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Drew Brees, the New Orleans Saints’s popular quarterback, had an exceptional season in 2011, breaking a number of records. It reaffirmed his elite status and catapulted him to new levels of fame and influence.
The 6 ft., 209 lb. quarterback broke Dan Marino’s 27-year-old National Football League record for most passing yards in a season, finishing the season with 5,476 yards. Brees, 33, also completed a record 71.2 percent of his passes and threw for more than 300 yards in 13 of 16 regular-season games, the most in NFL history.
That performance, coupled with lingering goodwill for the role he played in helping the City of New Orleans claw its way back from Hurricane Katrina’s devastation, vaulted Brees to the No. 1 spot in this year’s Power 100, a ranking by CSE, an integrated sports and marketing firm in Atlanta, and Horrow Sports Ventures that uses data from Encino (Calif.)-based research company E-Poll Market Research.
CSE evaluated about 600 of the best-performing athletes from a pool of 3,000 based on statistics, the popularity and viewing audience of their sports, endorsement earnings, and their reach on social media. Nielsen/E-Poll N-Score data, based on surveys that evaluate such factors as players’ name and face awareness, appeal, influence, and trustworthiness, were also included to measure athletes’ endorsement potential. (Here’s more about the methodology.)
The NFL dominated this year’s Top 100 list with 26 players, followed by the National Basketball Assn., with 20 players, and Major League Baseball, with 16.
In 2011, Brees led the Saints to a 13-3 regular-season record (later losing to the San Francisco 49ers in the playoffs), and his “record-breaking on-field performance, combined with universal recognition of his charitable and community work” pushed him to the top spot, says Rick Horrow, president of Horrow Sports Ventures. The Brees Dream Foundation, which he founded in 2003, has contributed over $7 million to cancer research and care and to rebuild schools, parks, playgrounds, and athletic fields in New Orleans, San Diego, and Purdue, Ind., according to the foundation’s website.
“He’s clearly an endorsement darling now,” says Horrow. The quarterback earned $16 million in salary and endorsements in 2011, according to data from CSE.
Rounding out this year’s top five: Green Bay Packers quarterback Aaron Rodgers (who had $19 million in earnings, estimates CSE), New England Patriots quarterback Tom Brady ($28 million), Miami Heat basketball forward LeBron James ($61 million), and tennis champion Rafael Nadal ($21.7 million).
Newcomers to the list include Novak Djokovic (who had a near-perfect tennis season) at No. 9, rising golf star Rory McIlroy at No. 21, and the Los Angeles Dodgers’s Matt Kemp, who signed a contract extension worth $160 million over eight years, the largest in National League history, at No. 32.
As Brees rose to the top, last year’s most powerful athlete, Peyton Manning, fell to 51st place because of injuries. Golfer Phil Mickelson dropped from No. 4 to No. 18 after a disappointing season. Lance Armstrong, No. 8 last year, fell off the list entirely. The pro cyclist announced his retirement in February and came under scrutiny for alleged drug use; Armstrong denied doping allegations.
“The real key is measuring how these superstars perform,” says Horrow. In athletics, power means “earning power for athletes, owner, agents, communities, and corporate brands.” As this year’s list shows, an athlete’s value can change dramatically in one year.
(Click here to see the complete 2012 Power 100.)