Thanks to a handful of thriving teams, Major League Soccer enters a 20th season few thought it would reach back when the San Jose Clash and D.C. United kicked things off on April 6th, 1996. We know which clubs have enjoyed the most on-field success, but can we accurately say which teams are the most popular?
It’s an easier answer for other leagues. The Yankee Evil Empire and Red Sox Nation hog baseball attention. The LA Lakers, despite their recent downturn, lap the NBA’s other teams in worldwide popularity. The NFL’s on-field parity leads to a more equal fan distribution, but the Cowboys are still the most popular franchise by a modest margin. In international soccer Manchester United’s marketing folks claim that the Red Devils enjoy the loyalty of 659 million worldwide supporters. While this number is likely highly exaggerated as it’s about 10% of all the people on planet Earth, United’s global popularity is no doubt massive. At the same time, mid-and-bottom-table Premier League clubs’ followings don’t extend much beyond their metropolitan areas.
Now, in a World Soccer Talk exclusive, I present a data-driven ranking of each MLS team’s popularity. I’ve used Google Trends to extract information on total search activity for each MLS team. I also used Google’s new “topic” feature, which lets you contemporaneously search for all queries related to a term, for example, it adds “soccer”, “Seattle”, “MLS”, and “schedule” to a “Sounders” search. This search data can accurately measure the interest generated by teams and is routinely used in other fields, from measuring the public’s attention to a news topic, to a movie’s popularity, to a flu season’s severity. Total searches are likely to be, in general, also correlated with the size of the team’s fan base, including both die-hards and casuals alike.
I considered searches over a three-year period from the beginning of 2012 to the end of 2014 – long enough to average out the effect of single events (like Landon Donovan’s retirement or major Designated Player signings like Kaka) and short enough to incorporate recent expansion teams (including the Whitecaps, Timbers and Impact but excluding the yet-to-start NYCFC and Orlando City) in the sample. I included worldwide searches in this study rather than purely U.S. and Canadian ones. The highest search peak in the 2012-2014 period was for the LA Galaxy from July 20th to the 27th in 2014. Google Trends assigns a benchmark value of 100 to this data point, thus I scale each search result in relation to the Galaxy in their top week. All results, across teams and years, are, therefore, rendered comparable in size. Then I compute total searches over the three-year period and normalize the total for the highest ranked team to 100. The others are scaled down proportionally.
And, without further ado, here are the most popular MLS teams:
The Seattle Sounders are, by a good margin, the most popular team in Major League Soccer. The LA Galaxy reach short-term high peaks, like when the news broke that Jürgen Klinsmann snubbed Donovan for his 2014 World Cup squad, but they lag behind on average. After Seattle and the Galaxy, there’s a steep drop in following. The New York Red Bulls rank third by internet popularity, but they enjoy only half the degree of attention as the Sounders (the numbers in the table can be conveniently interpreted as percentages).
Besides the Red Bulls, the Portland Timbers, Toronto FC, Sporting Kansas City, and possibly D.C. United, comprise MLS’ upper middle class. Timbers fans are among the most erudite and passionate in the league. Their fourth place standing is remarkable but they suffer from a much smaller market size compared to the top three teams. Their small stadium possibly holds them down; it’s consistently sold out and they could likely increase their fan base by having a larger ground that exposes their unique experience to more people. Toronto and Kansas City are also cities that are serious about their soccer. Extra internet interest in these two clubs was likely driven by Kansas City’s 2013 MLS Cup victory and Toronto’s starry signings of Jermaine Defoe and Michael Bradley.
The lower middle class is comprised of teams like Real Salt Lake that have done well but are in small markets and by big market teams like the Houston Dynamo, FC Dallas, and the Chicago Fire that have underperformed while having to compete with popular teams in other sports like football and basketball. Last year’s MLS cup finalists, the New England Revolution, not only have one of the smallest total wage bills in the league while playing in a remote NFL stadium, but they are also one of the teams that generate the least attention.
At the bottom of the popularity table, as MLS ‘outcasts’, we have the Colorado Rapids along with the remaining Canadian teams. The Montreal Impact have aroused little interest despite several expensive star signings such as Alessandro Nesta and Marco Di Vaio. The Vancouver Whitecaps sit in last place: a lone Whitecap follower will only Google search the team once for every fifty searches for their far more popular Cascadian Cup rivals on the other side of the Peace Arch. And perhaps that one lone search is just a Seattle visitor looking for information on an upcoming Sounders vs. Whitecaps match.
Geography of Fandom
If we look at the geographic distribution of interest, only two teams can really claim a global following. First, the LA Galaxy, which attract as much interest in Ireland, thanks to captain Robbie Keane, as they do in California. The reigning MLS Cup champions also have strong followings in the U.K. (EPL players hoping for a future contract?) and in Southeast Asia. The Red Bulls also attract British interest as well as France (a Thierry Henry effect), and Australia (Tim Cahill). Both findings clearly indicate that major DP signings drive interest, especially outside the United States. The Sounders have a minority of fans outside the U.S., mostly in Canada with small amounts in the U.K. and in Mexico. 2015’s expansion teams New York City FC and Orlando City SC aren’t included in the ranking, but they have been popular so far in the U.K. and Brazil thanks to Frank Lampard and Kaka.
Popularity, Team Value, and Attendance
The popularity rankings are generally reasonably correlated with each franchise’s overall value as estimated by Forbes Magazine. Seattle ranks first in both internet popularity and franchise value, L.A. is second, and Portland third. The top popularity spots also roughly match the attendance rankings at the top of the table, except for the Red Bulls. The biggest differences are D.C. United, popular on the web, but not at the gate, while Montreal and Vancouver are irrelevant on the web but attract good crowds.
Parity and Popularity
The Gini coefficient, an economic indicator used to measure income inequality among nations, can give us context for the popularity difference between clubs. The Gini for popularity across MLS teams equals to 0.39, where zero means a fully equal distribution of fans among all clubs and a value of one would mean that all MLS fans support Seattle. When compared with the Gini coefficients computed for other leagues (by ESPN’s FiveThirtyEight site), MLS’ fan distribution is definitely more unequal than the NFL (Gini 0.27) but more or less comparable to MLB, the NHL, and the NBA. It is definitely less skewed in favor of the top few teams than the English Premier League (Gini=0.60). In terms of countries, the NFL’s Gini is comparable to Scandinavian countries, while Premier League’s extremely unequal fan distribution looks like the income inequality of pre-Lula Brazil. MLS falls in between these two extremes, resembling more a Japan or a Western European country.
Despite its single entity structure, allocation orders, and ostensible quest for parity, the interest and attention paid to the different teams in MLS are distributed mostly unevenly, mostly as a result of different market sizes and capacity to attract DP superstars.
In this, MLS resembles the MLB, NHL, and NBA growth patterns where a handful of teams begin to far outshine the others. The NBA emerged from the wilderness because of the Lakers and Celtics in the 80s and the Bulls in the 90s. The NHL has enjoyed a recent resurgence as popular clubs like the Boston Bruins, Chicago Blackhawks, and LA Kings have fought for the Cup over the past few years. What’s encouraging about this ranking is that it shows that teams such as the Seattle Sounders, Portland Timbers, and Toronto FC can still be popular despite a lack of on-field success. These rankings reflect the hard work put in by MLS fans to create great cultures around their clubs.
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