Sports play an outsized role in American life. Last year, the sports industry took in an estimated $57 billion, and in an era when television audiences are splintering and fewer of us watch live TV than ever before, a full third of the country still tuned in to watch the Super Bowl. Spectator sports have ballooned from a mere form of entertainment into one of the few shared experiences that cut across US regions, classes, and demographics. Here are 40 maps and charts that explain sports in America — the passes, the shots, the players, the teams, the dollars, and, of course, the fans.
1) America’s weird taste in sports
When it comes to sports, American exceptionalism rules. Most of the world is filled, first and foremost, with soccer fans. But soccer is a distant fourth in the hierarchy of US sports. The most popular sport in the United States is a strange, complex game played pretty much nowhere else on earth: American football. Number two and three (baseball and basketball, respectively) are relatively niche sports on a global level, getting serious attention in just a few countries. Meanwhile, few Americans even know the rules for cricket — a sport that, by most measures, is the second most popular in the world.
2) Where pro players come from
America’s pro sports teams represent cities. But the players on them typically have no real ties to those cities — they were just drafted or signed to the teams playing in them. These maps show where players in each league actually come from on a per capita basis. The Deep South leads the country in producing NFL and MLB players, while the border states of Minnesota, Michigan, and New Hampshire are predictably home to the most hockey players. On the whole, Louisiana — a hotbed of football, basketball, and baseball talent — produces the highest number of pros per capita, while Utah produces the fewest.
3) The shifting center of pro athlete production
Another way of seeing the regional imbalance in the production of athletes in different leagues is this fascinating animated GIF created by Slate’s Ben Blatt. Much like the maps that track the country’s shifting population center over time (in other words, the point at which you have equal populations on all sides), this map shows the population centers for each of the four major sports. Hockey’s hugs the Canadian border for pretty much the entire 20th century, while the other three sports’ dive south and west — farther south and west than the US population center, which is in Missouri — showing the disproportionate number of pros born in the Deep South and West Coast.
4) What is America’s most popular sport?
Since 1937, Gallup has regularly asked Americans which sport is their favorite to watch. This simple chart shows the most profound shift that’s occurred in the US sporting landscape so far. There was a time when we were a baseball country. Now, we’re a football country — a place where nearly two thirds of all Americans say they regularly watch football, and regular season games get bigger TV ratings than Game 7 of the World Series. Basketball, in fact, has entered a tie with baseball for second place since the mid-nineties. Gallup data shows roughly when this shift from baseball to football as the country’s favorite sport occurred: the late 1960s. Perhaps not coincidentally, this is the era when the Super Bowl was established, the AFL and NFL merged, and the modern NFL as we know it began.
5) 64 years of NFL history
The 32-team, $10 billion beast that is the NFL began in 1920 as a humble collection of 14 midwestern teams based in cities like Akron, Ohio, and Muncie, Indiana. Over the years, 12 of those teams folded and the other two ultimately moved, but the league eventually gave rise to a stable, profitable league with a national geographic base in larger cities. This animated map — which shows logo changes, expansion, and relocations — begins in 1950, shortly before the rival American Football League formed and eventually forced the NFL to merge with it in 1966. In the subsequent years, eight more teams were added, ultimately producing the sports juggernaut that we know and love and hate today.
Note: the map incorrectly shows the Cardinals moving directly from Chicago to Arizona in 1960, instead of spending 27 years in between in St. Louis.
6) The United States of Football
All NFL teams are not created equal. This map, which Facebook built based on likes, shows the areas dominated by fans of each team. Some teams have vast, scattered regions of fans (the Dallas Cowboys and Pittsburgh Steelers), others have fanbases that merely fill their state’s borders (the Indianapolis Colts and Atlanta Falcons), and fans of some relatively new teams still haven’t really spread beyond their metro regions (the Houston Texans and Jacksonville Jaguars). Zoom in and you’ll see some surprising trends — like how the Jets dominate exactly one county (Nassau) in an otherwise Giants-centric New York region.
7) The NFL is a passing league
The biggest shift in the evolution of the NFL has been the modern-day emphasis on passing instead of running. This map from Grantland shows all 18,104 passes thrown during the 2013 season. As you might expect, a large number of passes (about 40 percent) are thrown within five yards of the line of scrimmage, and these have the highest completion rate (about 74 percent). But the map also shows the significant number of passes thrown to the sidelines, and the increased percentage of passes completed over the middle. Check out Grantland’s article to see each quarterback’s individual data.
