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Deion Sanders is really popular – among both political parties

Maybe that's why he’s Sportsperson of the Year.

- December 2, 2023

On Thursday, Deion Sanders was named Sports Illustrated’s Sportsperson of the Year. With the University of Colorado Buffaloes coach presiding over a 4-win team that isn’t eligible even for the Mayonnaise Bowl, the social media shade came thick and fast.

Sanders – better known to different generations of sports fans as Coach Prime, Prime Time, and Neon Deion – doesn’t have the stellar record this season that typically accompanies an award like this. But SI’s Pat Forde noted that he has amassed “immense popularity and fame without an overindulgence in fakery.”

This isn’t just hyperbole and speculation. According to data from the most recent GW Politics Poll, Sanders is indeed the most famous football coach in the country and the most popular – among both Republicans and Democrats.

In the survey, which was in the field November 7 to 15 (after Colorado had hit its mid-season slide), we asked respondents what they thought of five prominent college football coaches: Sanders, Nick Saban of the University of Alabama, Jim Harbaugh of the University of Michigan, Dabo Swinney of Clemson University, and Marcus Freeman of Notre Dame. They could rate the coaches on a scale ranging from very unfavorable to very favorable.

As you might expect, a lot of respondents didn’t offer an answer, since only college football fans are likely to know who these people are. But about 25% more respondents gave Sanders a rating than any other coach, an indication that his fame seems to extend beyond football fandom. The second-best-known coach was Harbaugh, whose prominence has at least something to do with alleged sign-stealing.

Among the respondents who offered an opinion of Sanders, 75% said they viewed him “very” or “somewhat” favorably, the highest share among all coaches. Only 25% viewed him unfavorably, giving him a net favorability rating of +50. Compared to these other coaches, Sanders stands out for being both relatively well-known and also popular.

Remarkably, Sanders’ popularity also transcends partisanship, the kind of “cross-demographic reach” that SI highlighted in its announcement.

Every coach in our poll was viewed more favorably by Republicans than Democrats, but the gap for Sanders was the smallest. Among those who had an opinion of Sanders, Seventy-eight percent of Republicans rated Sanders favorably – more than any other coach – compared to 75% of Democrats. The partisan gap for the other coaches ranged from four to 10 points.

Some commentators have argued that Sanders shouldn’t have received the accolade now – that he was more deserving of the award during his two-sport playing days when he was in his, well, prime.

If SI’s decision was about accomplishments on the field, that’s hard to dispute. But it’s clear that Sanders was chosen for impact and appeal that goes well beyond his current team’s record.