What kinds of cities best support the MLS?
Last week, the New York Times' style section identified the latest in its series of infamous "trends," sending a reporter to the far reaches of the East Village and Williamsburg to document a strange new breed of American sports fan — the soccer devotee. Today, the piece alleged, following soccer is a status symbol, the purview of educated, well-off urbanites. "The game's aesthetics, Europhilic allure and fashionable otherness have made soccer the new baseball," the paper writes, "the go-to sport of the thinking class."
The "thinking class" knows it's best to take style section anthropology with a proverbial grain of salt. But the where and how of soccer’s surge in America is an interesting question. The sport is clearly developing a substantial fan base in America. Major League Soccer is expanding its U.S. footprint from 19 to 24 teams by 2020, with new outposts in New York, Miami, Orlando, and Atlanta. David Beckham is leading a group of investors hoping to privately fund a stadium for a new Miami-based, Beckham-owned team. And Washington, D.C,. is considering investing hefty sums to provide land for a new, state-of-the-art stadium for D.C. United.
The geography of America's burgeoning soccer fandom is being investigated by Patrick Adler, an urban planning doctoral student at UCLA. His research examines the key differences that distinguish metro areas by the kinds of big-time professional sports they favor – soccer as well as football, baseball, basketball, hockey, and NASCAR.
To get at this, he's compared the size of a metro's fan base (measured as attendance at games) to a number of demographic characteristics, including the share of the workforce in the creative class and the share of the population made up of immigrants or foreign-born individuals.
Adler has devised a composite metric for what the average "MLS metro" looks like, and compared that to the average metro for MLB, NFL, NHL, NBA, and NASCAR. For each sport, he's weighted the overall share of attendance in 2013: So, for example, Dallas plays a bigger role in determining the demographics of the average professional football metro (the Cowboys accounted for 4 percent of football fans in 2013) than it does in calculating the average hockey metro (the Stars represented 3 percent of all hockey fans).
The chart below, based on his figures, backs up the Times contention: In the average MLS metro — a weighted calculation based on game attendance for all of the current MLS teams' metro areas — the creative class makes up a significant share of the workforce. And in fact, MLS metros are far more creative than the average MLB, NFL, NBA, NHL, or NASCAR metro.
It should be noted that the locations of many existing sports franchises are products of longstanding historical factors that may have since changed, and that newer or relocated franchises may at times reflect the whims of super-rich owners. But the data backs up the notion that there are differences between where different kinds of sports appeal.
Professional soccer is played in metros where the creative class makes up nearly 36 percent of the workforce. This is the largest share of any of the six sports he examined. The gap between soccer and NASCAR auto-racing is 5 percent.
As an international sport, soccer is typically thought of as appealing to immigrants. But Adler’s findings suggest this is not the case. Professional soccer is played in metros where immigrants make up 16.2 percent of the population. This puts soccer in the middle of the pack, with a smaller foreign-born share than the average hockey, baseball, or basketball metro, but a more significant immigrant population than the average football or NASCAR metro. (Overall, all pro-sports metros have higher immigrant shares than the country as a whole, whose population is 13 percent foreign born. This is unsurprising, as professional sports teams are located in big cities, where immigrants tend to cluster.)
The cultural chasm between creative class meccas and the rest of the country is considerable; we know about Red versus Blue and craft beer versus Bud Light. As silly as the Times’ foray into the world of American soccer fandom may seem, it turns out that they’ve hit on a strand of truth as well.
Top Image: A Portland Timbers fan cheers during a game against the Seattle Sounders (AP/Don Ryan).