8) NFL players have gotten enormous
The second-biggest shift in the evolution of the NFL is even more tangible: players have gotten truly enormous. In the early days, many players were large but still within the range of normal humans — around 200 pounds, and 6 feet tall. Today, the average player is now around 250 pounds, and 6’2” or so. The blob that forms at the top-right around the year 1995 or so is made up of today’s offensive linemen and defensive tackles, who are virtually all above 300 pounds and average about 6’4”.
9) NFL games are mostly commercials and replays
Given the NFL’s huge popularity, there’s something very surprising about the average three-hour NFL game: very little of it involves people playing football. Partly because of the basic design of football (quick plays interspersed with lots of standing around) and the economics of TV broadcasts (commercial breaks and on-screen promotions jammed in after every score, punt, and kickoff), only 8.3 percent of the game I recently charted was actual gameplay. Most of the telecast either showed players standing around between plays (35.5 percent), commercials (24.5 percent), or replays (10.7 percent).
10) This is a brain on football
If there’s anything that can shake the NFL from its spot at the top of the sports pyramid, it’s the issue of head trauma — and, in particular, an alarming disease called chronic traumatic encephalopathy (CTE). The condition, caused by multiple blows to the head over time, causes depression, dementia, and other symptoms, and can only be diagnosed after death, when scientists search for a buildup of a protein called tau (shown on the right side of the image, in a whole brain slice at top and a microscopic slide at bottom). At latest count, 76 of 79 deceased players surveyed have been found to have CTE, with many dying prematurely due to suicide.
11) Major League Baseball’s westward expansion
Major League Baseball goes much farther back than the NFL, with some franchises (like the Chicago Cubs) tracing their history all the way back to the 1870s-era National Association of Professional Base Ball Players, which later became the National League. In 1901, it was joined by the nascent American League, forming the major leagues that we know today. Between 1903 and 1953, the two eight-team, mainly Northeastern leagues remained fairly stable. But starting in the 1950s, a wave of relocation — defined largely by westward movement — began. Keyed by the 1958 movement of the Dodgers and Giants to California, the major leagues eventually became truly national, with 29 teams spread across the country (and one in Canada).
12) The United States of Baseball
This map, showing which team has the most Facebook likes in each county in the country, reveals in terms that there are essentially two types of franchises — the Yankees and Red Sox, and then everyone else. While most teams have fan bases located roughly in their own geographic area, the Yankees and Red Sox dominate all sorts of random counties with no local teams, in states like Utah, Louisiana, Montana, and Hawaii. Most other teams have pockets of fans in their home regions, with a few (the Rangers and Braves) extending out surprisingly far. Meanwhile, there are three teams that dominate exactly zero US counties: the Oakland Athletics and New York Mets (who both share markets with larger, older teams) and the Toronto Blue Jays (who play in Canada).
13) MLB payrolls vs. victories
Baseball is often thought of as a hierarchical class system, with poor, small-market teams (like the Pirates and Royals) as perennial losers, and the aforementioned large-market Yankees and Red Sox dominating the playing field because they can simply buy talent. But although this may be the general rule, there are plenty of exceptions. This chart — which compares each team’s 2014 record and payroll — shows that a number of big-spending clubs failed to crack the postseason (the Yankees and Phillies, among others) while a number of frugal teams did (like the A’s and Royals).
14) Which countries pro baseball players come from
Although all but one Major League Baseball club is based in the US, a significant proportion of players are born elsewhere — about 27 percent, more than the NFL or the NBA. This is one trend that has defined baseball’s modern era, with increasing numbers of Hispanic players coming to play in the US over the last few decades. The Dominican Republic and Venezuela lead the way with 10 and 7 percent of MLB players, respectively.
15) Minor League Baseball across the US
For fans in Major League cities, it’s easy to forget that big-league clubs are only a small percentage of the pro baseball teams across the country. This map shows the top 111 of the 350 minor league teams in existence, in terms of attendance — all the minor league clubs that draw over 3,000 fans per game. Most of them are minor-league affiliates for MLB teams. They mainly serve as a farm system for younger players to move up through as they attempt to make it in the majors — but also as a way for veterans who can’t quite make the big leagues to entertain fans in cities like Toledo, Omaha, and Buffalo.
