Each week we'll have a power ranking post based on a category I'll choose. To coincide with the launch of SB Nation Bay Area, our first ranking is that of the five most popular current Bay Area athletes. Given that popularity is a relatively subjective category, there is plenty of room for debate. I polled some of our writers, as well as other folks, and received differently organized lists from all of them.
In putting together this list, I realized that the Bay Area may in fact be the most unique sports market in America. Cities like New York, Los Angeles and Chicago are bigger in terms of population. However, the Bay Area's geography makes it a mammoth sports market. More importantly, there are very distinct differences between the there primary regions of the Bay Area. We've got the city and county of San Francisco, Oakland in the East Bay, and San Jose in the South Bay. Although each is within driving distance of the rest, the separation between the three parts of the Bay Area has led to a whole host of different fans. Generally A's fans are not Giants fans, Raiders fans are not 49ers fans, and of course Cal fans are not Stanford fans.
What's even more interesting is the fact that the Bay Area, and particularly San Francisco, has a population consisting of a huge number of people who have moved here from somewhere else. Most everybody I know in San Francisco is from another city, often times on the East Coast. This further jumbles up the sports love.
So, in order to accurately reflect the vast differences, I decided to qualify this list by not allowing more than one player from a given team. Although a guy like Pablo Sandoval is quite popular among Giants fans, I can't imagine A's fans have all that much love for him. It became an issue of deciding what player from a given team would then make it. Thus, we've put together a five person list, followed by a rundown of some honorable mentions.
As you read through this, feel free to post your own top 5, as I'm sure most folks would disagree with me on this list.
No. 1: Tim Lincecum
Is there any doubt that Lincecum should be at the top of this list? The most popular Giant is by default the most popular Bay Area athlete, though it seems like every casual "Bay Area fan" knows about "The Freak" and his freakish pitching abilities. The Giants are well-known for their solid pitching staff, and Lincecum is the young, talented figurehead to lead that staff. His pitching repertoire includes a plethora of very solid moves to get the job done.
Beyond his actual talent is the reason why he's actually so popular, though. He's a small guy with long, shaggy hair with average features. He's kind of dorky and seems like an overall flawed guy for someone of his star status. There's seemingly not a group he can't identify with, a label you can't give him at least partially (even though he feels like there's no appropriate label for him). This heightened feeling of being "down to Earth" coupled with his at times almost inhuman ability to throw a baseball deceptively fast make Tim Lincecum the most popular Bay Area athlete.
-- James Brady
No 2: Patrick Willis
Ask anybody in the Bay Area to name a football player, and there's a better than even chance that Patrick Willis will be the first name. Nicknamed Bamm-Bamm by Chad Ocho Cinco thanks to his hard hits, Willis has quickly developed into arguably the best middle linebacker, if not linebacker in general, in the NFL. In his three years in the NFL, Willis has been named to the Pro Bowl all three seasons, first or second team All-Pro all three seasons and first or second in tackles each season, including a record setting 174 tackles as a rookie.
Willis has proven himself a quiet leader for the 49ers defense, and the team rewarded him accordingly this offseason with a contract extension that will keep him on the team through 2017. While fans love him for his ferocious defense, his unassuming, humble, and respectful nature has endeared him to all football fans. People may dislike him because he's a 49er, but there is not a single person that follows football who will not admit to respecting his amazing abilities.
Rather than load up on Willis highlights, let's hear from Patrick himself about the story of his life:
No 3: Stephen Curry
Stats and skills aside, Stephen Curry might already be one of the most popular Golden State Warriors of all time. One, Curry's baby-faced charm and good looks have already made him a hit with teenage girls (and grown men twice his age). Second, he has a growing celebrity entourage that included LeBron James BEFORE he even hit the league. Lastly, as if his willingness to hang out with the D-leaguers wasn't proof enough that he's a lovable teammate, telling the public that winning over Monta Ellis was his biggest accomplishment this past season was pure joy for us fans. As is, he's the perfect marketing tool for the Warriors, a franchise whose public reputation is more known for alienating players than developing them.
