To this die-hard Denver Broncos fan, the past football season has been an unforgettable wild ride. My beloved team used a series of unbelievable last-minute comebacks to rise above their talent level and win their division and a game in the playoffs. In the process, Broncos quarterback Tim Tebow rose to a level of fame that reaches far beyond the football field.
Few public figures exemplify the work we do at the USC Annenberg Norman Lear Center more than Tim Tebow. The Lear Center studies and shapes how entertainment and media impact society; and over the past year, the Tebow phenomenon has traversed numerous societal categories that help explain his meteoric rise in both popularity and disdain.
Religion – The intersection of sports and religion is nothing new, but Tim Tebow has dramatically moved the needle on the public discussion of religion’s role in sports. Tebow’s overt and unapologetic religious references have made him a hero in evangelical communities and a villain among those who believe in the separation of church and sports. Religion became a regular topic on sports talk radio, and a recent poll revealed that 43% of people believe that “divine intervention” is at least in part responsible for Tebow’s success. Following the Broncos legendary overtime playoff win over the Pittsburgh Steelers, a common media meme was focused on how Tebow threw for 316 yards (like the commonly cited Bible verse “John 3:16”), on 10 (as in commandments) passes, for an average of 31.6 yards per pass (there it is again). Some took it even further, noting that he threw the pass to Demaryius Thomas, who shares a birthday with Jesus (December 25). Hyperbolic religious claims and criticisms became a regular part of discussions involving Tebow.
Politics – Tim Tebow has been perhaps the most sought-after celebrity endorsement of the 2012 presidential race. Although he has very smartly
declined to endorse anyone, that hasn’t stopped candidates from trying to capitalize on his popularity – both Rick Perry and Michele Bachmann have desperately compared themselves to him. Tebow is no stranger to political controversy; his decision to align himself with the anti-gay, anti-choice organization Focus on the Family for an abortion-themed Super Bowl ad in 2010 still serves as a sore spot for progressives. It appears that his handlers now have a short leashon him regarding public display of his views on social issues, but that hasn’t stopped Focus on the Family from continuing to align themselves with Tebow. During the Broncos season-ending game against the New England Patriots, Focus aired a “John 3:16″ themed commercial that was inspired by Tebow’s 316 yards passing the week before. Tebow’s life is expected to intersect with politics many times in the future: social conservatives have talked about drafting Tebow for public office ever since he was at the University of Florida.
Media – Prior to this season, the Broncos have been virtually invisible in mainstream sports media, but media coverage of Tim Tebow became an absolute obsession this season. ESPN seemed to lead the fixation with constant coverage of the Tebow phenomenon that includedtwo separate one-hour Tebow specials (compared with a combined zero one-hour specials for all other NFL players). In the second Tebow special, they said the word “Tebow” 160 times in one hour. Deadspin put together a 91 second video which shows all 160 mentions. The Tebow story also spawned countless articles in traditional news media, and at times it dominated social media – his overtime playoff touchdown against the Steelers propelled a record-setting 9,420tweets per second, which is the most ever for a U.S. event.
Internet Memes – Tebow’s success has made him susceptible to the full range of tribute and parody that the Internet has to offer. His signature prayer move made “Tebowing” the next“Planking” as people across the globe posted pictures of themselves on one knee in prayer. Then several Tebow-themed videos spread like wildfire, including traditional media comedies like aSaturday Night Live skit that featured Jesus asking Tebow to “tone it down,” and a Jimmy Fallon mashup between David Bowie and Tim Tebow, or as he dubbed it, “Tebowie.” Then there’s the popular auto-tuned YouTube hit “All He Does Is Win” (with over 2.5 million views), the fake Tim Tebow movie trailer, and of course you’re not a real star on the Internet untilHitler weighs in on your success. Tebow has also been photobombed all over the Web, with the popular Mad Magazine rendition of Tebow as Jesus in the Last Supper, Tebow touching the hand of God in Michelangelo’s “The Creation of Adam,” and Tebow as a Centaur riding with Broncos legend John Elway under a rainbow.
Business – Shortly after Tim was drafted into the league, his jersey sales were ranked number 1 in the league, and he was pictured in his underwear in department stores across the nation for his Jockey endorsement – all before he had ever taken a snap in the NFL. After this crazy season, he has proven to be ratings gold for networks. The playoff win over the Steelers was watched by 42.4 million viewers, making it the most-watched TV program since last February’s Super Bowl. Tebow has also become an inspirational figure for business leadership, with theWashington Post naming him as one of the best leaders of 2011 (along with Hillary Clinton and Steve Jobs), and Forbes Magazine finding in him a slew of leadership lessons.
Innovation – The Lear Center has a project called Creativity & Collaboration in the Academy, which seeks to identify ways that research communities innovate and collaborate. Perhaps there are some lessons to be learned from this year’s Broncos season. A substantial part of the fascination with Tebow and the Broncos was how they won games. The NFL is a pass-heavy league that values strong arms and precision passing. When Aaron Rodgers or Drew Brees throws a pass, the ball looks like a magnificent work of art as it travels to its precise target. When Tim Tebow throws a pass, it looks like a rejected kindergarten art project that will be lucky to land anywhere near its target. The Broncos’ success is largely due to the coaching staff’s throwing out conventional wisdom and building an offense that is based on the skills that Tim Tebow brings to the field. This upset much of the traditional football brass, who couldn’t understand how a team could keep winning games with a quarterback who can’t throw the ball, but the Broncos’ success has shown how important it is to cater to organizational strengths. As Terry Frei from theDenver Post said of the Broncos’ offense, “Innovation leads to redefining conformity in a copycat business.”
Now that Tom Brady and the Patriots ended the Broncos season with a humiliating triumph of talent over magic, Tebowmania should slow down for a couple of months. But I’m confident that his performance next season will reclaim his place as the most Lear Center-y celebrity (though ideally with better throwing mechanics).