In the four years since "The Decision," LeBron James has gone from a widely despised figure to the global icon he professed he wanted to be. There are many reasons for this development — genuine maturity in several areas, two NBA championships, and the basic passage of time figure prominently — but the end result is that he's one of the more popular figures in American sports. So much so that, when he rejoined the Cleveland Cavaliers last Friday, he was greeted with no small amount of praise and even pleasant comments from the team he left behind.
Until now, though, we have not had a representative sample of Americans tell us exactly where LeBron ranks among other athletes of his gender. Thanks to Harris Interactive, we now have the answer. From Darren Rovell for ESPN.com:
LeBron James is the most popular male athlete in America for the first time in his career. So says a new Harris Poll, which surveyed what it says is a representative sample of 2,241 people in the U.S. last month.
James, whose highest ranking was No. 2 last season, topped retired Chicago Bulls star and Charlotte Hornets owner Michael Jordan, who had the distinction of being No. 1 from 1993 through 2005.
It was a long road for James to get to the top. In 2011, the year after his "Decision" to go to Miami, James fell completely out of the top 10. James was most popular among the 18-36 and 49-67 age demographics, while the poll reflected that Generatrion Xers (37-48) preferred Jordan.
Rounding out the top 5 is [sic] retiring New York Yankees shortstop Derek Jeter, Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning and in a tie for fifth is [sic] Los Angeles Lakers guard Kobe Bryant and NASCAR driver Dale Earnhardt Jr.
It's unclear if Friday's announcement would have had any effect on the results beyond changing most of the results from Florida and Ohio, but it's safe to assume it would not have had an overwhelmingly negative effect overall. While there are still a decent amount of people who don't like the guy, the fact is that LeBron is a really popular athlete, enough so that he has been able to win over an older generation that grew up on different types of athlete behavior and loftier championship expectations. Either that or they just wanted to get off the phone quickly and named the first athlete who came to mind. It was around the time of the NBA Finals, after all.
Apart from LeBron's status, the most interesting aspect of the poll is the persistent popularity of Jordan, who is much more of a businessman and brand than an athlete at this point in his life. He had such a major impact on an entire generation of sports fans, though, that he still ranks very high. It wouldn't be surprising if some of the younger respondents to the poll put Jordan near the top even if they'd never seen him play. His sneakers, highlights, and reputation are mainstays of the culture.
We must ask two questions, then. First, how long will LeBron stay at the top of the list? Given that older athletes like Derek Jeter and Peyton Manning are still near the top, it figures that appearing on the list for several consecutive years is the best indicator that a player will stick around. With no up-and-comers assured of vaulting over LeBron, it's a safe bet that he'll be first again in 2015 unless the Cavaliers prove to be a complete disaster.
The second, ultimately more interesting question might be just how old the 51-year-old Jordan (or his fans) will have to get before he falls out of the top five. Based on the available evidence and the age of the poll's respondents, it could be at least another decade.
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