NOLA.com in past years has listed local sports figures in terms of importance and it inspired me to present this list today, the "Top 15 Active Current Sports Figures in New Orleans". No specific rules here, owners, players, staff members, and otherwise are eligible for this discussion. Here are my picks:
15. Jrue Holiday, point guard, Pelicans: Holiday is a bit of a stretch because he's not even officially a Pelican until the trade gets approved by the NBA on July 10th. He also hasn't played a game in New Orleans and he's yet to establish himself as a star. He also has about 30,000 less followers on twitter than Eric Gordon, and slightly less than Lance Moore (guys I left off this list). But I think Holiday is a sleeper pick and I want him on this list because it's a big pick up by the Pelicans. He's an all star point guard and a terrific player, and he'll upgrade the quality of the team for sure. Soon enough he will endear himself to all of NOLA because he's good, he can score, he's explosive and he's durable.
14. Gabe Feldman, professor, Tulane Law School: Known as the "Sports Law Guy", Feldman has generated a lot of national recognition for his take on law as it applies to sports and sports figures. He really made a name for himself nationally during the NFL lockout giving his take on terms of the negotiations, and raise awareness of his profile even more during the Bounty Gate fiasco for his interpretation of the case's legalese. Of course he's also a pioneer of NOLA education, and he's a national figure in the growing interest of sports law.
13. Pierre Thomas, running back, Saints: Surprisingly, at almost 120,000 followers on twitter Pierre Thomas is the third most followed player on the entire roster behind only Drew Brees and Jimmy Graham. Obviously twitter followers aren't the only factor to weigh in someone's prominence, but I'll be honest he wasn't on my top 15 list until I realized how many follows he has. As an undrafted guy from Illinois before twitter really existed, it's probably fair to assume not too many of those follows are coming from other markets, either (unlike a guy like say Eric Gordon who probably got a huge boost from playing basketball in Los Angeles for years). He's not a big talker, but I think he's loved for his toughness and the way he plays the game. Definitely a fun guy to watch.
12. Monty Williams, head coach, Pelicans: With the win now attitude the Pelicans seem to be taking this offseason, Williams is on the hot seat. He's had tons of support despite lots of losing due to weak roster talent, but he's got to get it done. Still, he's clearly a high profile personality in New Orleans. The team will need to see marketed improvement in 2013 if he's going to stay in town, though.
11. Joe Vitt, assistant coach, Saints: I paused at the idea of having an assistant coach on this list, but there's no question Vitt is high profile in New Orleans after being the head coach during that disaster of a season last year. If nothing else we really got a look into his personality with all the interviews and post game conferences last year. Vitt is a very strong personality and it's easy to see now why he's such a prominent figure on that Saints' coaching staff. He can't go anywhere in the city without being recognized now.
10. Dell Demps, general manager, Pelicans: Without question he has one of the most coveted and high profile sports jobs in New Orleans. Demps has been the mastermind of Pelicans and has had mixed results during his tenure. He finally has some financial backing and stability, which in theory should help him do a better job.
9. Doug Thornton, senior vice president, SMG: SMG is a massive worldwide venue management company and Thornton is the main guy responsible for running the Superdome and New Orleans Arena. He also dealt with the renovations of the stadium during Katrina, he manages the Super Bowl hosting, Sugar Bowl, and all the other major events that come through New Orleans' premium venue. He also handles the lease of the Saints on the stadium to even play there. He's one of the biggest and most powerful sports figures in the city by far.
8. Jimmy Graham, tight end, Saints: Everybody that follows football knows who Jimmy Graham is, and behind Brees he's probably the highest profile talent on the entire team. At almost 127,000 followers on twitter he's the fourth most followed athlete in New Orleans (discounts Baton Rouge). I fully expect him to bounce back this season and produce like one of the very best tight ends in NFL history again.
7. Rita LeBlanc, owner and vice chairman of the board, Saints/Pelicans: She is the heir apparent to Saints and Pelican ownership as the grand daughter of Tom Benson. Enough said, one day soon she will be the richest and most powerful person in the entire city, not just sports.
6. Jonathan Vilma, linebacker, Saints: I was floored that at almost 115,000 followers on twitter he was lower than both Jimmy Graham and Pierre Thomas. Even still, he was probably the most recognized name on the Saints' roster nationwide besides Brees even prior to Bounty Gate. Vilma ended up being the face of Bounty Gate, possibly even moreso than Gregg Williams by the end of the process. Even with his production on the field dropping, he's still a major name in New Orleans sports and the Saints have renewed their commitment to him this season (and Vilma did to the team and city, too).
5. Anthony Davis, forward, Pelicans: By far the most knowns athlete not named Drew Brees in New Orleans. He has over 300,000 followers on twitter mostly thanks to his prowess in college which earned him a title at Kentucky, a gold medal at the olympics, and the 1st pick overall in the NBA draft. He's only performed for one year in New Orleans, and year one was a good one, but he's already accomplished an amazing amount and is incredibly decorated as a basketball player for having only been professional one year. "The Unibrow"'s brand only stands to get much, much bigger.
4. Mickey Loomis, general manager, Saints: In addition to running the Saints' player personnel decisions and cap, Loomis is the primary right arm man of Tom Benson. He is more trusted by Benson than anyone, including Rita.
3. Sean Payton, coach, Saints: Not much to say about this one. Welcome back coach. Looking forward to a run at another Super Bowl title.
2. Drew Brees, quarterback, Saints: He's one of the biggest sports names in the country. You know all of his accolades. He has 1.6 million followers on twitter. No one else in New Orleans even comes close.
1. Tom Benson, owner, Saints/Pelicans: He owns the entire city, pretty much. His empire grows a little bit more every day. I don't think in his wildest dreams he ever saw his worth skyrocketing like this. Pretty crazy what's developed for him since hurricane Katrina, especially after he desperately tried to move the Saints to San Antonio before being stopped by the NFL.