How Is LeBron James the Most Popular Athlete in America?

LeBron Jamesand Sprite Unveil Refurbished Gym at Boys & Girls Club in New Orleans
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On any given NBA game night, an informal poll around living rooms and barrooms might reveal there was one true villain in the NBA: LeBron James. In a real poll conducted online by Nielsen’s Harris Interactive, LeBron turned out to be America’s favorite sports star. The results showed independent voters, baby boomers, and millennials preferred James most as LeBron took the top spot from His Airness, Michael Jordan.

The Harris Interactive Poll was conducted during the NBA Finals, prior to his decision to rejoin Cleveland, and was based on the responses of 2,241 adults online with the results “weighted to reflect the composition of the adult population,” according to the pollers. LeBron’s leap to the top was just one step up from his second-place finish in 2013, but it was a far cry from 2011, when he didn’t crack the top ten after you-know-what.

A “Decision” forgotten?

Ever since he made “The Decision” and emerged from a pyrotechnics show inside Miami’s American Airlines Arena, a slew of fans both casual and serious put LeBron on their most hated list, never to return. Many have detailed their distaste for James on social media and sports sites without abandon. Yet maybe the haters have just been a bit louder. Plenty have been worshipping the King.

According to the Harris Poll, the rest of the country has been happy to watch James’s high-flying, stat-busting performances on a nightly basis and somehow ignored the chatter. At least voters who described their political party as Independent overwhelmingly did, along with baby boomers and millennials, all of whom went with King James. LeBron also had the most support from the Midwest and South.

Still, LeBron would have needed support from all circles and age groups to be the most popular athlete in America.

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For anyone who hasn’t held a grudge since the days he took his talents to South Beach, there has been exquisite James basketball to witness nightly on the court. There have also been two MVP awards, two NBA championships, and other historical feats. For those who don’t care about stats, there have been the thunderous dunks, the precision shooting, the skilled post play. LeBron seemed to steel himself after his PR nightmares and focus on the game. It has paid off handsomely with the success of the Heat, and it has helped his image just as much.

Step aside, Jordan

Talk about living in someone’s shadow. For every accomplishment in LeBron James’s career, someone is always sneaking in to whisper “not as good as Jordan.” It matters little that James has more MVP awards and championships than Jordan did at his age — or that LeBron has shot better than Jordan ever did from the field — because those opinions aren’t going to change. For some fans, it won’t matter if LeBron surpasses every milestone of Jordan’s.

What LeBron has done is win over the opinions of enough Americans that he is the most popular athlete in the country. Republicans and seniors over age 68 went for Derek Jeter (third place), who doesn’t have a political bone (or, some say, opinion) in his body. Women, Democrats, and Generation X still prefer Michael Jordan, who placed second in the poll after taking first in 2013 (and first in every poll from 1993 to 2005).

It may only be a small consolation to LeBron, who must feel the aura of His Airness in many things he does, to knock aside MJ on a favorite athlete list. Then again, if he’s made so much headway, why not keep the foot on the gas? A few years and a couple championships more, maybe there will not be so much fixation on the Jordan comparison. There will certainly be less anger channeled his way online. Who knows — they may even forget about something that back in the day they called “The Decision.”