He Shoots, He Scores! Americans Still See Michael Jordan as the Greatest Sports Star of All Time

Babe Ruth, Muhammad Ali, Serena Williams and Peyton Manning round out the top five

05:00 AM EST Dec 30, 2015 Rating
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He Shoots, He Scores! Americans Still See Michael Jordan as the Greatest Sports Star of All Time

NEW YORK, N.Y. – The debate is as legendary as the athletes themselves: who is the greatest sports star of all time? According to Americans who follow at least one sport, Michael Jordan is still #1 – maintaining his status at the top of the list. Babe Ruth rises from 3rd to 2nd place and Muhammad Ali moves up the ranks as well, from 4th to 3rd. New to the list – and Sports Illustrated’s 2015 Sportsperson of the Year – is tennis star Serena Williams, who comes in 4th. Rounding out the top five is quarterback Peyton Manning, who previously ranked 8th.

These are some of the results of The Harris Poll® of 2,368 general population U.S. adults, along with representative oversamples of 511 Hispanic Americans (interviewed in English and Spanish) and 179 Asian Americans (interviewed in English), surveyed online between September 9 and 17, 2015.

Quarterback Joe Montana holds steady in his spot at #6, while LeBron James makes the jump shot and moves up from 10th in 2009 to 7th. Meanwhile, landing in a sand trap, Tiger Woods sees a large drop from 2nd in 2009 to 8th. Tom Brady, another newbie on the list and another quarterback, places 9th, while hockey all-star Wayne Gretzky ranks 10th (previously 7th).

With a few new additions to the list, a few had to fall off. Brett Favre (previously ranked 5th), Ted Williams (previously tied for 8th) and Hank Williams (previously tied for 10th) all drop from the top 10.

Demographic divides

Despite differences among gender, region and ethnicity, one thing is clear – Michael Jordan reigns supreme. The same can almost be said among the generations as well, with the exception of Matures, who say Babe Ruth is the greatest sports star of all time. Looking to second and third place, some greater differences arise:

Greatest baseball player

Babe Ruth and Hank Aaron rank 1st and 2nd when fans of the sport are asked to name the greatest baseball player of all time, while Mickey Mantle makes the number three spot. Rounding out the top 5 and all tied for 4th place are Willie Mays (previously 3rd), Ted Williams (previously 4th), and Pete Rose (new to the list). One Yankee legend, Lou Gehrig (previously 5th), falls from the top five.

Greatest football player

Football has a new #1, as Joe Montana jumps ahead two spots. Tom Brady joins the ranks in the #2 spot, as does Peyton Manning in spot number three. Walter Payton maintains his #4 spot while Jim Brown sees a drop from 2nd to 5th. With two new additions to the list, two greats had to leave and those are Brett Favre (previously ranked number one) and Jerry Rice (previously 5th).

Greatest basketball player

As he’s number one on the overall list, it’s no surprise that Michael Jordan is considered #1 on the greatest basketball player list as well, the same spot he held in 2009. Wilt Chamberlain sees a two spot jump from 4th to 2nd, while LeBron James makes his first appearance on the list in spot number three. Bill Russell also sees a jump from 5th place to 4th. Kareem Abdul-Jabbar joins the list in the #5 slot. With two new arrivals, we see Earvin ‘Magic’ Johnson (previously 2nd) and Larry Bird (3rd in 2009) take a backseat to the newcomers.

Greatest golfer

The greatest golfer list stays largely consistent from 2009, with Tiger Woods maintaining his position at the top. Arnold Palmer and Jack Nicklaus rank 2nd and 3rd, reversing their 2009 positions. Phil Mickelson continues to hold strong in 4th, while Ben Hogan jumps on to share this spot. Bobby Jones (previously 5th) falls from the top five.

Greatest tennis player

Tennis sees a big upset this year, with Serena Williams – unranked in 2009 – snagging the #1 spot. Roger Federer drops down from 1st to 2nd, as does Pete Sampras from 2nd to 3rd. Arthur Ashe jumps up one spot to #4, while the also-formidable Venus Williams finds her own spot on the list in the #5 slot. With the Williams sisters making big moves, Jimmy Connors (previously 3rd) and Andre Agassi (4th in 2009) lose their footing on the top five list.

