As the Broncos beat reporter for the Denver Post, Lindsay Jones admits her job description has become "all Tim Tebow, all the time." But over the past two months, Jones has noticed that the Tebow phenomenon has filtered outside her city limits. As she's traveled to cover the Broncos on the road, the reporter says the lead feature in Sunday sports sections is often the Denver quarterback, and that Tebow is a recurring and vibrant subject on the sports-talk debate airwaves as well.
Clearly, the Broncos quarterback is moving the sports needle nationally. But by how much, and who else is doing likewise? To get an answer we sought advice from a number of sources, including those in sports marketing, television and research.
Perhaps the most remarkable finding is that Tebow now rates alongside such celebrities as Jennifer Aniston, Lady Gaga, Tom Hanks, Will Smith and Taylor Swift when it comes to aspiration (the degree to which consumers feel a celebrity has a life to which they would aspire) and influence (the degree to which consumers believe a celebrity is an influence in today's world).
That's according to The Marketing Arm's Davie-Brown Index (DBI), which measures nearly 3,000 celebrities, including current and retired sports figures, each evaluated by respondents and given a weighted average score across eight attributes -- appeal, aspiration, awareness, endorsement, influence, breakthrough, trendsetter and trust.
Tebow's DBI scores between April 2010 and September 2011 (the last time he was measured) were generally flat. Given his Denver's winning streak and Tebow's remarkable fourth-quarter play over the past eight weeks, SI.com asked The Marketing Arm to provide updated statistics.
Not surprisingly, between September and this week, his scores are up in every category except appeal (it measures consumer likeability of the celebrity), which remains flat.
"Phenomenon is an accurate description for Tim Tebow," said Matt Delzell, a group account director from The Marketing Arm.
Tebow's highest scores are in aspiration, influence, endorsement and trendsetter. The second-year quarterback ranked No. 402 on DBI's Aspiration scale this fall, but has soared to No. 15 as of this writing. He's No. 32 on the influence list (Swift and Gaga are tied for 28th while Hanks is at No.33 and Aniston at No. 38 ), 79th on endorsement (amidst Peyton Manning, Beyonce, Katy Perry, Shaun White, and Clint Eastwood), and among the top 85 trendsetters (on par with George Clooney, Rihanna and Justin Timberlake).
Regarding Trust, Tebow has moved into the top 75 of the DBI Index, which puts him in the same neighborhood as Tony Dungy, Harrison Ford and Mike Krzyzewski. He's ranked 1,050 in awareness, which means he's known by 55 percent of U.S. consumers, according to the DBI. That puts him in the same range as Randy Moss, Steve Young, Sugar Ray Leonard, Phil Jackson and Tony Stewart. (Among current athletes, Tiger Woods ranks No. 1 in awareness followed by Venus Williams, Michael Phelps, Kobe Bryant, Serena Williams, Manning and Michael Vick.)
Delzell said he finds the breakthrough category an interesting metric in relation to television because it can portend upcoming trends. "When you consider the amount of messaging that a human being encounters on a day to day basis, what you really want to find out is who stands out in the crowd," Delzell said. "Who makes an impact? Who do people pay attention to?"
Interestingly, Argentine soccer star Lionel Messi ranks first among current athletes in the breakthrough metric. Tebow sits at No. 260, well behind Drew Brees (No. 3 among current athletes), Manning (No. 4), Aaron Rodgers (5), Troy Polamalu (7), Sidney Crosby (11), Josh Hamilton (14) and Dirk Nowitzki (15).
Those stars have had the benefit of appearing in and excelling in the playoffs, something Tebow is trying hard to replicate. With three games left in the regular season, Denver leads its division and has the inside track on a playoff spot. It also has a dream television ratings matchup this week against Tom Brady and the New England Patriots. CBS will air the Tebow-Brady showdown on Sunday to 79 percent of the nation's homes. It's easily the sexiest matchup on the Week 15 schedule, which is why NBC attempted to flex the game for its Sunday night primetime slot, ultimately getting rebuffed. The Broncos media relations department said the game is the most credentialed regular-season game since Sports Authority Field at Mile High opened in 2001.
Nationally, no sports program illustrates the manner in which Tebow moves the needle more than ESPN2's First Take, which features analyst Skip Bayless, a nearly 60-year-old man, defending the quarterback against handpicked opponents like a self-appointed F. Lee Bailey. But the proselytizing is working. The program's five most-watched shows ever have come in the last two months, and First Take's most-watched program (586,835 viewers) came on Dec. 5, following Denver's 35-32 win over Minnesota.
In early December, ESPN even dedicated an entire afternoon edition of SportsCenter (rebranded as TebowCenter) to the quarterback, and the Friday before the New England game it had Bayless on set in Denver with Broncos fans lining the background. "As people have gotten more in a fever pitch over Tebow, we have ridden the wave," said Norby Williamson, an ESPN executive senior vice president of programming and production.
