Wed. Feb 28th, 2024

In This Space, we have often referred to Southern California as the most diverse (and occasionally most fickle) sports market on this continent.

We have two of most every team in every major team sport. We have two major conference college programs operating cheek-to-jowl with major league franchises. We get cameo appearances from almost all of the itinerant sports circuits, starting with this Sunday’s NASCAR Clash in the Coliseum (although it would be nice if the tennis tours would again land in the nation’s second-largest market in the summertime, rather than merely touching down in Indian Wells in March).

Also, dare I point out, we will have our third Olympic Games four years from now. Before that, if FIFA and Stan Kroenke could mend fences, SoFi Stadium would be hosting World Cup matches in two years (and maybe some of the expanded Club World Cup next summer).

And I don’t even have to mention the cornucopia of prime-time athletes that this region continues to pump out annually. You name the sport and we’re represented.

So let’s go big. SoCal is not only the preeminent sports community in North America, but I’ll make the case that it’s unmatched on this planet. The phrase “Sports Capital of the World” sounds way too boosterish, but doesn’t it fit?

What other city on earth has the multitude of sports attractions – i.e., competition for attention – that we do? For example, in most countries, the sport we know as soccer is considered King Football. Here, it has to fight for market share and for attention with four other major professional sports. And there are good reasons Major League Soccer avoids the fall-winter-spring scheduling cycle observed by the rest of the world, the most important being the NFL behemoth, i.e. our very own King Football.

Meanwhile, what other metropolitan area on this continent can match the sports chops of this sprawling community made up of L.A., Orange, Riverside, San Bernardino and Ventura counties?

New York? Sorry, not much of a college football profile. Boston? Only one of everything (and they haven’t had a duck boat parade in a couple of forevers). Chicago: Solo NBA and NHL teams (plus, ahem, the Bears). The Bay Area? Close, but they have only one soccer team, they’ve lost the Raiders and are about to lose the A’s, regrettably.

Oh, and here’s the kicker and a spoiler alert: The leader (again) in our annual rankings of SoCal’s teams might as well be considered Japan’s team, too.

As has been the case since we began these lists in 2005 at The Press-Enterprise, the ranking is determined by multiple factors – a mixture of winning, historic importance in the market, interest level and, not insignificantly, the passion of a team’s followers.

The beauty is that, with rare and obvious exceptions, the teams in this market understand what it takes to be competitive not only in their own leagues but in the fight for fans’ attention. In other words, those in charge understand that if you’re a big market team, you’d better act like one.

(And you might notice that there are a couple of additions to the list this year. If you capture the fancy of the greater SoCal public, you deserve to be here.)

So, as SoCal’s newest coach likes to say, who has it better than us?

The list, with the 2023 ranking in parentheses:

1. Dodgers (1): Seen in a local store: A blue T-shirt with “OHTANI” in the style of the “HOLLYWOOD” sign. That says it all, doesn’t it? No team, anywhere, acts the part of a big market franchise so well. That fan bases elsewhere are grumbling “not fair?” All the better.

2. Lakers (2): Yes, they’re struggling to get a foothold this season. That only reminds us of the expectations of their followers, for whom Laker Exceptionalism isn’t just a slogan but a way of life. (And, at times like this, maybe a curse.)

3. Rams (8): What was that again about paying the price in order to win a Super Bowl? As long as they can keep Matthew Stafford healthy, their immediate future seems bright.

4. Clippers (7): It’s hard to have championship expectations when, you know, stuff repeatedly happens. But why shouldn’t this well-run, well-coached, talented team make a deep playoff run … and, perhaps, even have a chance to hang a banner in its new arena? (So, if you’re a Lakers fan and you’re confronted with a Clippers-Celtics final, who do you root for?)

5. Angel City (12): ACFC, along with the San Diego Wave, showed the people who run the National Women’s Soccer League that avoiding Southern California all those years was a grave mistake. The L.A. team’s average home attendance in its two seasons: 19,105 in 2022, 19,756 in 2023. Any surprise that the league is about to expand to the Bay Area in 2024?

6. (tie) UCLA women’s basketball and USC women’s basketball (not ranked in 2023): It’s a perfect storm, with the surge in interest in women’s sports and particularly women’s college basketball dovetailing with two championship-caliber teams. The line wrapped around Pauley Pavilion waiting to get in before the teams’ first meeting on Dec. 30 was an eloquent statement all by itself.

8. USC football (3): The high hopes built in 2022 came crashing down in 2023, as a team of mercenaries played like it down the stretch. But the Trojan fan base has regained its passion and expectations and, yes, a little bit of swagger after a dreary decade.

9. Chargers (6): Could this fan base ever use some swagger? They might get their wish, if Jim Harbaugh does what the multitudes expect.

10. LAFC (4): They might not have been able to defend their MLS Cup title, but this is a well-run team with a passionate fan base that is going to be a factor for a while.

11. UCLA men’s basketball (5): The young Bruins might indeed have a run in them down the stretch, and it’s pretty well established that Mick Cronin won’t let this program wither. But it’s been almost three decades since the last banner, and this is another fan base that has trouble settling.

12. Kings (10): A year ago – heck, six weeks ago – they seemed to be building toward a shot at another Stanley Cup, a decade after their last one. But the recent whopper of a slump has called into question not only players’ effort and coaching but the way General Manager Rob Blake built this roster. The most devoted fans in this market deserve better.

13. Angels (9): Arte Moreno and the rest of his organization should feel fortunate that so many fans still care about this team. There’s little reason to expect improvement unless new Manager Ron Washington is indeed a miracle worker.

14. USC men’s basketball (11): A promising season has turned sour, and is there any real evidence that the USC faithful notice or care? They average 6,228 at home, and their best home crowds were a 10,300 sellout against UCLA and 9,806 against Long Beach State – and how many of those were there early to await JuJu Watkins and the USC women in the nightcap?

15. UCLA football (14): Yes, they were 8-5, and yes, they beat Boise State in the Gronk Bowl at SoFi Stadium, but the Chip Kelly era remains distinguished by a lack of fan passion.

16. Galaxy (13): They were once MLS’ flagship franchise. Now they’re an afterthought in their own town and starting over.

17. Ducks (16): Rebuilds are difficult, especially two or three seasons in. The Ducks are now six seasons removed from their last playoff berth and finally seem to be moving forward, slowly.

18. Sparks (15): And here, a rebuild is just beginning. This is another former flagship franchise trying to find its way again, and at least they’ll have a No.2 draft pick to work with.

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