Greatest soccer player

New this year, The Harris Poll also asked Americans to choose the greatest soccer player of all time. Pelé – touted as the most successful goal scorer in the world – tops the list, followed by Lionel Messi and David Beckham. Diego Maradona ranks 4th while Mia Hamm and Cristiano Ronaldo round out the top in a 5th-place tie.

 

TABLE 1a

GREATEST SPORTS STAR – TOP 10 RANKING

"Thinking about the sports you know, please indicate which two you think are the greatest sports stars of all time.”

Base: All adults who follow at least one sport

 

2009 Rank

2015 Rank

Michael Jordan

1

1

Babe Ruth

3

2

Muhammad Ali

4

3

Serena Williams

-

4

Peyton Manning

=8

5

Joe Montana

6

6

LeBron James

=10

7

Tiger Woods

2

8

Tom Brady

-

9

Wayne Gretzky

7

10

 

DROPPED OUT OF TOP 10 SINCE 2009

Brett Favre (#5), Ted Williams (#8 – tie), Hank Aaron (#10 – tie)

 

TABLE 1b

TOP THREE SPORTS STARS AMONG DIFFERENT GROUPS

FIRST CHOICE

SECOND CHOICE

THIRD CHOICE

Men

Michael Jordan

Babe Ruth

Muhammad Ali

Women

Michael Jordan

Serena Williams

Muhammad Ali

 

 

 

 

East

Michael Jordan

Babe Ruth

Muhammad Ali

Midwest

Michael Jordan

Babe Ruth

Muhammad Ali
Aaron Rogers

South

Michael Jordan

Babe Ruth

Muhammad Ali

West

Michael Jordan

Babe Ruth

Muhammad Ali

 

 

 

 

Millennials (18-35)

Michael Jordan

LeBron James

Serena Williams

Gen X (36-50)

Michael Jordan

Muhammad Ali

Babe Ruth

Baby Boomers (51-69)

Michael Jordan

Muhammad Ali

Babe Ruth

Matures (70+)

Babe Ruth

Michael Jordan

Joe Montana

 

 

 

 

White

Michael Jordan

Babe Ruth

Muhammad Ali

Black

Michael Jordan

Muhammad Ali
Lebron James

Hispanic

Michael Jordan

Muhammad Ali

LeBron James

Asian

Michael Jordan

Muhammad Ali

Serena Williams
Joe Montana
Tom Brady
Wayne Gretzky

 

TABLE 2

GREATEST BASEBALL PLAYER

"Thinking about baseball players over time, please indicate which you think is the greatest baseball player of all time.”

Base: All adults who follow baseball

 

2009
Rank

2015 Rank

Babe Ruth

1

1

Hank Aaron

2

2

Mickey Mantle

-

3

Willie Mays

3

=4

Ted Williams

4

=4

Pete Rose

-

=4

DROPPED OUT OF TOP 5 SINCE 2009

Lou Gehrig (#5)

 

TABLE 3

GREATEST FOOTBALL PLAYER

"Thinking about football players over time, please indicate which you think is the greatest football player of all time.”

Base: All adults who follow football

 

2009
Rank

2015
Rank

Joe Montana

3

1

Tom Brady

-

2

Peyton Manning

-

3

Walter Payton

4

4

Jim Brown

2

5

DROPPED OUT OF TOP 5 SINCE 2009

Brett Favre (#1), Jerry Rice (#5)

 

TABLE 4

GREATEST BASKETBALL PLAYER

"Thinking about basketball players over time, please indicate which you think is the greatest basketball player of all time.”

Base: All adults who follow basketball

 

2009
Rank

2015
Rank

Michael Jordan

1

1

Wilt Chamberlain

4

2

LeBron James

-

3

Bill Russell

5

4

Kareem Abdul-Jabbar

-

5

DROPPED OUT OF TOP 5 SINCE 2009

Earvin ‘Magic’ Johnson (#2), Larry Bird (#3)

 

TABLE 5

GREATEST GOLFER

"Thinking about golfers over time, please indicate which you think is the greatest golfer of all time.”

