From the year of the NASCAR driver to the year of the quarterback.
Last year three drivers from the NASCAR circuit made our list of America's most influential athletes, led by perennial Sprint Cup Series champion Jimmie Johnson. NASCAR hasn't exactly faded. Johnson, whose talent and guy-next-door demeanor endears him to fans, as well as to marketing chiefs of brands like Chevrolet, Quaker State and Lowe's, repeats as America's most influential athlete, based on public opinion polling. But fellow drivers Dale Earnhardt, Jr. (down from No. 3 to No. 7) and Jeff Gordon (off the list this year) didn't keep up, making way for newcomers like Jeremy Lin and Manny Pacquiao, and for the rise of several pro quarterbacks.
|In Pictures: America's most influential athletes|
This year, six of the 10 most influential athletes are NFL signal callers, with both Manning brothers now in the fold. In second place is Tim Tebow, who shot up from No. 10 last year after claiming the Denver Broncos' starting job and igniting "Tebowmania" across the country. Chalk it up to the dominance of pro football on television. Not many shows can match the 30 million viewers that the NFL gets for a playoff game, let alone the 100 million or so who tune in for the Super Bowl.
"The NFL is just killing it, the league is now part of the American landscape,” says Stephen Master, vice president of sports for Nielsen, which runs the survey our list is based on, along with California-based market research firm E-Poll.
Nielsen and E-Poll surveyed over 1,100 adults about dozens of well-known athletes to measure their likeability and whether they're considered "influential,” an important quality for marketers. The term, among 40 characteristics that respondents could choose from (others: leader, approachable, handsome), can mean slightly different things to different people. As Master notes, some may see an athlete as influential in his sport, while others see him as crossing over and being influential in society at large. Tebow is a perfect example: His clean living and public religious values make him a role model for many, even if they render him polarizing in some quarters.
Candidates were limited to pro athletes who are currently active and who score at least 20 percent "awareness” with the general public.
Dropping off the list from 2011: Gordon, Michael Phelps, Troy Polamalu, LeBron James and Shaquille O'Neal (who retired from the NBA – no longer eligible). Their replacements: Lin, Pacquiao, Eli Manning (who added a second Super Bowl title in January), Drew Brees and Aaron Rodgers. Those last two may seem a bit curious, since Brees is two years removed from his Super Bowl title and Rodgers a year from his. But both continue to grow in public stature – competing in the playoffs and pleasing fans who see strong work ethics, an appealing mix of humor (Rodgers' State Farm ads that poke fun at his "championship belt” move) and community involvement (Brees continues to be closely identified with New Orleans, even more so with NBA superstar Chris Paul now playing in Los Angeles).
"Brees is part of New Orleans itself, he's raised his profile,” says Master. With old standbys Tom Brady and Peyton Manning still going strong, the NFL's dominance in the public's imagination is alive and well.
The top 5: