Credit: Bruce Lipsky/AP

A mathematical formula is only useful if it confirms what the observer knows to be empirically true, like two plus two is four. Applying that logic to something more complex, if I told you that I had a system that could quantify and rank the biggest movie stars of all time, you would be immediately skeptical if my calculations insisted the top 3 were Emilio Estevez, Burt Reynolds, and George Raft. All three actors were stars, of course, but clearly, my movie-star algorithm has a few kinks.

So when Forbes magazine announced that Tim Tebow is the Most Influential Athlete in America, I immediately questioned the whole premise. After all, even though Tebow achieved folk-hero status as quarterback of the Florida Gators and the Denver Broncos, he was recently cut by the the New York Jets after a humiliating season sitting on the bench of a losing team. No other NFL team has picked him up since. Is it really conceivable that an athlete who can’t even persuade an NFL team to give him a chance is sport’s most influential figure?

Yet there he is, ranked in front of the future Hall of Famer (and Saturday Night Live all-star) who displaced him in Denver, Peyton Manning, Derek Jeter, and LeBron James. What gives? Where are the athletes who I actually see on TV commercials, like Phil Mickelson, the Williams sisters, or Danica Patrick? Did the cool kids decide that “Influential” really meant “Overhyped” without telling me?

Click below for the Forbes Top 10 list, full of NFL QBs and Olympic stars basking in the glow of London.

When Stephen Master, Nielsen’s Senior Vice President of Sports, explains the methodology behind the list, which Nielsen compiled with E-Poll Market Research, it becomes more clear that “influential” is a very pliable term. Their survey asked a sample population of the United States to identify famous athletes by name and face in order to measure Awareness and Likeability Appeal, and then asked respondents to associate the jocks with key personality characteristics, like Fashionable, Good-looking, Funny… and Influential. So Influential isn’t even what’s being measured in this study; it’s the perception of being influential that’s crucial. Essentially, 29 percent of the people surveyed think Tim Tebow, whose outspoken Christianity has won him a fervent following, is Influential. (Twenty-five percent gave Michael Phelps the Influential stamp of approval, as opposed to 18 percent for LeBron James.) That perception does have some value, even if it’s a watered-down metric, especially to corporations who are trying to find the right celebrity to connect their product to a specific audience.

But being Influential shouldn’t be confused with being Authoritative or Trailblazing or actually capable of influencing the buying public of anything. Sometimes it’s just a reflection of the media’s obsession. “Even if he’s not longer influential on the playing field, Tim Tebow is influential in that he was on the bench as a quarterback and yet when he gets cut from the Jets, there’s a half hour of SportsCenter dedicated to him as the lead story,” explains Master.

Now he’s speaking language that PopWatch understands. Influential, in this sense, really means Fascinating. Some entertainment figures — in Hollywood and sports — are alluring no matter what they do. They have an essence that we can’t deny or defy, even if the public wanted to. David Beckham is a prime example, as is Tiger Woods (and legends like Reggie Jackson and Dennis Rodman). They are larger than life, as much the story in defeat as they are in victory. There are plenty of Hollywood equivalents … which I’ll let you ruminate over.

Unfortunately for Tebow, at the end of the day, America loves a winner more than anything else. His ascent to the top of the Influential list was propelled not only by his clean-cut popularity — and the pose that launched a thousand memes and late-night jokes — but his leading role in the Broncos’ miracle playoff run in 2012. Even polarizing athletes who’ve crashed their careers into literal and figurative trees — like Woods and James — have seen their Nielsen Influential ratings rebound as they’ve returned to the top of their respective sports, says Master. Tebow is only 25 years old, but his NFL future can’t be described as bright right now. Fortunately, there’s always room for someone of his Influence on reality television.

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