College towns dominate when it comes to sports employment.

The bracket for this year's NCAA March Madness men's basketball tournament has at last been announced, and soothsaying about which teams will make it to the Final Four has already begun. 

Geographically speaking, one thing is abundantly clear: The majority of March Madness teams hail from small and mid-size metros (those with less than one million people) and college towns. Roughly 60 percent of this 2012 NCAA tournament teams come from small and mid-size metros. Just 10 percent hail from the nation's ten largest metros. Only one of the top 16 seeds, Georgetown in Washington D.C., comes from a top-ten metro. All four of the top seeds—Kentucky, Syracuse, North Carolina, and Michigan State—are located in small and mid-size metros.

At first blush, this makes sense. Lots of college and universities, after all, are located in college towns.

But big cities boast large numbers of colleges and universities and have tremendous numbers of students enrolled in college. Greater New York alone has dozens of options for the college-bound, and hundreds of thousands of students. The same is true of Los Angeles, Chicago, Philadelphia, D.C., and of course Boston. In fact there was a time not too long ago when big city teams did dominate college basketball. UCLA, with 11 titles, is the all-time leader in NCAA championships.

The pattern holds not just for college sports, but for sports across the board. You would think large metros with big pro sports franchises, superstar payrolls, state-of-the-art stadiums and arenas, and gigantic media markets would dominate the sports economy, but they don't. The fact of the matter is that small and medium-sized communities have much higher economic concentrations of sports occupations, even when pro sports and every other kind of sports is taken into account.  

What lies behind this pattern? 

The map above by Zara Matheson of the Martin Prosperity Institute, based on data compiled by colleagues Patrick Adler and Charlotta Mellander, helps put this in perspective. Using data from the Bureau of Labor Statistics, it plots the distribution of sports occupations across metros, including both "athletes" and "coaches and scouts."  

Our data includes sports at all levels, professional and amateur as well as college. All told, they account for some 163,000 workers across the United States, less than one percent of its total labor force.

The map shows the location quotient or LQ for sports occupations for each metro, a proxy for the effort in manpower that they apply to sports. An LQ is a commonly used statistical measure that shows how concentrated an occupation or industry is in a city or region compared to the nation; they are calculated by comparing an occupation's share of regional employment to its national share. An LQ of 1 means a metro has its expected national share of an occupation.

College towns have extremely large sports LQs, as you can see. Lawrence, Kansas, tops the list with an LQ of more than 3. Included in the top 25 are South Bend, Indiana, home to Notre Dame; Auburn, Alabama, home to the university that bears its name; Ames, Iowa, home of Iowa State; Blacksburg, Virginia (Virginia Tech); Burlington, Vermont (University of Vermont); and Boulder, Colorado (University of Colorado).

San Jose (Silicon Valley), in 38th place, has the highest sports LQ of metros with more than one million people; Oakland comes in 39th; and then Milwaukee 49th.

America’s very largest, sports-crazed metros are quite a bit lower: New York is 278th, Los Angeles 144th, Chicago 201st, Philadelphia 160th, Washington, D.C. 211nd, even Boston is 94th.

The extent to which college towns dominate in sports occupations is reflected in some other statistics. Sports occupations correlate with the percentage of college students enrolled across metros (.36) but not at all with population size. 

This pattern is surprising, frankly.

New York and Los Angeles, America’s two largest metros, dominate in super-star driven industries like entertainment, arts, and culture, and they each boast storied pro sports traditions, rabid fans, large markets, and deep wallets, as well as huge numbers of college students.

What makes sports so different? What exactly can account for the dominance of small and medium sized metros generally and college towns in particular in the economic geography sports?

For one, college teams have a lock on their markets. In many small and mid-size communities, college sports are often the only game in town. ESPN's Colin Cowherd likes to say that sports in America follow a geographic hierarchy of sorts: College teams dominate in smaller communities, pro sports are the ticket in large cities and metros. Of course, the fan-base for prominent college teams exceeds the population of their town by a large margin, drawing alumni and fans from across their state and in many cases across their broader region and the nation as a whole.

And college sports are big business. College basketball and football are the second and third biggest spectator sports in the country by attendance, ahead of pro football and basketball and behind only Major League Baseball. These big businesses help support a bunch of much smaller ones. Colleges and college towns offer a wide range of athletic programs from lacrosse to fencing and everything in between, which employ lots of other people.

And, college sports are a unique kind of business, as Taylor Branch pointed out in his Atlantic cover story  - one which does not pay its players. Thus the biggest irony of all: The places that lead in sports occupations are not the ones with the biggest payrolls, but instead the ones where athletes themselves work for free.

Top image: Reuters/Dave Kaup

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