Ranking MLS’ most popular teams; New research reveals fascinating results

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.

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