Sports

LeBron James and Stephen Curry Tie as Gen Z’s Favorite Athletes

Soccer stars Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo also rank among the cohort’s top five favorite athletes, per new Morning Consult data

NBA stars LeBron James, left, and Stephen Curry topped the list of Gen Z's favorite athletes, according to Morning Consult data. IUnsplash, Getty Images / Morning Consult artwork by Anna Davis)

Gen Zers are no longer a mere fascination: They now wield serious purchasing power and cultural capital as they put their imprints on the global economy. Morning Consult surveyed Americans between the ages of 13 and 25 about their media tastes and habits, relationships with brands and interest in sports in order to better understand where, exactly, the youngest adult generation is now taking us.

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Los Angeles Lakers star LeBron James and Golden State Warriors sharpshooter Stephen Curry have dominated on the court for years. They collectively boast eight NBA championships, six league MVP awards and five Finals MVP trophies. And now they’re winning big with the Gen Z audience. 

A new Morning Consult survey shows James and Curry tied as Gen Z’s favorite athletes with net favorability ratings of 41, followed by Brooklyn Nets star Kevin Durant, who scored a rating of 28. Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo, who recently ranked as the top two most popular soccer players in the world, rounded out the top five overall athletes with Gen Z. Each scored a net favorability rating of 24. (Net favorability rating is the share of respondents with a favorable opinion minus the share with an unfavorable opinion.)

Player popularity skewed toward basketball: NBA stars accounted for six of Gen Z’s top 10 favorite athletes.

NBA Stars Dominate Gen Z’s Favorite Athlete Rankings

Net favorability rating* of the following professional athletes:

*Net favorability rating is the share of respondents with a favorable opinion minus the share with an unfavorable opinion.
Survey conducted Nov. 2-8, 2022, among a representative sample of 1,000 Gen Zers between the ages 13 and 25, with an unweighted margin of error of +/-3 percentage points. A separate survey was conducted Nov. 2-4, 2022, among a representative sample of 2,210 U.S. adults, with an unweighted margin of error of +/-2 percentage points.

The numbers behind Gen Z’s favorite athletes 

  • Gen Z’s top 15 favorite athletes include seven NBA players, four NFL players, three soccer stars and a tennis player. No MLB or NHL players made the top 15.
  • Of the 28 athletes included in the survey, New York Yankees star Aaron Judge, who reportedly signed a nine-year, $360 million contract last week to remain with the Bronx Bombers, ranked in the bottom third of player popularity among Gen Z, even after winning the most recent American League MVP award. The 30-year-old scored a net favorability rating of 9. 
  • Los Angeles Angels dual-threat sensation Shohei Ohtani, who is widely considered to be baseball’s next transcendent star, fared 2 percentage points worse than Judge. What’s more, 7 in 10 Gen Zers said they have never heard of the 28-year-old, who is one of the best pitchers and hitters in the sport.
  • Pittsburgh Penguins star Sidney Crosby — the NHL’s most popular player, according to previous Morning Consult research — had a net favorability rating of 7, putting the three-time Stanley Cup winner in the bottom quarter of Gen Z’s most popular athletes. 
  • Japanese tennis player Naomi Osaka, ranked No. 41 in the world, was the most popular female athlete with Gen Z, earning a net favorability rating of 14.
  • Curry ranked as the most popular athlete among all U.S. adults with a net favorability rating of 38. Kansas City Chiefs quarterback Patrick Mahomes, who tied with Denver Broncos star Russell Wilson as the NFL’s most-liked player ahead of the 2022 season, had a net favorability rating of 33 among the general population, followed by James and Wilson with ratings of 26.

Then vs. now: Gen Z’s most popular players 

Though Gen Zers may be more likely to identify as fans of the NFL than the NBA, basketball players have more star power with the hard-to-reach cohort than their counterparts on the gridiron. That trend is consistent with a 2020 survey, too. 

In 2020, half of Gen Z’s top 10 favorite athletes were NBA players, including four of the top five. Lakers legend Kobe Bryant, who wasn’t included as an option in the 2022 survey, ranked as the group’s favorite player, while James, Messi, Curry and Michael Jordan rounded out the top five. 

Curry’s standing has improved since then as well. He played second fiddle to James in 2020, but is now on equal footing. While Curry’s favorable numbers are lower than James’, his unfavorables are also significantly lower, making him the less polarizing figure.

The Nov. 2-8, 2022, survey was conducted among a representative sample of 1,000 U.S. Gen Zers between the ages of 13 and 25, with an unweighted margin of error of plus or minus 3 percentage points. A separate Nov. 2-4, 2022, survey was conducted among a representative sample of 2,210 U.S. adults, with an unweighted margin of error of plus or minus 2 percentage points.