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Which athletes and teams are most mentioned by big sports media? [Study]

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How much can we trust sports media to accurately represent what occurs in pro games? We found ourselves asking that exact question and wanting to answer it with data-backed information. Are certain outlets favoring or blackballing particular athletes or even entire teams? Is the world of sports journalism ingraining its own heroes in our mind using the power of sheer repetition? Finally, we have answers. 

After scraping thousands of headlines from top sports journalism sites (such as ESPN and CBS Sports), there are now cold hard numbers that can substantiate claims as to which sites mention which NFL and NBA players and teams the most. Moreover, our analysis was also able to attach average sentiment scores to each article, meaning we can see how favorably the players and teams were discussed. Simply scroll to see the results of what we’re calling our “Big Media Obsessions” study.

Key takeaways

  • Tom Brady was the most headlined active NFL player since 2016, being mentioned nearly 68% more than the next NFL player (Aaron Rodgers).
  • Tom Brady (55%) and Patrick Mahomes (50%) were the only two NFL players among the top 25 most mentioned whose 2021 headlines were at least 50% positive.
  • LeBron James was the most headlined active NBA player since 2016, nearly 142% more than the next NBA player (Kevin Durant).
  • None of the 25 most mentioned NBA players had a positivity rating of more than 50% for their 2021 headlines. The only two with 40% or more were Lonzo Ball (41%) and Chris Paul (40%).

Football’s favorite names

Our study begins with a look into the media’s favorite football names, at least in terms of how often they’ve been mentioned since 2016. Among the headlines from the top media sites, we looked into the most mentioned players in total along with their year-by-year average positive sentiment.

An infographic showing NFL player headline mention totals.

Evidently, the sport of football is really the sport of Tom Brady. His name is mentioned in headlines so often that he essentially eclipses all other players in the game. The name Tom Brady has appeared in nearly 11,700 headlines since 2016—68% more than the next most popular player, Aaron Rodgers. Tom Brady is also ending his career on a particularly high note, according to sports media. His mentions have lately seen a major uptick in positivity, with 55% of 2021 articles showing positive sentiment, compared to just 37% of articles in 2020. There is no doubt that leaving the Patriots in 2020 lowered his positivity sentiment that year, while winning the Super Bowl in 2021 with the Buccaneers increased it greatly.  

A more recent media darling includes Patrick Mahomes. Among the top 25 most mentioned NFL athletes listed, he had the highest positivity sentiment percentage in 2020, surely aligning with his first Super Bowl victory and Super Bowl MVP. He trended upward in 2021, as he made the Super Bowl again, however in a losing effort. With Tom Brady’s retirement now confirmed, the media may be looking to shine the spotlight on him even more in the very near future.

NFL team chart-toppers

Moving beyond individual players, we now dig into the top teams mentioned in NFL-related headlines. Teams are ranked by their explicit mentions in headlines since 2016 with average positivity ratings given for each year as well.

An infographic showing NFL team headline mention totals.

The media’s favorite players didn’t necessarily correlate with their favorite teams. While Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers were mentioned the most, their respective teams ranked relatively far down the list of the most mentioned teams. Nevertheless, Brady seems to have brought a lot of positive energy to the journalism staff covering Tampa Bay. After joining the Buccaneers in 2020, the positive sentiment score for Tampa Bay headlines jumped by 148%. His old Patriot buddies were all but written off, with only 25% of their articles scoring positively since he left. Comparatively, the Tampa Bay Buccaneers enjoyed positive headlines 57% of the time in 2021. 

The most mentioned team was the Detroit Lions. They have a particular fan in Free Press sports writer Dave Birkett, who’s repeatedly articulated his high hopes for the future of the team. ESPN’s Bill Barnwell has also been singing Detroit’s praises, with two separate “Insider” articles on them in late January 2022. While the difference between the number of Lions mentions and those of other teams wasn’t as drastically pronounced as it was for individual players, the next most frequently mentioned team, the Miami Dolphins, was mentioned 1,144 times less often.

Media giants’ respective fanships

Our study next turns the spotlight on the media outlets themselves, exploring which teams and players were mentioned most frequently in the headlines of the biggest publications and networks in sports journalism.

An infographic about sports media's favorite NFL players and teams.

Without exception, every major sports outlet from ESPN to Yahoo Sports and CBS mentioned Tom Brady and Aaron Rodgers the most. News of Tom Brady’s retirement has been covered well beyond the realm of sports journalism; however, the information presented here represents data from 2016, showing that this media interest is by no means a new phenomenon. 

The highest percentage of Brady mentions came from CBS Sports and Fox Sports, both of which mentioned him in more than 12.5% of their NFL-related headlines. Although our data doesn’t show whether the articles were positive or negative, having more than 1 in 12 articles dedicated to a single player does suggest a significant interest in the man. In a world obsessed with Tom Brady, CBS Sports appears to be his biggest fan. 