Curry has the "aura" of superstar that no player that's stepped into a Warriors uniform has been able pull off from jump, with or without the wins. It's inexplicable, really. Without the wins, he already gets the superstar no-calls on some moves that are only legal on LeBron or And-1 mixtapes. Since Tim Hardaway, Curry has been the only Warriors guard to get a Nike endorsement. He's collaborated with a streetwear company down in Los Angeles on a limited edition Stephen Curry T-shirt. He may have had great stats and fun highlights but, shoot, the Warriors still had a losing season.
Whatever it is, Curry has a magnetism about him that has put the Warriors back on the map and for the right reasons. With that said, he's probably the one man-crush that male sports fan won't be afraid to admit.
-- Brian Chung
No 4: Patrick Marleau
Patrick Marleau is the longest-tenured player on the San Jose Sharks and there is no question that he has been the heart and soul of the team. The three-time All-Star is the franchise's leader in goals, assists and points. His consistent play on the ice has established him as one of the league's top offensive stars and has earned him the honor of team captain. Rather than test unrestricted free agency this summer, Marleau elected to sign a four-year extension with the Sharks, keeping him in the Bay Area through 2014. And if you're lucky enough, you might bump into Marleau and his family somewhere in the downtown area all year-round.
-- Samuel Lam
No 5: Kurt Suzuki
The Oakland A's marketing campaign this season is referred to as "Green Collar Baseball." The campaign is meant to highlight the aggressive and enthusiastic nature, and the veritable blue collar work ethic, of the 2010 Oakland A's. No player personifies this quite like starting catcher Kurt Suzuki. While Suzuki and the A's fly under the radar a bit, he remains the personification of A's baseball. While his profile is relatively low on a national stage, Bay Area fans recognize just how awesome he is for the A's.
When Suzuki was first called up, he was platooning behind the plate with Jason Kendall. Kendall had established himself as a guy who played every day, but Suzuki was considered the man of the future. Midway through Suzuki's rookie season, the A's showed just how confident they were in him by dealing away Kendall to the Cubs. Suzuki has been a mainstay behind the plate, and prior to an injury earlier this season, he missed back-to-back games once, back in 2008.
Pablo Sandoval: It was a tough call leaving out Pablo Sandoval. His numbers aren't spectacular this year, but any time a team can legitimately create a giveaway that consists of a panda mask (as the Giants had this past Sunday), clearly a guy is transcending certain levels of popularity. Kung Fu Panda was arguably the toughest to leave out.
Barry Zito: As an A's fan, it was disappointing to see Zito leave, and yet it was an inevitability given the amount of money the Giants unloaded at his door step. Given Zito's struggles prior to this year, it's amazing he wasn't dumped on more. And yet, I think that is due in part to his general popularity. He's a guy that fans generally like, whether it be because he brought along his pillow with him on road trips as a young pitcher, or his guitar-playing abilities. His resurgence this year has allowed fans to get further behind him once again.
Nnamdi Asomugha: When a blog runs a poll on the most popular player on your team, and you get 52 percent of the vote, in a poll with 28 options, you're clearly doing something right. Nnamdi was another tough one to leave off this ranking. He's been an absolute beast as a shutdown corner for the Raiders and a generally nice guy. He is involved in as much charitable work as anybody in the NFL, culminating in being named the Ambassador for the United Way of the Bay Area UWBA.
Frank Gore: Some might argue Frank Gore's popularity is above that of Willis in some respects. However, I think the historic beginning of Willis' career puts him a notch above Gore for this ranking. Nonetheless, Frank Gore is certainly one of the more popular players in the Bay Area. Frank the Tank has battled behind some incredibly awful offensive lines, and with continually changing offenses, and still is on pace to shatter most 49ers rushing records.