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The Most Identifiable One Name Athletes in American Sports

April 16, 2014
The one-named superstar. It’s a very rare breed. In pop culture we have Kanye and Miley and…does Leo(nardo Di Caprio) count?
The criterion is simple, yet challenging. First, for the sake of this discussion, we are considering athletes in the NBA, NHL, MLB, or NFL. That narrows the athlete pool significantly and eliminates the most prominent source for these types of stars: soccer players.
Second, the one name must be the athletes’ first name or a variation of that name. Thus, a nickname like “CP3” does not count, nor does a highly identifiable last name like, “Ovechkin” count. However, “Miggy” instead of “Miguel” for the famed Tigers infielder does count.
Third, people should predominantly refer to the player by that name. For instance, I am pretty certain that hearing “Joakim” evokes the thought of Joakim Noah to most, but that’s not the way we predominantly identify him. He often gets the two-name treatment (that’s a separate edition) in which people predominantly offer both first and last name when referring to him.
I came up with a list of 30 athletes from the four leagues and asked 30 people to identify each athlete by giving them just their first name (my own version of 30 for 30). These people were hand-selected. I picked a pool of subjects who I acknowledged as knowledgeable sports fans to varying degrees of subjective levels.  Below are the athletes who were most successfully identified within 3 seconds of the subject seeing their name. The results are interesting…
10. Cam Newton (QB, Carolina Panthers): 18/30
Quarterback is a spotlight position and Cam isn’t the most common name. He gets two-name treatment, too, but the alternative is predominantly “Cam” and not “Newton.”
T8. Dez Bryant (WR, Dallas Cowboys): 19/30
There’s no way he cracks the top 10 a year ago, but his theatrics boosted his profile. While we are talking about the one of the best receivers in the game, Dez doesn’t have the tenure as others ahead of him. Here is another case of someone riding a unique name into the top 10.
T8. Prince Fielder (1B, Texas Rangers): 19/30
I’m a little bit surprised he cracked our Top 10 because of possible confusion with the “symbolic” musical artist. But everyone loves the home run hitter and everyone loves the pudgy guy and Prince is both.
7. Eli Manning (QB, New York Giants): 21/30
All 30 subjects got this right, but 11 of them needed at least 8 seconds to do so. Stop looking down the list–Peyton isn’t on it. Blame it on the fact “Peyton” still evokes the late, great running back of the same name with a different spelling: Walter Payton. Eli, however, benefits from the fact that people have to distinguish between he and big bro. Oh…and those Super Bowls help, too.
T4. Dirk Nowitzki (F, Dallas Mavericks) 28/30
It helps that the German has a last name which gets the multiple pronouncation treatment (No-vitzki versus No-witzki versus Nuh-vitzki versus Nuh-witzki) coupled with a one-syllable first name. Public address announcers in Dallas have long chanted Diiiiiiiiiiirrrrrrrrrrrrrrk when the Mavericks’ all-time leading scorer gets buckets.
T4. Miggy Cabrera (1B, Detroit Tigers) 28/30
I opted to solicit the slang version of Miguel, because that’s how he is more commonly referred. The big bopper is in the spotlight because of his play and not as much because of marketing, but when your play merits back-to-back MVP awards, it is tough not to spread the phenomenon.
T4. Ichiro Suzuki (OF, New York Yankees) 28/30
The imported superstar from Japan is the most controversial on this list. Why? Because not only is he a one-named superstar, but he really is a one-named superstar. Often times you don’t even see Suzuki included in MLB official documentation. The two non-identifiers just couldn’t think of his last name in the requisite time and both offered the sentiment that he doesn’t have one. Not entirely true, but maybe I am wrong for not counting their responses? If people believe in officiating conspiracies to create a competitive balance, then maybe they will start a conspiracy about those two votes…
T1. Carmelo Anthony (offense, New York Knicks) 30/30
T1. Kobe Bryant (G, Los Angeles Lakers) 3030
T1. LeBron James (F/G/C-ish, Miami Heat) 30/30
No shocks to these therefore an elaborate explanation isn’t necessary. Neither of the trio has an incredibly common first name, but at this point you realize that those who do (i.e. Kevin Durant), don’t crack this list.
ANALYSIS
Not only did NBA players dominate in quantity (4), but in quality, too (three T1, one T4). The NFL barely got three on the list and they were all near the bottom. Two of the three MLB representatives are from outside of America and the NHL had zero representation.
That’s easy. Now, the big question: Why? Is it just because of the uniqueness of their names?
Quarterbacks are the most recognizable figures in the NFL and the best are, for the most part, commonly named: Tom, Aaron, Drew, Colin, Joe, Tony, Matthew, and whoever else you want to include. Peyton isn’t in the same category, but he was just out of the top 10 and I think he is more “Manning” while his brother is more “Eli.”
The NFL gets the most publicity of any sport, but they play the fewest games. NBA gets a lot of run and they do a great job of marketing their stars and their stars do a great job of marketing themselves. We don’t call the Lakers phenom’s shoes, “Bryants”–no, we call them “Kobes” and same for “LeBrons”.
MLB is kind of in the middle. With 162 games, position players get a lot of opportunity, and pitchers dominate half of the game when they play. Creative names like Yuniesky (Betancourt) might have one-name appeal in their home market, but without the national appeal created by top level talent, those names don’t spread. The best young, rising star in the sport’s name is Mike (Trout) and last year’s pitcher who stole the spotlight’s name is Matt (Harvey).
The NHL’s stars are mainly from outside of the U.S.A. and a lot of them have names foreign to the American. The sport gets the least amount of publicity and players aren’t spotlighted as much when they play because they are on the ice and then off the ice before you know it.
The kicker in this conversation is nicknames. Whether it is “D-Wade” or “Big Papi,” these monikers take away from the first name and are typically pushed to the identification forefront.
My conclusion is rather banal. Sorry, but I just can’t fake it. Talent, sport, and uniqueness of name all play a role in creating the first-name superstar.
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Thanks as always for reading
Jared Sandler
Awesome Sports Logos Columnist
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