Behind The Scenes

A look behind the ESPN Sports Poll

Tim Tebow was voted America's favorite active professional athlete in latest ESPN Sports Poll

Earlier this week, some of the results of the December ESPN Sports Poll were released and garnered widespread attention for the news that Denver Bronco Tim Tebow received the most mentions as America’s favorite active professional athlete.

Healthy debate and discussion ensued — an offshoot of all good polling — and it got us thinking about what exactly the ESPN Sports Poll is all about. For the answers, Front Row turned to Barry Blyn, Vice President Research, Marketing and Sales.

Barry Blyn

The poll was founded in 1994 by Dr. Richard Luker, who brought the idea to Chilton Research and ESPN with the realization there was business potential for an independent syndicated service to track sports fan interests. ESPN saw the value and became the title sponsor and investor of the new ESPN Sports Poll which has been operated by an independent research firm ever since. In 2010, Luker returned to manage the ESPN Sports Poll under his company Luker on Trends.

Since its inception, according to Blyn, the Poll has evolved “and not just kept pace, but also has remained at the forefront of the polling industry. Prior to the start of the ESPN Sports Poll in 1994, there were no systematic measures of sports fan activity in America.

“The current research methodology follows strict American Association of Public Opinion Researchers (AAPOR) standards with the actual interviewing managed by SSRS, a nationally renowned firm regarded for the integrity of its methodology.”

Last year, the methodology was upgraded to include a cellphone-only sample and the option of Spanish language interviewing.

“The ESPN Sports Poll is among the brand’s longest-running, most robust and most depended upon instruments,” Blyn said.

“For more than 18 years, the Poll has been a ‘weather vane’ in guiding us on fans’ preferences for various sports, the intensity of that interest, their sports behavior and perceptions of key sports brands.”

In addition to being used within ESPN on a daily basis for content and programming guidance, marketers have been using the ESPN Sports Poll for years to evaluate and track their investment in sports sponsorships.

The data aids ESPN divisions in myriad ways from exploring Hispanic sports fans’ preferences and dislikes (to shape the company’s Hispanic priority across ESPN’s English Language and Deportes properties) to helping the espnW brand develop (focusing on women’s sports consumption and participation patterns).

In another recent example, fan bases sizes for the NFL and NBA were monitored before and after the respective leagues’ labor situations.

Some of the reaction to the Tebow results focused on what was perceived to be a small sample size. But as Blyn pointed out, “It’s important to look not just at the 1,500 monthly interviews but across the more than 14,000 done throughout the year and over the lifespan of the poll.

“This question has been consistent since 1994 and is a simple open-ended question: Who is your favorite professional athlete? And because of this, we get a very long tail of “top of mind” responses, so getting the plurality of mentions is significant.”

In fact, through 18 years of polling and nearly 400,000 interviews only 10 different athletes have made it to the top as America’s favorite active pro athlete – Tebow is the eleventh.

“Certain events can cause traction, however brief, for other athletes and even in single waves the Sports Poll with this simple sensitive question has been able to reflect the sentiment at that time,” Blyn said.

“We believe this is the case for Tim Tebow. What helped our analysis is that Tebow’s average rank for the 12 months of 2011 was 12th with 0.8 percent of mentions.

“Kobe Bryant was No. 1 with 2.6 percent. Knowing the history of the Poll as Dr. Luker does, this bump in December for Tebow, given the parallel events the last month, indicated to us that this was meaningful.”

It’s clear that the ESPN Sports Poll is the industry standard for comprehensive and accurate gauging of sports fans’ temperatures at any given time.

“The poll is a ‘triple threat’,” Blyn said. “It’s a comprehensive and high integrity piece done with peerless methodology, it has perspective of more than 18 years of data and it has the superb leadership of Dr. Luker.”

Sample Questions from the ESPN Sports Poll:
1. Compared to this time last year, would you say that you are (more or less) interested in (EXTENSIVE LIST OF SPORTS)?
2. Who is your favorite professional athlete?
3. What is your favorite professional sports team?
4. In the past twelve months, have you played in a sports fantasy league?

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