16) The physics of a curveball
Pro pitchers throw a wide variety of pitches that dive, dart, and curve in different directions, but all of them can be explained by the same basic rule of physics called the Magnus effect. Based on the grip and throwing motion a pitcher uses, different sorts of spin will be imparted on the ball after it’s thrown. With a standard curveball (shown in the diagram), the ball’s forward spin — augmented by its 108 raised stitches — slightly compresses the air above it, creating a zone of lower air pressure below and higher pressure above. This causes it to dive as it travels the 60 feet and 6 inches to home plate. A standard fastball does the opposite: backspin compresses air under the ball, causing it to drop less than expected.
The NBA and WNBA
17) The United States of Basketball
This map, generated based on about 24,000 votes on the website CommonCensus.org, isn’t perfect — among other things, it was made before the SuperSonics moved to Oklahoma City to become the Thunder — but it gives you a rough idea of the NBA fan bases across the US. One interesting observation is that the Lakers are the Yankees of basketball — the default team that people in places like Vegas, Omaha, and Sioux Falls root for, rather than the NBA team closest to their city. A more recent New York Times fan map shows that the Miami Heat have also taken on that role, at least across the southeast. Whether the Heat retain that popularity after losing Lebron James, however, is uncertain.
18) Why the Jazz play in Utah
Like the other leagues, the NBA has seen a significant amount of relocation in its 68-year history. More often than in other leagues, though, teams hanging on to their names when moving have made for some absurd results. While the Dallas Stars and Indianapolis Colts don’t sound all that strange, the Memphis (previously Vancouver) Grizzlies and Los Angeles (née Minneapolis) Lakers don’t make a ton of sense — there are no grizzlies in Memphis, and relatively few lakes in Los Angeles. Of course, the winner in the absurd team name competition is the Jazz, the NBA team that moved from melodious New Orleans to buttoned-down Salt Lake City.
19) A basketball’s path through an entire game
More than any other league, the NBA has embraced big data. In every arena, a series of cameras rely on algorithms to automatically track every player — as well as the ball — throughout the entire game. Coaches love this data because it helps them make smarter decisions. And for fans, it can provide some arresting visuals that define the game in new terms. This map of a ball’s path throughout an entire game, for instance, reveals the chaotic, unpredictable movement that occurs, as well as the shots and passes that get repeated over and over — like the passes around the perimeter, and the foul shot, followed by the ball getting returned to the shooter.
20) The logic of the three-point shot
The NBA’s age of analytics has also revealed which types of shots are most often made (and missed), leading to an increasing focus on two shots in particular — layups and three-point shots. This map, showing the expected number of points per attempt from each spot on the floor (color), as well as the number of shots taken from each spot (size of hexagon) for an entire season, reveals the huge importance of three-pointers and layups. The reason is simple: layups are made at a higher rate than any other shot, and threes are worth more — so even if they’re successful slightly less often, they end up being worth it. It turns out that threes from the corner are especially valuable, because the shape of the three-point arc means they can be taken a little bit closer in to the basket.
21) Basketball’s 13 true positions
Conventionally, there are five different positions on a basketball team: point guard, shooting guard, small forward, power forward, and center. But in 2012, Stanford undergraduate and data enthusiast Muthu Alagappan decided to remap the positions of NBA players based on seven key statistics (rates of point, rebound, block, assist, steal, foul, and turnover production per minute played). He found that the five traditional positions oversimplify and group very different players together. Instead, he proposed a new set of 13 positions (including “paint protector” and “role player”) to describe the 400-plus players in the NBA much more accurately. Several NBA teams have now reached out to Alagappan to use his model in building their own rosters.
22) The growth of the WNBA
In 1997, the NBA founded the WNBA — a high-profile women’s basketball league in which teams would share arenas, owners, and (oftentimes) color schemes with NBA teams. Despite some struggles over the years — nine of 18 total teams (shown as white dots on the map) either folded or moved — the WNBA has since grown steadily into a 12-team league with steadily increasing attendance and TV ratings. Six of those teams are now independently owned, and four play in their own arenas. In 2014, the Phoenix Mercury won the championship, their third title.
23) 97 years of NHL history
The National Hockey League has a history that’s a bit different from the other major sports leagues’: after being founded in 1917 and going through the conventional period of new teams starting up and promptly folding, the NHL stuck at exactly six teams (the “original six”) for a remarkable 25 years. In the late 60s and 70s, the league began quickly expanding again, giving franchises to the West Coast, Western Canada, the Midwest, and even the South. Some of these teams folded or moved, but combined with the absorption of four teams from the folded World Hockey Association, this brought the league up to 21 teams, a number that held steady until another wave of southward expansion in the 1990s.
