Who are the Most Famous Athletes in American Pro Sports?


Well, I did a study to find out the answer. I posted a survey on surveymonkey.com and provided a link to it on numerous message boards on ESPN. I got the 100 responses I was looking for within 24 hours, on the dates 4/3/2006 and 4/4/2006.

Most Popular Sports

I first asked people to pick as many out of 4 professional sports they paid most attention to, between: NFL, NBA, MLB, and NHL. I found that 69.7% of the people who responded to this question were NFL fans. 16.2% were NBA fans. 20.2% were MLB fans. 8.1% were NHL fans. These figures do not add up to 100.0% because of the participant’s ability to pick more than one sport.

The Questions

The next four questions were each about a different sports league. The basic wording for all of them was: “Give the first and last name of the first player that comes to mind when you think of the [insert league here], active or retired.” I will post these findings at the end of the article.

Age Distribution

A final important question was posed. It was about age. Participants fit into one of 5 options: Under 18, 18-25, 26-40, 41-55, and 56+. 99 people responded. 22.2% were under 18, 50.5% were between 18 and 25, 20.2% were between 26 and 40, 5.1% were between 41 and 55, and 2.0% were above 56.

Below are the findings for each of the 4 major professional sports in the U.S.


NFL players were by far the most spread out in terms of fame. Two players tied for first: active quarterback Brett Favre and retired quarterback Joe Montana were each named by 12 participants (12.0% each). Two more players were tied in the third spot: active quarterback Tom Brady and retired running back Barry Sanders each received 10 mentions (10.0% each). Long retired running back Jim Brown received 7 mentions (7.0%) and thus was the fifth most famous NFL player. In the end, 11 players received at least 3 mentions.

Of note here are the presence of only quarterbacks and running backs, which are often considered “glamor positions:” positions that receive great amounts of fame. That is certainly reflected here.


Retired guard Michael Jordan was by far the most famous NBA player. He was the person named by 72 of 100 respondents (72.0%). A distant second was active guard Kobe Bryant, who received 9 mentions (9.0%). Another distant finisher, retired guard Magic Johnson, was third with 3 mentions (3.0%). These were the three to receive at least 3 mentions.

The only consideration that could be conceived is that in the NBA, retired players draw more fame than active players. However, taking Jordan out of the equation would show active players as more famous. Jordan skews the results and makes any filtering difficult.


Retired and deceased MLB outfielder Babe Ruth was mentioned most often: 23 (23.0%) times. A close second was active outfielder Barry Bonds, who was named by 20 (20.0%) of participants. Active shortstop Derek Jeter finished third: he was named by 11 participants (11.0%). Active designated hitter David Ortiz, with 4 mentions (4.0%), and active outfielder Ken Griffey, Jr., with 3 mentions (3.0%) rounded out both the top five and the list of players with over 3 votes.

What are the two most noticeable trends? 1) Active players appear far more famous, and 2) position players, rather than pitchers, appear more famous.


NHL is similar to basketball in its disparity between its most prominent player and the rest. This one icon, if you will, is retired winger Wayne Gretzky. He received a majority of the mentions: 57 out of 95 (60.0%). Retired defenseman Bobby Orr was a distant second receiving 10 (10.5%). Other players with at least three mentions were active winger Jaromir Jagr (6 mentions, 6.3%) and retired winger Gordy Howe (3 mentions, 3.2%).

Retired players again seem far more famous, but this is skewed by the retired Gretzky’s widespread fame. However, unlike basketball, when you take the icon out of the question, in hockey the retired still retain the majority of fame. Perhaps this is a commentary on how hockey has fallen out of favor with the general public, which could explain why older players are better known.

Final Analysis

One way to decipher these findings is to say that Michael Jordan is the most famous American professional athlete of all time, as of today, with Wayne Gretzky as a relatively close second.

However, this may not be the most accurate analysis, because the athletes were divided by sport. Perhaps if 100 people were surveyed merely to name one athlete from these 4 sports, the results would be different.

What we can determine is that Michael Jordan and Wayne Gretzky are the biggest icons in their individual sports. Such figures are lacking in football and baseball.

There are a few ways of looking at this. They are not all mutually exclusive. This breakdown will serve as my absolute final analysis.

1. Michael Jordan and Wayne Gretzky are the most famous athletes in sports (see above).

2. Football and baseball are more popular because the fame of individual players is more spread out.

3. The fame of individual players is more spread out in football and baseball because these are the two most popular sports.

4. On a note similar to point 2, basketball and hockey are less popular, and therefore people only know of a handful of basketball and hockey players, and the first one they think of will almost always be the most famous person in that sport.

5. The fame of Jordan and Gretzky is simply too immense for other athletes in their sports to compete with.

6. When you consider that nearly seven-tenths of the participants followed the NFL closely, you might say the following.

6A. More people who follow the NFL means a wider variety of NFL athletes are known.

6B. Fewer people who follow other sports means a smaller variety of NBA, MLB, and NHL athletes are known.

7. Mostly younger people responded: 72.7% of participants were 25 or younger. This could explain the fact that, in general, fame of more recent athletes was higher than that of less recent athletes.

7A. When looking exclusively at hockey: the fact that 1) mostly younger people participated, and 2) very few NHL fans participated also explains, perhaps, the falling out of hockey from the national scene, leaving only it’s older fans remaining.

Your Turn

What do you think of the way the study was done? The results? Do you have any more analysis that I may have missed? Please comment!