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Volume 21 No. 1

Research and Ratings

There are as many as 100,000 former professional athletes across all sports living in America today, and more than 10,000 of them are former NFL players alone. Every one of those athletes, no matter how minor or great their accomplishments as pros or how wonderful or challenging their personal histories may have been, had fans who followed them, loved them, and wanted to be like them or grow up to play like them. They were the kind of role models who have lasting relationships with those who follow them, and that value endures long after their playing days are over.

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

If that doesn’t surprise you, maybe this will: Joe Montana has been in the top 20 for each of the last 20 years. He retired in 1994. How often do you see Joe in anything? How about this: Six of the top 30 athletes in 2013 are retired. That’s 20 percent, and I didn’t count among them either Ray Lewis (he played in 2013, for the NFL playoffs and the Super Bowl) or Tim Tebow (who is out of the NFL but still ranks in the top 30).

Who is picking retired players? From the ESPN Sports Poll over those

Jordan: 10 years after retirement, still No. 1

2011-13 years, we know that these fans are a little older (by about three years) than those who pick active athletes. You have to be at least 20 today to have watched Michael Jordan play when you were 10, and you have to be 30 to have seen Montana as a 10-year-old. And even though most of the fans picking Jordan tend to be a bit older, Jordan was the fourth-favorite athlete for 12- to 17-year-olds in 2013.

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

Michael Jordan 4.1%
Peyton Manning 2.8%
LeBron James 2.5%
Kobe Bryant 2.1%
Tiger Woods 1.6%
Tom Brady 1.5%
Lionel Messi 1.4%
Derek Jeter 1.4%
Drew Brees 1.0%
Aaron Rodgers 1.0%
Tim Tebow* 0.9%
Muhammad Ali 0.7%
Adrian Peterson 0.6%
Joe Montana 0.6%
Dale Earnhardt Jr. 0.6%
Kevin Durant 0.6%
Troy Polamalu 0.6%
Cristiano Ronaldo 0.6%
Serena Williams 0.5%
Ray Lewis** 0.5%
Phil Mickelson 0.5%
Robert Griffin III 0.5%
Derrick Rose 0.5%
Dwyane Wade 0.5%
Tony Romo 0.4%
Brett Favre 0.4%
John Elway 0.4%
Roger Federer 0.4%
Ben Roethlisberger 0.4%
Larry Bird 0.4%

* 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.

Last year, Joe Pisarcik was named president and CEO of the NFL Alumni Association. Pisarcik was the one who reminded me recently that all former pros share the common ability to persist and to succeed at a high level, no matter how different they may be in their other gifts and abilities.

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 ( is the founder of Luker on Trends and the ESPN Sports Poll.


Where Michael Jordan, Tiger Woods, Joe Montana and Pete Rose rank in listing of favorite athletes over 20 years.


Michael Jordan
Retired 2003
Tiger Woods*
Joe Montana
Retired 1994
Pete Rose
Retired 1989**
1994 1 2 91
1995 1 2 54
1996 1 40 4 50
1997 1 2 7 58
1998 1 6 8 81
1999 1 6 9 64
2000 1 2 6 52
2001 1 2 9 63
2002 1 2 9 71
2003 1 2 9 35
2004 1 2 8 58
2005 1 2 10 58
2006 1 2 13 84
2007 2 1 13 66
2008 2 1 13 91
2009 2 1 15 118
2010 3 5 15 90
2011 1 4 11 49
2012 1 9 14 64
2013 1 5 14 46

* 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.