As to be expected, Tebow's popularity is showing up in social and digital media too. According to Stephen Master, a vice president for the Nielsen company and the head of its sports group, Tebow ranks third in terms of buzz in 2011 about current athletes, trailing only LeBron James and Tiger Woods, but ahead of Aaron Rodgers. That's based on numbers compiled by NM Incite (a joint company of Nielsen and the McKinsey Company), which scans the web looking for any time the person is mentioned in a blog, Twitter post, etc...
Another metric of note is the Nielsen Company's use of "N-Score." It evaluates a player's endorsement potential and gauges the effects of positive and negative news about athletes and sports personalities. While the 2011 rankings are not complete, SI.com asked Nielsen to run some names year-to-date, including Tebow, and the results are: Michael Jordan (682), Manning (262), Jeter (145), Brady (131), Rodgers (119), Manny Pacquiao (76), Tebow (41), Pujols (40), Woods (36), and James (26). Negative activity off the field tends to lower scores, which is why Woods and James moved down in 2011 while Rodgers and Pacquiao went up. In short, the higher the N-score, the higher a sports figure's overall endorsement potential. But an athlete with a low N-score can still move the needle because polarizing figures often draw eyeballs. Masters predicted Olympic athletes will soar up both metrics come the summer of 2012.
As far as which teams move the needle, it's what you'd expect. The Cowboys consistently draw the most interest nationally among NFL teams -- its Thanksgiving Day game against the Dolphins drew 30.9 million viewers, the most-watched television show this fall. The Packers Dec. 4 win over the New York Giants was the most-watched (29.8 million) Sunday telecast this season.
Also worth noting is Rodgers and teammate Clay Matthews now top the list among NFL players in jersey sales (from April 1 to Nov. 29). The Packers also lead the league in team sales, followed by the Steelers, Cowboys, Bears and Patriots. The Lakers, Celtics and Heat all rated well on television last season, and Heat games topped TNT's, ABC's and ESPN's list of most-watched games.
"Clearly when you have franchises that move the needle whether it's the Yankees, Cowboys, Red Sox or Lakers, and then you have signature players that perform on the field as well as produce a level of interest in other areas, there are reasons we do more of Tom Brady and Patriots coverage," said ESPN's Williamson.
Austin Karp, an assistant managing editor of ratings & research for the Sports Business Journal, said it's rare that a niche sport can produce someone who moves the needle for an audience. Karp noted the only tennis pairing that impacted television ratings was when Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal faced each other in a major. The same can be said for Serena versus Venus on the women's side. Karp said if Dale Earnhardt Jr. returned to the winners circle in NASCAR, he would drive ratings for the sport. There are no current athletes who impact television ratings for the MLS and college sports ratings is often dictated by the teams that play rather than individuals. Predictably, college basketball powerhouses such as Duke, Kentucky and North Carolina draw the best ratings nationally. The NCAA tournament as a whole, obviously, moves the needle in March.
"The stories on the field, the emotions of the game, is what ultimately moves the dial," said Turner Sports executive producer Jeff Behnke. "You can say Tim Tebow is moving the dial but is it the thrill of what Tim Tebow is doing with his team and the excitement surrounding how those games are ending moving the dial? It's a combination of all of that. For the NCAA Tournament, fans are watching because of the anticipation of that thrilling moment on the court."
Baseball offers an interesting examination. Regionally, it moves the needle significantly and baseball players can score off the charts in the DBI and N-score when rated locally.
For example, the Phillies dominated ratings more than any other team, with one-tenth of Philadelphia households (a 9.7 local rating, or the percentage of all TV homes in that local market watching) -- the most of any market -- tuned in during regular season to the local market games, according to the Sports Business Daily. The Cardinals (8.9), Brewers (7.9) and Red Sox (7.9) also had strong followings. In terms of total number of households, given population figures, the Yankees were the top team with roughly 323,000 local New York City households tuned in to their 2011 regular season games (and 918,000 households for the playoffs), according to Nielsen and SBD.
For now, Jeter is the only baseball player who scored above 100 on Nielsen's N-score. Masters said the one guy to watch for in the future if he comes back healthy is Nationals pitcher Stephen Strasburg. His first major league start on June 8, 2010 drew 588,000 viewers on the MLB Network, still the most-watched game in the history of that network. Said Masters: "If he comes off the injury and has a Justin Verlander-type season, I think Strasburg could be the guy that breaks through in baseball."
Ultimately, the NFL offseason will bring an end to the intense Tebow coverage, but he's driving audiences for now. "To see Tebow's dramatic rise over a short period of time is pretty rare in the DBI," said Delzell. "You will see that reflected in Olympic athletes next year, so it's not unprecedented. But with Tebow, it's different because this has been a longer shelf life."