Basketball’s best friends

Our research now turns to the NBA, diving into the sport’s biggest names, according to mainstream media. With a similar approach to the football research above, these data points have been extracted from professional sports journalism headlines that mention individual players.

An infographic showing NBA player headline mention totals.

Notable NBA teams

Getting slightly less personal, we now move on to the NBA teams most often mentioned in sporting headlines. Looking only at top sports media outlets, this piece of research shows both the total mentions and average annual sentiment scores for each team.

LeBron James was mentioned even more than Tom Brady, with nearly 17,000 headline references since 2016. While he may have been mentioned more than NFL’s GOAT, it seems that James articles have been significantly less positive than Brady articles in the last year. 

Since 2020, articles about LeBron James have seen a 21.4% decrease in positive sentiment. Some of these recent pieces cover his knee injury, often questioning his fitness to play, while others get much more personal. The Bleacher Report, for instance, released a scathing “Top 10 Reasons Why We Hate LeBron James” article, wherein they asserted that he is “hated by 90% of NBA fans.” Major reasons for this dislike include his self-proclaimed “King” title, and his all-too-regular comparisons of himself to Michael Jordan, a famously humble player. 

Kevin Durant was the second-most mentioned player in NBA headlines. In stark contrast to James, he claims to “not care” about being the highest scorer of all time and demonstrates an approach of humility and grace within the sport. However, humility and grace do not necessarily mean higher positivity ratings in the world of professional basketball.

An infographic showing NBA team headline mention totals.

Two interesting trends immediately stood out from the data: First, teams were mentioned significantly less often than the most famous individual players; and second, the vast majority of NBA teams suffered declining positivity scores in the last few years. According to CBS Sports, NBA revenue slipped from $8.8 billion for the 2018/2019 season to $8.3 billion for the 2019/2020 season, then fell another 35% for the 2020/2021 season. The emergence of COVID-19 during the 2019/2020 season surely contributed to this decline. Evidently, the pandemic also negatively impacted team positive sentiment as well. 

The only teams that managed to escape this decline in positive sentiment were the L.A. Clippers and the Washington Wizards. That said, they were some of the least often mentioned as far as total headlines were concerned. Instead, the media has primarily discussed the Milwaukee Bucks and the Boston Celtics since 2016. These teams, however, received positivity scores of just 21% and 22% in 2021, respectively.

NBA media outlet focus

Our study concludes with a look at specific media outlets and their coverage of the NBA. We included data for both the top players and the top teams mentioned and ranked them by the percentage of headlines devoted to each one.

An infographic about sports media's favorite NBA players and teams.

The obsession with LeBron James came primarily from USA Today. More than 18% of their basketball  articles mentioned James within the headline. Comparatively, only 6.2% of their articles covered Kevin Durant, in spite of his breaking Carmelo Anthony’s record as the highest scoring U.S. player in history. Fox Sports gave Durant the most headline space, at 7.7%. 

ESPN, the largest sports journalism site by volume of traffic, was primarily focused on the Boston Celtics, the Golden State Warriors, and the New York Knicks. Since 2016, the Boston Celtics have seen relative success, reaching the Eastern Conference 3 times in that time span; not to mention, their historic success is immense, with 17 total NBA championships. The Golden State Warriors have seen more team success lately, appearing in 4 NBA Finals since 2016 and winning two of them. While the New York Knicks haven’t seen the same success, their sports market is by far the largest in the United States.

Playing for favorites

The media ultimately demonstrated a unified message that has included mostly Tom Brady and LeBron James since 2016. While Tom Brady’s name carried a positive message and helped raise the sentiment score for his various teams, James suffered a worse fate with many media outlets choosing to represent him in a negative light since 2020. And while these same outlets chose favorite teams, their headlines often focused more on individuals. 

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Methodology and Limitations

For this study, we scraped Media Cloud headlines for all mentions of current NBA and NFL athletes and the franchises within each league. We limited the scrape to only collect headlines since 2016. Additionally, for player names, we searched for exact player matches and commonly used nicknames (e.g., “Steph Curry” for “Stephen Curry,” “Dame Lillard” for “Damian Lillard”). For team names, we searched for exact matches featuring the complete team name to eliminate the chance of collecting inaccurate headlines.

No statistical testing was performed on this data, so the claims listed above are based on means alone. As such, this content is exploratory and is presented for informational purposes only.

Fair Use Statement

The media can write its own stories—with or without data. But if you want to help include more data-backed information and perhaps a few names other than Tom Brady and LeBron James, you’re welcome to share this research. Just be sure your purposes are noncommercial and that you link back to this page.

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