Tim Tebow is by far the best-known religious athlete in the U.S.; awareness is high even among people who aren’t religious and don’t follow sports

(Original release date: March 12, 2012) Sports media has been filled with story after story about Tim Tebow – particularly regarding his religious beliefs. But how well known is he for those beliefs among the American population in general?

Grey Matter Research (Phoenix, Arizona) surveyed a demographically representative sample of over one thousand American adults and asked them a very simple question: when they think about well-known athletes who are particularly religious or involved in their religious faith, which one athlete comes to mind first?

The results demonstrate just how pervasive is awareness of Tebow among Americans – but at the same time, that awareness of Tebow may not be as high as some might expect.

Exactly half of all American adults name Tim Tebow as the person they think of first when they think about well-known athletes who are particularly involved in their religious faith. Fourteen percent think about some other individual (with no consensus as to who that is), while 36% of Americans say nobody at all comes to mind.

The names other than Tebow that people think of as religious athletes represent a wide range, including Troy Polamalu, Kurt Warner, Dwight Howard, Josh Hamilton, Steve Young, Drew Brees, Derek Fisher, Albert Pujols, and Darrel Waltrip. People named some long-retired athletes (e.g. Rosey Grier, Reggie White, George Foreman, Cris Carter, Muhammad Ali), athletes from outside the U.S. (e.g. Portuguese soccer star Christiano Ronaldo, Brazilian soccer player Kaká), and even some names that are well-known, but have not been commonly positioned as particularly religious (such as Michael Jordan, Kobe Bryant, Tiger Woods, and Lance Armstrong).

Just how pervasive the name Tim Tebow is in American culture depends upon one’s perspective. On one hand, half of all Americans think of Tebow as a religious athlete before they think of anyone else. No other individual is thought of first by more than 2% of all Americans. Tebow is ten times more likely to be named than all other football players combined, and 3.6 times more likely than all other athletes combined.

On the other hand, although media coverage of Tebow and his faith has seemed to be nearly ubiquitous at times over the last year, half of all Americans do not think of Tebow first when they think about religious athletes. In fact, for all the attention paid to Tebow, over a third of American adults say not a single athlete comes to mind as someone who is particularly involved in his or her religious faith.

One of the most interesting findings from this study is how well known Tebow is among people who are not religious, as well as among Americans who don’t follow sports.

Among people who pay a lot of attention to sports, 71% think of Tim Tebow first as a particularly religious athlete, 9% think of someone else, and 20% say no name comes to mind. Among those who pay just some attention to sports, it’s 52% Tebow, 22% someone else, and 26% no one at all. Among people who pay just a little attention to sports, 42% name Tebow before anyone else, 13% name another person, and 45% don’t think of anyone. Finally, among people who say they pay no attention to sports, 31% still can name Tim Tebow as a religious athlete, while 11% name someone else, and 58% say no one comes to mind.

The likelihood of thinking of Tim Tebow first as a religious athlete does not vary significantly according to whether people regularly attend religious worship services, nor according to whether they regularly read the Bible or other sacred texts. Those who attend worship services are more likely than those who don’t to be able to name a religious athlete (72% to 58%), but they are also more likely to name someone other than Tebow (17% to 11%).

The ability to think of a religious athlete, and the likelihood of naming Tebow as that athlete, also does not vary according to whether people identify with or are involved in a Christian religion, a non-Christian religion such as Judaism or Islam, or are actually atheist or agnostic. In fact, 61% of atheists and agnostics name Tim Tebow as the religious athlete they think of first. Only people who express no particular religious identity or preference at all are less likely than average to think of Tebow as a religious athlete (31%; 63% could not name anyone).

Tebow is usually identified specifically with evangelical Christianity, but interestingly, Americans who identify themselves as evangelical Christians are not especially likely to have top-of-mind awareness of Tebow. Among self-described evangelicals, 51% think of Tebow first, 18% come up with another name, and 31% can’t name any religious athletes at all. Among those who do not consider themselves to be evangelical Christians, 50% think of Tebow first, 13% think of someone else, and 37% cannot name anyone – numbers which are not statistically different.

First-name awareness of Tim Tebow is understandably higher among men (who are more likely to follow sports) than it is among women (62% to 40%). And the higher the income level, the more likely the individual is to think of Tebow first (ranging from 37% among respondents in households earning under $30,000 annually to 63% among people earning $100,000 or more annually). But there are no significant differences according to respondents’ age, and very little difference according to race or ethnicity (only Latinos show somewhat lower first-mention awareness of Tebow, at 37% – there are no differences among Caucasians, African-Americans, or Asian-Americans).

Ron Sellers, president of Grey Matter Research, found it noteworthy that so many people outside the realm of religion and sports are very aware of Tim Tebow. “To understand this player’s crossover awareness, we have to look at the fact that almost a third of Americans who pay no attention at all to sports think of Tebow first when asked to name an athlete who is particularly involved in his or her religious faith,” Sellers said. “He’s equally top-of-mind among people who don’t go to church, don’t read the Bible, and don’t identify as evangelicals as he is among those who are religious.”

At the same time, Sellers noted, it’s easy to get carried away with “Tebowmania” and figure that everyone knows who he is. “While it’s amazing that half of all Americans think of Tim Tebow first when they think of religious athletes, it’s still important to grasp the fact that half do not. He’s immensely well known, but far from ubiquitous.”

Sellers also pointed out that the data for this study was gathered just before Jeremy Lin of the New York Knicks, who has been candid about his own religious faith, started getting heavy media coverage. “Even so, it’s doubtful that Lin would have made a huge dent in the top-of-mind awareness of Tim Tebow, for a variety of reasons. Tebow has been in the public eye for years, going back to his success at the University of Florida. He also plays a higher-profile position in a higher-profile sport. In addition, the coverage of Jeremy Lin has tended to focus more on his out-of-nowhere story and even his ethnic background, rather than just his religious faith,” Sellers suggested.

Study Details:
The study was conducted by Grey Matter Research, a market research and consumer insights firm located in Phoenix, Arizona. Grey Matter has significant experience with research both within the sports and recreation world, and related to religious and social issues. The sample of 1,011 adults is accurate to within ±3.1 percentage points at the 95 percent confidence level with a 50 percent response distribution.

The study was conducted in all 50 states. Respondents’ age, education, household income, geography, racial/ethnic background, and gender were carefully tracked to ensure appropriate representation and accuracy.

  1. This is really interesting. And surprising!

    I think it’s a good sign!

    I do wonder, though, if there’s more to it. Are these respondents telling us how much they like their churches because they’re the ones who are still in their churches? Might be interesting to survey people who recently *stopped* participating to see how their sentiments differ. Just a thought.

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