By Matt Burdett, 10 November 2017 [last update: 28 March 2019]
On this page, we look at the factors affecting the geography of national sports leagues, including the location of its hierarchy of teams and the distribution of supporters.
- A football match at the Stadio Olimpico in Rome, Italy: Football leagues are often limited to within individual countries, such as the Serie A in Italy – but why can’t leagues cross borders?
Introducing the geography of sports leagues
On the surface, there may not appear to be much relationship between sports and geography. However, several key geographical themes affect the location of teams and the distribution of their supporters, including (but not limited to):
- Population size
- Population characteristics, including affluence
- Physical land characteristics (terrain)
- Existing land use (and cost of land)
- Communication technologies including TV
- Transport connections
Geographical factors and the link to league success
There is no definite relationship between these factors and the success of any given team in a league. There are so many other factors – not least the quality of the players – that affect the chances of a team when they play their games.
However, most leagues will find that the teams from the biggest settlements tend to dominate. This could be for several geographical reasons, such as:
- Big settlements have a larger sphere of influence, so there are more potential supporters
- More supporters means more potential income from ticket sales, merchandise, advertising and so on – so there is more money to buy the best players
- Bigger settlements may have better government funding for sports facilities, so there are more opportunities for local young people to participate in sports and reach a high level
Location of teams and their grounds
There are several geographical factors that affect the location of sports teams. These include
- Population of the nearby area
- Affluence of the population
- Relative interest in a sport compared to others
- Cost of land (bid rent)
- Existing land use
In most sports leagues, the teams towards the top of the league hierarchy are from larger, wealthier settlements. These teams generally have more supporters and more income from selling tickets and merchandise. They can spend this income on better players and facilities, and therefore become even more successful.
History is also important. Teams often play in sports grounds that have been a feature of the local urban area for decades. This is particularly the case in mature cities in Europe and North America, where sports teams often play in grounds in the inner city. If they were to try to buy the land today, the land would be too expensive, but when they were first built they were actually on the edge of the urban area and the land was available and cheap. This was when the spectators were living and working nearby in the factories which have now closed down. These facilities have been ‘left behind’ as the city grew around them, resulting in their central location.
However, this is no longer always the case. In the USA, it’s not uncommon for teams to move not just within cities but from one coast to another. The main reason for doing so is to generate higher revenue from advertising, sponsorship, and the sale of land when they vacate their old grounds.
- US sports teams on the move. Source: Workom, n.d.. Map of US Sports Teams. http://workom.co/map-of-us-sports-teams.html# Accessed 13th November 2017.
In Europe this is less common but still does occur. For example, until 2003 Wimbledon Football Club was based in south London. It then moved to the satellite town of Milton Keynes as part of a development scheme in the new destination involving the Ikea furniture group and the Asda supermarket chain (owned by Walmart). The team changed its name to the Milton Keynes Dons. This hugely controversial decision was a political issue, as sports teams are a key feature of local identity.
Distribution of supporters
The distribution of supporters of teams was traditionally based on the team’s local roots. A historical interest in the sport, along with good local transport connections and a limited league geography that allows travel to see away matches, all contribute to maintaining a local following for a team.
However, today the distribution of supporters can be much wider than the spatial limit of physical attendance at a match. There are several reasons:
- Mass media – live satellite TV means that fans can watch in real time wherever they are in the world
- Advertising – English Premier League teams are big business in much of Southeast Asia
- Touring – teams tour new markets, such as basketball players in China or soccer players in Malaysia, bringing new interest in the game
- Socio-cultural globalisation – as cultures merge together and information flows more freely, interests from one culture can be passed to another
- International events – as some events such as the Olympics and the soccer World Cup become ever more popular, interest is generated in the leagues and smaller competitions that lead into the larger international scale events
Workom, n.d.. Map of US Sports Teams. http://workom.co/map-of-us-sports-teams.html# Accessed 13th November 2017.
Geography of national sports leagues: Learning activities
- Identify three geographical factors that may affect the distribution of league teams. 
- Suggest why the most successful teams are often those from large, wealthy urban areas. 
- Discuss the relationship between historical factors and the location of teams and their home grounds today. 
- Explain how sports leagues such as the English Football Premier League have fans distributed globally. 
Many sports teams include the name of a city or local animal in their name. Examples are Nottingham Forest football club and the Atlanta Falcons in the NFL. Predict the future:
- Will these geographically linked names still be attached to teams in the future? Why do you think this is?
- What name would you give to a team from your local area, and why?
Research examples of teams that have moved and kept their original names. Suggest why they have kept their names even after moving away from the area that gave them their name.