Popular Teams, Harris Poll and the Big 4 Sports

While writing my book, The Bullets, The Wizards and Washington, DC Basketball  on professional basketball industry and Washington, DC, a central question emerged about the city’s fans.  From the origins in the late 1920s through the Bullets in Landover, Maryland, the city’s teams never drew very well. Even when they reached the National Basketball Association (NBA) Finals against the Minneapolis Lakers  in 1949, the Lakers drew double the crowd that the Capitols did. The late owner Abe Pollin fretted over the limited attendance after his Washington Bullets won the 1978 Finals. He proposed the reason for the small turnout was that few people who lived in the nation’s capital were actually from the Washington area, so they maintained their loyalty to their hometown teams.

This is one reasonable contribution to the issue but not the main answer that many believe. Population figured  indicate that many natives from the area lived in Washington and their drives for constructing stadiums and bringing the Army-Navy Game to the city, reveal their interest in sports. Yet this definition of the Washington, DC sports fan as a transient remains one of the main definitions of the area’s fans. This motivated me to begin working on a project to understand the city’s sports fans and their support of the “Big 4” sports in the United States.

The concept of the “Big 4″means that each of the professional sports leagues in North America, Major League Baseball (MLB), National Football League (NFL), NBA, and the National Hockey League (NHL) are the largest revenue producers out of all the leagues in their sport worldwide. Each is also a place where players and coaches can become icons notable worldwide. During the research for this project on fans, I discovered how unequal the Big 4 are amongst themselves.

The Lou Harris and Associates company began polling sports fans in the early 1970s to determine the favorite sport in the country or how many fans followed each sport. These studies continued but were joined by polls that discovered fans’ favorite teams and athletes in 1992. The first polls asked a sample of people to indicate their favorite and least favorite teams in the MLB, NFL and NBA. According to Regina Corso, Director of this area of polling, they never asked about the NHL because they did not have a large enough sample of people to create a poll result in which they had confidence. Harris-Interactive-Poll-Research-ATLANTA-BRAVES-NOW-THE-NATIONS-FAVORITE-BASEBALL-TEAM-1992-05; Harris-Interactive-Poll-Research-CHICAGO-BULLS-MOST-POPULAR-AND-DETROIT-PWONS-LEASI-1993-01; Harris-Interactive-Poll-Research-COWBOYS-REDSKINS-AND-BEARS-ARE-AMERICAS-FAVORITE-NFL-TEAMS-1992-09

Before the start of the new millennium, the Harris Corporation had stopped asking people about their favorite NBA teams. Ms. Corso cited the same reason but also stated, “No one has asked for them.” The polling company’s customers are local media outlets, and apparently, they did not have a need to reference the country’s preferences in basketball. How did Harris’s staff think it did not have a statistical sample (Regina Corso said that they require at least 10%), when a Harris survey from 1998 stated that over 44% of fans identified themselves as followers of professional basketball? More intriguing is the lack of interest from the media. Did these outlets believe their readers and viewers had little interest in the subject to make it worth not reporting? Did the stations and newspapers’ editorial staffs have little interest in the topic?

Does the lack of polling for professional basketball and hockey while football and baseball questioning remains indicate that the concept of the Big 4 is misleading? Is the Big 4 more accurately viewed as the Big 2 and Small 2? In 2014, Harris released a poll that indicated the favorite sports of fans in the United States from 1985 through 2013. The NFL’s product has climbed from 24% to 35%, while MLB’s has declined from 23% to 14%. After college football (10 to 11%) and auto racing (5 to 7%), the NBA and NHL products follow, with basketball remaining at 6% and hockey climbing from 2 to 5%.  If favorite sport is an accurate indicator, it seems so.

3 thoughts on “Popular Teams, Harris Poll and the Big 4 Sports

  1. Pingback: popular-teams-harris-poll-and-the-big-4-sports | Bohemian Yankee in the Capital

  2. Good Stuff Brett. I’m curious where MLS fits in. It probably doesn’t rival the NBA but could be catching up to the NHL. I grew up in a city without NBA or NHL, but we had MLS. In recent years the MLS team has gotten very popular and now averages nearly 18K per game (which is similar to an NBA or NHL arena). Likewise, out West in cities like Seattle, Portland, and St. Lake the MLS has become a huge draw.

    I know your work is on DC. Have you noticed any similar trends with the DC United? They’ve been fairly successful (4 MLS Cups). Does the Harris Poll ask about soccer, or is the MLS too young to be included (it was founded in 1996)? Could be fun to see how it’s grown/changed over the last 20 years and if that’s impacting the popularity of other “Big 4” sports.


    • Andrew:

      You raise some significant points. Harris Poll has historically not asked about soccer and unfortunately this hasn’t changed. From 2011, favorite sport question has soccer at 3% in 1985 and 3% in 2002. It has climbed to 4% in 2010. DC United has a real struggle in Washington. There has been little ground swell of support for it to get a new stadium, etc. Yet: 42% of soccer fans in DC named United as their favorite team which is greater than the basketball fans in the area who named the Wizards. Of the social fans in the city (people who go to game to be with friends): Half prefer pro sports and another 38% like college and pro equally. 38% fans of NFL; 25% soccer; 23% NBA, 21% MLB and 20% NHL. So that is part of the point you were making. The otehr categories of fans that the Post used for its survey in 2011 are: megafans, hometown fans, social fans and drive-by fans.


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