24) Which countries NHL players come from
The NHL was once a league of mostly American teams filled with Canadian players: in the early 1960s, as much as 98 percent were born in Canada. That is no longer the case. The share of Canadian-born players has fallen over the past few decades as the game has spread, and the current percent of players born in the US (23.8 percent) is at an all-time high. Additionally, the NHL has more players from outside North America (25.7 percent) than any major US league apart from the MLB. Sweden leads the way with 7.9 percent of players — and Stockholm, remarkably, is the hometown of just as many (11) as Montreal.
25) Twitter mentions of “hockey”
Map all mentions of “hockey” on Twitter during a random period during the NHL season — the map shows mentions during December 2013 — and one thing stands out: despite the NHL’s foremost efforts, fans still cluster along the Canadian border. The blue dots show individual tweets, while the redder colors show the percentage of all tweets, but both reveal a much higher level of interest in Canada, as well as northern cities like Minneapolis, Detroit, and Boston. The NHL has spread teams across the southern United States, but increased interest is growing more slowly.
26) A taxonomy of college sports team names
There are thousands of collegiate sport programs in the United States. One thing unites the vast majority of them: they do not have original team names. This enormous chart by Pop Chart Lab is a detailed taxonomy of the most common names in existence — sorting the many birds (there are 60 eagle teams alone), the various mammals (lions, tigers, and bears, yes, but also stags, camels, and seawolves), and the 24 colleges that simply have colors as their mascots. Fun fact: there are hundreds of animal team names, but only three schools have named theirs after plants. Go Sycamores!
27) Most states’ highest-paid employees are college coaches
This Deadspin map reveals an absurd truth about the bloated college sports system in the US: in most states, the highest-paid public employee is either a football or basketball coach. Though most of the money for these huge salaries comes from team revenues, not tax dollars, these big-time college football and basketball programs as a whole are still usually a net financial negative for universities. In fact, it wouldn’t be inaccurate to describe these programs as essentially professional sports franchises that happen to be connected to (and supported by) a public university.
28) The uneven progress of Title IX
When Title IX was signed into law in 1972, it banned discrimination on the basis of sex in any educational program that receives federal funding. One of the biggest impacts of that law has been in college sports — it directs NCAA schools to offer the same athletic opportunities to female as male students, and as a result, the number of female college athletes has skyrocketed. Still, women make up about 53 percent of all students at these schools but only 46 percent of athletes, and their teams continue to receive significantly less funding than men’s.
29) The madness of conference realignment
College sports programs are grouped into roughly geographic conferences — and for most of modern sports history, they never moved. There was once a time when the Pac-12 was made up of schools on the Pacific Coast, the Big Ten was wholly in the Midwest, and the ACC’s teams all played, naturally, near the Atlantic. That time is no longer. Over the past decade or so, the major conferences have played a cutthroat game of realignment, robbing each other of schools (and destroying traditional rivalries) only to be robbed in turn the next offseason. This graphic conveys the overwhelming complexity of the changes, but they can be summarized in two words: football and money. In most cases, universities have pulled all their sports teams out of one conference and into another for the purpose of improving their football prospects, and conferences have sought universities based on their ability to help garner bigger TV contracts.
30) The fan bases of the top 25 college football teams
This map, compiled by Facebook at the start of the 2013 season based on the number of likes for the top 25 teams, shows the areas dominated by fans of each team. Much of it is interesting to look at, if not surprising — most large state schools dominate their home states, but don’t go far past their borders. But there are some exceptions. Oregon has fans across Northern California, rather than Stanford, and Texas fans can be found all across the west. Compare with this more recent New York Times map (which also features more schools) to look even more closely at the borders that define rivalries.
31) The most-hated college football teams
This admittedly unscientific map — it was created based on survey data collected by a Reddit user — still tells us something important about college football: it thrives off a healthy amount of rivalry and hatred. In general, historically dominant teams (like Texas, Ohio State, Michigan, Alabama, and Florida) are hated in all states that border their schools. In some cases, they’re even the most-hated teams in their home states — presumably due to fans of other teams sick of their attention and success.
32) The fan bases of the tournament-bound college basketball teams
This map was also generated by Facebook, at the start of the 2013 NCAA tournament, and shows the team with the most likes in every county — out of the field of 68 teams in the bracket. Not surprisingly, the map is dominated by big schools (which are mostly higher-ranked teams), leaving precious few likes for the Valparaisos and Ionas of the world. Facebook also breaks down the country’s favored Cinderella teams, and which counties prefer which teams in each part of the bracket.
