By Tom Van Riper
Well, this would seem to be a first. The four most influential athletes in America really don’t play. At least not lately.
Idle NFL quarterback Tim Tebow has been back in the news, but not for any heroics: he was recently cut loose by the New York Jets after a one-year experiment as a part-time QB behind Mark Sanchez failed to yield results. The “Tebowmania” days in Denver are only 15 months old, but it seems like 15 years. And yet, when Americans are asked which pro athletes they believe carry the most influence on the public, Tebow’s name tops the list.
A unique set of QB strengths and weaknesses and an affinity for wearing his Christian faith on his sleeve combine to make Tebow a compelling public figure, even as an NFL backup. Whether or not he’s able to remain deeply ingrained in the public consciousness without eventually getting more time on the field remains to be seen. But for now, Tebow, he of 2.2 million twitter followers, is still the man people talk about.
“For a backup quarterback to be talked about so much is incredible,” says Stephen Master, Senior Vice President of Sports for Nielsen, which conducted the surveys over the past several months in partnership with E-Poll, a market research firm in Encino, Calif. “But it is the biggest market.”
Tebow, judged to be "influential" by 29 percent of respondents, certainly felt the wrath of the New York market, where fans and press harped on his acquisition as an ill-fated experiment that helped lead the Jets downhill. That Tebow would be blamed for the Jets demise to a 6-10 team last year is puzzling - Tebow didn’t lose any of those games because, really, he didn’t even play. But the uneven play of Sanchez naturally led to speculation of whether the backup should get a chance to start, a development that would naturally ignite the Tebow debate yet again.
The three athletes in line behind Tebow haven’t seen much action over the past several months either: Michael Phelps, Usain Bolt and Derek Jeter. Don’t be too surprised though – Jeter is a Yankee legend whose rehab from an ankle injury gets more press than the performance of any Yankee on the field does.
And 2012 was an Olympic year, after all. “You always get that pop,” says Master of the afterglow enjoyed by Bolt and Phelps. Teen gymnastics sensation Gabby Douglas also makes the cut at No. 7. And Master points out that he 2012 summer games probably pushed soccer star David Beckham onto this year’s list, thanks to his visible role in helping to deliver the torch at the opening ceremonies in his native London.
Here are the top five most influential athletes:
1. Tim Tebow
2. Michael Phelps
3. Usain Bolt
4. Derek Jeter
5. Peyton Manning