The 13 most famous active athletes in America
13. Cam Newton
What did Billboard used to say about fast-rising albums back when people actually bought music? No. 13 with a bullet? That’s Cam Newton. He’s last on this but moving up it quickly. Why? He’s the most charismatic athlete in sports playing the biggest position in sports in the biggest sport in sports. Plus, he’s been to a Super Bowl and while merely playing in sport’s biggest game doesn’t make you famous, it doesn’t hurt to have 110 million people hear your name that Sunday and tens of millions more hear about the infamous press conference the next day on shows like Today or Good Morning America. He got some heat for that, sure, but it’ll be forgotten news as the distance from it grows. Why not higher though? Because Cam is still relatively new to the game. If he keeps doing what he’s doing, he’ll be in the top three in a couple of years.
12. Tony Romo
Being quarterback for the Dallas Cowboys used to merit automatic inclusion on this list. From Don Meredith to Roger Staubach to Troy Aikman – given the media’s all-encompassing love of everything Cowboys, it was a natural. Then the lean years hit. Quincy Carter. Anthony Wright. Ryan Leaf (!). Clint Stoerner. Vinny Testaverde. Chad Hutchinson. And thought it seems like that downtime took forever, there was actually just five seasons between the end of Troy Aikman’s career and the start of Tony Romo’s.
11. Danica Patrick
A triumph of marketing.
10. Eli Manning
Elisha Manning, this high? Let me explain. No, there is too much. Let me sum up. Peyton Manning would have been at, or near, the very top of this list. He was the NFL’s biggest star and the player who’d crossed over the most, with his commercials, Saturday Night Live appearance and the fact that he’s been famous for more than two decades. That Manning name carries weight though and if you know Peyton you almost certainly know about his little brother, the one who makes the faces and beats Tom Brady all the time. Part of it is family-transmitted fame. Throw in the fact that Eli plays where the most people live and has been in two Super Bowls and, yeah, he deserves to be this high.
9. Michael Vick
Vick had brushes of superstardom before his legal issues thrust him into the non-sports news cycle. And though most people probably don’t even realize he’s still playing as a veteran backup, those years of running, throwing, Nike commercials, trials, suspensions and redemption still leave an indelible mark.
8. Phil Mickelson
Individual sports, as you’ll see with five of our final eight, are key. There’s no team affiliation to obscure your fame. You don’t wear a uniform that makes you seem like an equal to the 4th guy off the bench or the backup gunner on the punt team. It’s all you out there. And as the second-most famous American golfer for going on two decades, Phil, with his bright start, years of struggles in the majors, eventual victories, continued fame, elder statesmanship and commercials directed toward old people watching cable news, still moves the needle, even as his days as a contender are coming to a close. (Maybe he gets that U.S. Open this year at Oakmont?)
7. Alex Rodriguez
Overall, seven of the top nine athletes on this list have experienced some sort of legal or social infamy. Each, like our current subject, would have made the list without it, but it takes that second sort of heat to build crossover appeal. A-Rod of course was known for years as the best, highest-paid player in baseball, before he became a staple of New York tabloids for his love life, his affinity for staring longingly at himself in mirrors, PED allegations, PED denials during interviews in which cameras had a special hue that made his lips look purple, and then, eventually admission and a one-year suspension.
6. Venus Williams
5. Serena Williams
It’s forgotten now but Venus was actually famous first, going pro at 14 (making her the longest-tenured famous athlete of the 13) and having been talked about for at least three years before that – the tennis prodigy from Compton with a Svengali father who kept her out of junior tournaments. Everyone had an opinion on Venus before she hit her teenaged years. Richard Williams had either ruined her by not exposing her to players her own age or he was a genius who was going to eventually debut the greatest tennis player in the world. Seven Grand Slams later, it was Richard having the last laugh. And now, 22 years after joining the WTA, Venus is probably the most respected and most revered member of the Tour, a paragon of sportsmanship, hard work and fortitude.
But as Venus was coming up, there were always whispers that her younger sister – Serena – might end up being even better. That proved to be right, and then some. Within sports, Serena might be the most recognizable face this side of our No. 1 athlete. And while she certainly has mass crossover appeal, playing a sport that might as well be on life support in the U.S. is enough to put her further down the list than expected. Let’s put it this way: 95% of America hasn’t even heard of the Lemonade video and no one remembers who ended Serena’s Grand Slam hopes last year (Roberta Vinci). But all this obscures from the fact that we’ve ranked Serena as the 5th-most famous athlete in America, which is still pretty damn good.
4. Michael Phelps
If we weren’t in the educated-guess weeds before, we are now. (I swear that was an unintended pun.) Swap any of the next three and you could easily be right. But Phelps comes in last place amongst the "Big Four" because he’s only in the public eye when he’s getting caught doing something stupid or illegal or during the one out of every 208 weeks when America cares about his sport. Even so, the greatest Olympian in history has managed to parlay a career in a non-revenue sport into a lucrative, fame-making athletic life. Not even Carl Lewis reached the levels of fame Michael Phelps has. And that dude had a video.
3. LeBron James
LeBron comes in at No. 3 and is the only member of the top five not to have experienced some sort of tabloid notoriety. (Serena’s threats towards officials at the 2009 and 2011 U.S. Open were hers, in case you were wondering.) But LeBron has his own off-field fame, from the ill-fated Decision, to his far-better received letter to Cleveland, which was a phony ploy to get back into the good graces of America and, for a time, has. It’s one thing to meticulously manage an image, as LeBron and most of these athletes have, but it’s another to keep that up 24/7, which is what LeBron has basically accomplished, his semi-whiny comments about Steph Curry’s second MVP aside. Also, it’s at this point you’ve probably realized Steph Curry isn’t on our list. Sorry. Thirteen months of superstardom makes not for general fame. Come back in a year or two and Steph will be right around here on our list.
2. Tom Brady
Your eyes might roll as a sort of Pavlovian response every time you hear the word "Deflategate," but don’t underestimate its impact on Tom Brady’s fame. The Golden Boy went from the most famous player on the most well-known team in the country to the most famous suspended player on the most well-known team in the country who also happened to be married to a supermodel after having a child with a famous actress. (When you’re an US Weekly staple, you know you’re famous.) But with Deflategate in the news, Brady was on every network, including the news channels, every day for about 10 months. Yes, it took longer to legislate the alleged deflation of footballs than it does to bring a human into this world.
1. Tiger Woods
Even with Tiger’s career encroaching on David Duval territory, he’s still the easy, undeniable most famous athlete in America, a place he’s been since he went on his historic run in 2000 (and briefly interrupted only by Michael Jordan when he made that bizarre two-year comeback with the Wizards that everybody likes to forget). If Tiger could be so famous winning majors and appearing in memorable commercials, despite having a personality most of America thought was pretty "blah," think of how high into the stratosphere he became with his 2009 sex scandal, which was religiously followed for days and culminated with a live press conference that interrupted programming and was carried on national networks. The New York Post, a fairly good barometer of what people are talking about (generally), had Tiger on its cover 20 days in a row after his Ambien/Elin/Golf Club/Escalade accident, a record. Even in absentia Tiger remains famous and should he ever return to golf stardom (as I still believe he will), his run at the 2020 Masters, or whatever, will make Jack in ’86 seem like small potatoes.