33) The Women’s College World Series
Since 1982, the pinnacle of women’s softball has been the Women’s College World Series. Though any NCAA Division 1 university can send a team to the tournament, it has been positively dominated by one state: California. UCLA alone has won 11 out of 32 championships, and the state as a whole has accounted for way more final four appearances than any other. Arizona is next, with Arizona University and ASU winning a combined 10 titles. But recently, the balance of power has shifted south, with Florida and Alabama winning titles in the last three years, and the SEC as a whole accounting for more final four appearances than the Pac-12 over the past seven years.
34) Where Olympic golds are born
This map shows the number of gold medals (both in the winter and summer Olympics) won by inhabitants of each state on a per capita basis. One thing stands out: Montana and Vermont have produced an unusually high number of them. The reason is mainly geologic: both states have the kind of snow-covered mountains that people can grow up skiing and snowboarding on, allowing them a much greater change to become competitive at the international level.
35) Pro soccer in the US
Major League Soccer is a pretty new league: it was only founded in 1993, in conjunction with the US hosting the World Cup. And although it still lags behind football and baseball in per-game attendance, the MLS is growing steadily — it now averages just over 18,000 fans per game, slightly more than the NBA and NHL. This map shows the locations of the 19 teams in the MLS (16 in the US, and 3 in Canada), along with a number of minor league teams. In addition, the league will add teams in New York City and Orlando for the 2015 season, to be followed by Atlanta and Miami in future years.
36) America’s success in Grand Slams is dwindling
Americans once dominated international tennis. In the late seventies and early eighties, stars like Jimmy Connors and Chris Evert won dozens of Grand Slam tournaments (that is, the four most prestigious annual tennis events — the US Open, the French Open, the Australian Open, and Wimbledon). Even the semifinals often featured multiple Americans at once. But that’s changed in the last decade. Since the retirement of Pete Sampras and Andre Agassi, no American male has climbed the ranks to become a top international player — and no American man has made it to a Grand Slam semifinal since 2010. The decline in top American women hasn’t been quite as severe, but that’s mainly due to one family: apart from Serena and Venus Williams, there has been just one Grand Slam semifinal appearance by an American woman since 2005.
37) The NASCAR Sprint Cup Series
NASCAR’s Sprint Cup Series is the top level of stock car racing in the country. When people talk about NASCAR, this series is generally what they mean — an annual schedule of 36 races on 23 different tracks that began in 1949. Each race, drivers accumulate points based on their finish and the number of laps they lead for, with 16 drivers selected to compete in the final 10 races, called the Chase for the Championship. Traditionally, most races were in the Southeast, but NASCAR has expanded north and west over the past few decades, and now has races in 20 different states.
38) NASCAR is getting slower
Given its place as the most popular form of auto racing in the US, there’s something you may not know about NASCAR: it’s definitely not the fastest. Unlike other types of auto racing (like Formula One), NASCAR is stock car racing, which means it ostensibly uses the same cars that anyone can purchase at a Ford dealership. In practice, the cars are now custom-built for racing and just vaguely resemble commercial sedans, but they’re still subject to high levels of restrictions that ensure they don’t go too fast for safety purposes. As a result, top speeds peaked in the 1980s and have been gradually declining since.
39) Which sports do high school students play?
More so than in any other country, team sports are a huge part of the American high school experience. This chart shows which sports students play the most: the top sports by number of students participating, with men’s in green and women’s in orange. One reason that football has so many more participants is that the average roster size is so much bigger than other in other sports — it can include as many as a hundred kids, and some schools don’t even make cuts. As with college sports, the number of women in high school sports has increased dramatically since Title IX, but there are still many more men playing in total: 4.5 million, versus 3.3 million women.
40) Millions of Americans run and bike
The 39 other maps in this feature mainly explain the sports that most of us like to sit on our butts and watch. But this map, which shows 77 million bike rides and 19 million runs taken by people using the app Strava, is a reminder that the vast majority of athletes don’t get paid to play in front of thousands of people — they do simple things like running, biking, and walking for exercise and pleasure. A proper explanation of Sports in America can’t just be about the sports that we watch, but also those that we play ourselves. Explore the whole interactive map to see the millions of runs and rides that normal Americans (albeit ones that have GPS-enabled devices and are inclined to use such an app) have taken over the past few years.
- 22 maps that explain the World Cup
- 40 maps that explain food in America
- 22 maps and charts that will surprise you
Developer Yuri Victor
Special Thanks Tyson Whiting, Dan Weiss