LeBron James has finally passed Michael Jordan—at least when it comes to being the most popular sports figure in the United States.
In a poll released Thursday by Harris Interactive, the Cleveland Cavaliers forward passed His Airness for the honor for the first time in his 11-year career. Jordan, who has not played basketball in more than a decade, still comes in at No. 2. Jordan had been topped the poll from 1993-2005 and was No. 1 again last year. Harris surveyed 2,241 adults online between June 11 and 16 to come up with the final tallies.
Perhaps the most popular player in sports history during his heyday, Jordan's relatively low post-career profile played a part in his drop. He's stayed in basketball as the primary owner of the Charlotte Hornets and appears in a popular Hanes ad campaign, but makes minimal public appearances and rarely gives press interviews.
James, meanwhile, is the most publicly recognized post-Jordan basketball player and in the prime of a Hall of Fame career. He averaged 27.1 points, 6.9 rebounds and 6.3 assists last season while leading the Miami Heat to their fourth straight NBA Finals berth. The four-time league MVP left Miami after four seasons earlier this month to return to his hometown Cleveland Cavaliers.
It's worth noting that Harris conducted this poll before James' return to Cleveland. Given the public outpouring of support for his decision—at least outside the Miami metro area—it's possible he would have widened his gap over Jordan even more. An informal poll run by the Huffington Post showed a majority of fans supported James' return to Cleveland.
The 29-year-old Akron native famously left the Cavaliers for Miami in an ESPN televised special in 2010. The way James handled his first dip into free-agent waters made him perhaps the most polarizing figure in sports at the time. He dropped completely off the Harris list after being a mainstay and was roundly booed in stadiums across the United States.
The last three years have seen him embark on something of a reputation-reclamation project. First, he stripped away the embraced villainy we saw during his first year in Miami. Second came his first championship. Then another. What once was hate slowly developed into an appreciation of a generational talent at the height of his powers.
By last year, he was already back as the second-most popular athlete. With James embracing his role as a community leader and doing what many criticized him for avoiding four years ago—attempting to win a title as the only in-his-prime superstar on a roster—there may be no ceiling to his popularity.
"I feel my calling here goes above basketball," James wrote in his first-person Sports Illustrated piece. "I have a responsibility to lead, in more ways than one, and I take that very seriously. My presence can make a difference in Miami, but I think it can mean more where I’m from."
Ranking behind James and Jordan is a player at the end of his journey. Derek Jeter's farewell tour, which included a final stop at the MLB All-Star Game this week, earned him the distinction as America's third-favorite athlete. As the press release indicated, though, even something as trivial as a favorite athlete can be generationalized and politicized:
Different groups have their different favorites. For men, LeBron James is number one, but for women it's Michael Jordan. There are also generational differences. Millennials and Baby Boomers say LeBron James is their favorite sports star, while for Gen Xers it is Michael Jordan and for Matures it is Derek Jeter. Politically, there are differences on the issues of today as well as who is the favorite sports star. Republicans say it is Derek Jeter, Democrats say it is Michael Jordan, and Independents say their favorite sports star is LeBron James.
Denver Broncos quarterback Peyton Manning, coming off an MVP-winning season, is fourth. Kobe Bryant and Dale Earnhardt Jr. tied for fifth place. Tiger Woods dropped from No. 3 to No. 8 this year, and Tim Tebow (No. 8) and Phil Mickelson (No. 9) dropped out of the Top 10.
As for female athletes, Serena Williams continues to reign supreme. She's the United States' favorite female sports star for the fifth straight year, while only Danica Patrick prevents it from being an all Williams sisters top two. The NASCAR driver continues to nip at Serena's heels, while Venus Williams ranks behind Patrick at No. 3.
For now, though, everyone in all of sports is playing a game LeBron already has figured out. Which sounds awfully familiar.
Follow Tyler Conway (@tylerconway22) on Twitter.
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