I grew up in Bowdoinham, a small town in midcoast Maine. As the crow flies, it's 132 miles from the nearest NBA team, 133 miles from MLB, and 153 miles from the NFL, and so I developed strong rooting interests while pretty much never going to any live games, ever. It all felt very far away from the action, at least for someone from the Northeast, but was it really that bad? How far do Americans typically live from their sports, and what sports are they generally closest to?
It's been reported, as a metric for proximity, that two-thirds of Americans live within three miles of a Walgreens, five miles of a Wal-Mart, and 100 miles of the U.S. border or coastline. In the maps below, I performed the same calculation for the four big sports leagues, plus MLS, to see how far a typical American has to travel to get to the nearest team in each sport. If a sport had teams in every major city, this figure would be very small. If a sport skipped the big cities, or if it cloistered itself in a certain region of the country, this figure would be larger. On each map, the red star marks the smallest American metro area that has a team, and the blue star marks the largest that doesn't.
- Smallest metro with team: Green Bay (population 357,000, 103rd-largest metro area)
- Largest metro without team: Los Angeles (18.2 million, second-largest)
Even without Los Angeles—doomed to be a perpetual bargaining chip for owners—the NFL has the best overall coverage. The league has two more teams than its other major competitors, and it didn't waste any of them on Canada. Before we go and give Green Bay a big handjob, it's worth mentioning that the Packers played three of their eight home games each year in much-larger Milwaukee from 1953 to 1994.
- Smallest metro with team: Oklahoma City (1.4 million, 46th-largest)
- Largest metro without team: Seattle (4.4 million, 13th-largest)
If Seattle hadn't called bullshit on the SuperSonics, the NBA would probably top the NFL in coverage despite having three fewer American teams in the U.S. Instead of competing for fans in the declining Rust Belt cities of Pittsburgh (23rd-largest metro), Cincinnati (32nd), and Buffalo (50th), the league opted to enter the untapped markets of Portland (19th), Orlando (20th), Sacramento (24th), San Antonio (31st), and Memphis (45th). These moves gave the NBA the best East-West coverage of any of the major sports, and created the powerful Western Conference that makes the regular season worth watching.
- Smallest metro with team: Milwaukee (2 million, 33rd-largest)
- Largest metro without team: Portland (3 million, 19th-largest)
Despite higher attendance, the MLB actually has a weaker spread of coverage than its two main rivals. Specifically, the league is missing a lot of the South: Louisiana, Arkansas, Kentucky, Tennessee, Virginia, North Carolina, South Carolina, Georgia, Alabama, and Mississippi have one baseball team among them. Those same states have four NFL teams—five, if you give the 'Skins to Virginia—plus another Southern one in Jacksonville, four NBA teams, and two NHL teams. There are more hockey teams in this region than there are baseball teams. That is insane.
- Smallest metro with team: Buffalo (1.2 million, 50th-largest)
- Largest metro without team: Houston (6.4 million, 10th-largest)
This metric isn't really fair to the NHL, which is the only major league that meaningfully includes Canada. However, this is a good reminder that a whopping 90 percent of Canadians live within 100 miles of the U.S. border, meaning a lot of Americans are closer to major Canadian cities than they are to American ones. Can rooting interests cross national lines? American fans of the Canucks, Flames, Jets, Habs, Senators, and Leafs—if you're out there, let me know.
- Smallest metro with team: Columbus (2.3 million, 28th-largest)
- Largest metro without team: Miami (6.4 million, ninth-largest)
Does a pro league need to be national to be successful? Seattle, Los Angeles (Galaxy), Portland, Vancouver, and Salt Lake City were the first-, second-, fifth-, sixth-, and eighth-best-attended MLS teams in 2012. Give San Francisco a proper team (instead of San Jose), add Phoenix, San Diego, and Sacramento and you could have yourself a thriving Western soccer league. Wait a couple of years and expand into a rapidly growing Las Vegas. This could be fucking awesome.
The truth is, none of this really matters—at least not as far as the sports leagues are concerned. With the exception of MLS, which performs terribly on television, live attendance has become less and less important for the financial success of the major sports. According to WR Hambrecht's 2012 Sports Market Report, the NFL, MLB, and NBA all saw regular-season attendance drops from 2006 to 2011, even as the U.S. population grew 3.4 percent (the NHL saw an attendance increase). During the same span, revenues for the three leagues grew by 36 percent, 26 percent, and 18 percent, respectively. The advertising value of live sports has exploded in the last decade, and until this bubble bursts, the leagues don't have to worry too much about who's walking through the gates.
*Technically what we're calculating here is: "Two-thirds of Americans live within a 2010 census tract whose centroid is contained within a circle of X radius from an MLB/NBA/NFL/NHL/MLS stadium/arena." The census tract shapes are what give the radii on the map their rough outline.
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Photo by George Silk/LIFE. See more LIFE baseball photos here.