Base: All adults who follow golf

 

2009
Rank

2015
Rank

Tiger Woods

1

1

Arnold Palmer

3

2

Jack Nicklaus

2

3

Phil Mickelson

4

=4

Ben Hogan

-

=4

DROPPED OUT OF TOP 5 SINCE 2009

Bobby Jones (#5)

 

TABLE 6

GREATEST TENNIS PLAYER

"Thinking about tennis players over time, please indicate which you think is the greatest tennis player of all time.”

Base: All adults who follow tennis

 

2009
Rank

2015
Rank

Serena Williams

-

1

Roger Federer

1

2

Pete Sampras

2

3

Arthur Ashe

5

4

Venus Williams

-

5

DROPPED OUT OF TOP 5 SINCE 2009

Jimmy Connors (#3), Andre Agassi (#4)

 

TABLE 7

GREATEST SOCCER PLAYER

"Thinking about soccer players over time, please indicate which you think is the greatest soccer player of all time.”

Base: All adults who follow soccer

 

2015
Rank

Pelé

1

Lionel Messi

2

David Beckham

3

Diego Maradona

4

Mia Hamm

=5

Cristiano Ronaldo

=5


 

TABLE 8

SPORTS FOLLOWED

"Please select which of these sports you follow. Please select all that apply.”

Base: All adults


 

Total

%

Pro football

50

Baseball

32

Men’s college football

29

Pro basketball

22

Men’s college basketball

19

Ice hockey

15

Auto racing

14

Men’s golf

13

Men’s soccer

10

Women’s tennis

9

Boxing

9

Men’s tennis

8

Horse racing

8

Women’s soccer

7

Track and field

6

Swimming

5

Women’s college basketball

5

Women’s pro basketball

4

Bowling

4

Women’s golf

4

None of these

29

 

Methodology

This Harris Poll was conducted online within the United States between September 9 and 17, 2015 among 2,368 adults (aged 18 and over). Additionally, oversamples were collected in English and Spanish among 511 Hispanic (representing Spanish-dominant, English-dominant and Bilingual profiles) respondents and in English among 179 Asian respondents. Figures for age, sex, race/ethnicity, education, region and household income were weighted where necessary to bring them into line with their actual proportions in the population. Propensity score weighting was also used to adjust for respondents’ propensity to be online. 

All sample surveys and polls, whether or not they use probability sampling, are subject to multiple sources of error which are most often not possible to quantify or estimate, including sampling error, coverage error, error associated with nonresponse, error associated with question wording and response options, and post-survey weighting and adjustments. Therefore, The Harris Poll avoids the words “margin of error” as they are misleading. All that can be calculated are different possible sampling errors with different probabilities for pure, unweighted, random samples with 100% response rates. These are only theoretical because no published polls come close to this ideal.

Respondents for this survey were selected from among those who have agreed to participate in Harris Poll surveys. The data have been weighted to reflect the composition of the adult population. Because the sample is based on those who agreed to participate in our panel, no estimates of theoretical sampling error can be calculated.

These statements conform to the principles of disclosure of the National Council on Public Polls.

The results of this Harris Poll may not be used in advertising, marketing or promotion without the prior written permission of The Harris Poll.

Product and brand names are trademarks or registered trademarks of their respective owners.

The Harris Poll® #83, December 30, 2015

By Allyssa Birth, Senior Research Analyst, The Harris Poll

About The Harris Poll®

Begun in 1963, The Harris Poll is one of the longest running surveys measuring public opinion in the U.S. and is highly regarded throughout the world. The nationally representative polls, conducted primarily online, measure the knowledge, opinions, behaviors and motivations of the general public. New and trended polls on a wide variety of subjects including politics, the economy, healthcare, foreign affairs, science and technology, sports and entertainment, and lifestyles are published weekly. 

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