In the 18 years of the ESPN Sports Poll — the standard for sports intelligence in the industry — there have been just 11 different athletes crowned as America’s favorite active pro athlete (by month).
The list includes Michael Jordan, Tiger Woods and LeBron James.
With December 2011′s poll results comes a new name: Tim Tebow.
Tebow was recognized by 3 percent of Americans surveyed as their favorite active pro athlete, placing him above Kobe Bryant (2 percent), Aaron Rodgers (1.9 percent), Peyton Manning (1.8 percent) and Tom Brady (1.5 percent) in the Top 5.
It is by far the fastest and earliest any athlete has assumed the top position since the inception of the poll in 1994.
“To put this in perspective, Tim Tebow rose to the top before the end of his second pro season. It took Tiger Woods three years, LeBron James eight years and Kobe Bryant 11 years,” said Rich Luker, founder and director of the ESPN Sports Poll. “I think we may be at the front end of a new era in sports stars.”
The only other athletes to hold the top spot for at least a month since 2007 are Brett Favre, Manning, Woods, Bryant and James.
“This is an exciting finding and one that reflects the sentiment of all sports fans, not just the online or social media world,” said Artie Bulgrin, Senior VP for Research and Analytics, ESPN Sales and Marketing.
“For 18 years, ESPN Sports Poll has been the only on-going and nationally representative study about sports interest in America. And this past year we greatly improved the rigor and quality of our survey to include cell phone only and Spanish speaking respondents – to truly represent the opinions and attitudes of all American sports fans.”
The ESPN Sports Poll for December 2011 included 1,502 interviews from a nationally representative sample of Americans 12 and older.
Further illustration of the “Tebow Effect” comes from ESPN’s First Take, where Monday’s episode was the most-watched in the program’s history (an average of 587,000 homes, records since 2006). In fact, it was the fourth time this NFL season the show’s viewership record was broken — all coming after Tebow’s first 2011 start as Denver Broncos quarterback on Oct. 23.
“[Tebow] makes the needle move,” said Pardon the Interruption’s Tony Kornheiser. “He’s the guy that everyone is curious about.”