lot to empower them to be front-line ambassadors for the love of sports, for the power and importance to health of active play, and as examples of what happens if you follow your dreams. Each and every one of them, by merely making it to the pros, beat the long odds and demonstrated the qualities that build the love of sports, motivate play, and encourage people to follow their dreams.
The fact is, we all have a retired pro living near us. The vast majority of them were never prepared for what life would be like after they finished playing, for the 40 to 60 years that followed the five to 15 they may have played as pros. There is incredible talent and potential for growth in sports to be found by those who have the foresight to invest in the considerable skills of retired pros who blanket the United States, still have the love and admiration of their fans, and all the tenacity it took them to become pros in the first place.
Rich Luker (firstname.lastname@example.org) is the founder of Luker on Trends and the ESPN Sports Poll.
HOW THEY STACK UP
Where Michael Jordan, Tiger Woods, Joe Montana and Pete Rose rank in listing of favorite athletes over 20 years.
* Joined PGA Tour in 1996
** Playing career ended in 1986; was on-field manager until 1989.
Source: Luker on Trends - ESPN Sports Poll. Results based on more than 400,000 interviews with U.S. residents ages 12+, from 1994-2013.