Yesterday, Ritchie King and I ran the numbers on the most popular teams in the NFL, NBA, NHL, Major League Baseball and the English Premier League, according to the number of Google searches they generate.
The rankings compared teams within each league. But we can also make cross-sport comparisons. What’s the most popular North American professional team in any sport, as judged by Google search frequency globally?
It’s either the New York Yankees or the Boston Red Sox. Each generates about 30 percent more Google searches worldwide than the most popular NFL team, the Dallas Cowboys, and almost 40 percent more than the most popular NBA team, the Los Angeles Lakers. You can skip down to the giant chart at the end of this blog post to see how all teams in the NBA, NFL, NHL and MLB compare to one another.
The Montreal Canadiens, the most popular NHL team, aren’t particularly close to the most-searched teams in other leagues. Does that mean there’s really a “Big Three” rather than a “Big Four”? (Disclosure: ESPN doesn’t broadcast NHL games, and the league isn’t the subject of all that much focus at the network.)
I’d say that the NHL’s status as a major league isn’t in question. The average NHL team generates about two-thirds as much Google search traffic as the average NBA team. There’s a gap there, but it’s no larger than the one separating the NBA and MLB. Furthermore, there’s a lot of overlap in the rankings. The 60th-percentile NHL team (roughly speaking, the Washington Capitals) is about as popular as the 40th percentile NBA team (the Philadelphia 76ers).
Keep in mind that these figures are based on global search traffic, so that includes traffic in Canada. Canada — despite its much smaller population — generates almost as much revenue and fan interest for the NHL as the United States.
But if we’ve included the NHL, what about Major League Soccer, the Canadian Football League and the WNBA?
We have bad news for fans of women’s basketball. The most popular WNBA team, the Seattle Storm, generates only about one-quarter as much search traffic as the least popular Big Four team, the Columbus Blue Jackets.
MLS has a better argument. Its most popular teams, the LA Galaxy and the Seattle Sounders, generate more search traffic than the Blue Jackets. The Galaxy and Sounders also earn about as much search traffic as the least popular NBA team, the Milwaukee Bucks.
If MLS has a case, the CFL probably does, too. Two of its teams, the Saskatchewan Roughriders and the Edmonton Eskimos, also surpass the Blue Jackets in search popularity.
But we’ve neglected the league that has the strongest case for inclusion alongside the Big Four. You may have heard of Mexico. It has the 11th-largest population and the 14th-largest economy in the world. It’s a part of North America. And soccer is awfully popular there.
In fact, Mexico’s top professional soccer league, Liga MX, is comparable to the NHL in terms of global popularity. Liga MX’s most popular team on Google, C.D. Guadalajara, produces about as much search traffic as the Canadiens, the Seattle Seahawks, the San Francisco Giants and the Chicago Bulls.
So, if we’re talking North America — not just the U.S. — there’s really a “Big Five”: the NFL, the MLB, the NBA, the NHL and Liga MX. The most popular teams in MLS and the CFL are more popular than the least popular teams in the Big Five, but their inclusion is debatable, especially because they are surpassed by other leagues playing the same sport on the same continent.
In the spirit of inclusivity, we’ve ranked the teams in all seven North American leagues in the humongous chart below. (Rankings are taken relative to the average team across all seven leagues, which works out to be roughly the Buffalo Bills or the Cincinnati Reds.) We haven’t included the English Premier League. The top teams in the EPL swamp everybody else in global search traffic; even the Yankees are no match for Man U.