For the two decades of this century, and for the last two decades of the last century, the question has triggered debate among friends, on talk shows, and all over the Internet: Is L.A. a Dodgers town, or is L.A. a Lakers town?
For 2020, we have a definitive answer: L.A. is LeBron’s town.
The Lakers reclaimed their title as the most popular team in Los Angeles, albeit with an asterisk, in a survey conducted by Loyola Marymount University. But no asterisk was attached to the popularity of James, who has united the city in a way even his team has not.
“That guy only being here one year and he’s already L.A.’s favorite sports star? That’s pretty amazing,” said Fernando Guerra, director of LMU’s Leavey Center for the Study of Los Angeles.
The seventh annual survey, conducted in January and February, asked 1,000 Los Angeles County residents to pick their favorite team from the 10 major pro teams with Los Angeles in their name. The Lakers got 35% of the vote and the Dodgers 31%, with only four other teams reaching even 5%: the Rams (7.5%), Clippers (6.4%), Galaxy (6.2%) and Angels (5.3%).
The survey also asked participants to select their favorite player, with one player representing each of those 10 teams. James dominated, with 46% of the vote, and only three other players even reaching 5%: the Dodgers’ Cody Bellinger (10.7%), LAFC’s Carlos Vela (8.3%) and the Angels’ Mike Trout (6.7%).
Bellinger, Vela and Trout all were recently honored as the most valuable player in their respective leagues.
James was not. His first season with the Lakers was interrupted by injury, and the Lakers missed the playoffs for the sixth consecutive year.
He had, however, arrived in Los Angeles as one of the most successful and influential athletes in sports history. He was a four-time MVP and 14-time all-star, and he had led his teams to three NBA championships and eight consecutive NBA Finals appearances.
He had made his mark in education, and in Hollywood. He was on pace to lead the NBA in jersey sales for the sixth time, which would tie Lakers legend Kobe Bryant for most seasons atop the sales charts this century. He had topped 100 million followers between Instagram and Twitter. In 2019, Axios noted that James had more Instagram and Twitter followers than every MLB, NFL and NHL all-star combined.
All he needed to do here was return the Lakers to glory, and this season’s team has the best record in the Western Conference.
The popularity of the Lakers and Dodgers diverged in the survey: The Lakers were favored by men, English speakers, people under 44, and liberals. The Dodgers were favored by women, Spanish speakers, people over 45, and conservatives.
Yet, of the 51 demographic breakdowns considered in the LMU survey, James was the most popular athlete in 49. (Vela was most popular in the other two: Spanish speakers, and people that had not completed high school.)
Guerra, the survey director, marveled at how completely Los Angeles has embraced James. Michael Jordan famously shied away from political commentary — “Republicans buy sneakers too,” Jordan once said — but James once referred to President Trump as “u bum.”
Said Guerra: “To say that, in L.A., even conservatives pick LeBron to be their favorite athlete says a lot about how widespread he is loved.”
The survey also revealed how the Clippers are making inroads into developing their fan base, even in the shadow of James and the Lakers, and how the Chargers remain almost invisible in the market.
The Clippers have invested heavily in the next generation of L.A. fandom: outfitting kids in city recreation leagues in Clippers gear; refurbishing city courts and adding a team logo; participating in a program that provides vision testing for children in the Los Angeles Unified School District and glasses for those that need them.
In the city of Los Angeles, the Clippers ranked third in popularity, at 11.7%, trailing only the Lakers and Dodgers. In the county, the Clippers ranked seventh, at 2.7%, ahead of only LAFC, the Sparks, and the Chargers.
“The Clippers are clearly an L.A. city team,” Guerra said, “versus an L.A. County team.”
The Chargers ranked dead last in L.A. County at 1.2%, with the Sparks at 1.3%. Overall, they ranked ninth at 1.6%, with the Sparks at 1.1%.
Guerra cautioned that the survey only asked for a favorite team, even though many residents are fans of more than one team. And, in a county of 10 million, even 1% translates to 100,000 people, a decent core for a fan base.
That the Chargers have struggled is little surprise. In 2018, the year after the Chargers moved to Los Angeles, the LMU survey asked residents to name their favorite NFL team. According to Leavey Center research assistant Vishnu Akella, the Chargers ranked fourth among the responses, behind the Rams, Oakland Raiders, and “any team is fine.”
In 2014, the first time the LMU survey included a question about favorite team, the Lakers (43%) had a nine-point lead on the Dodgers (34%). By 2018, as the Lakers continued to miss the playoffs and the Dodgers played in back-to-back World Series, the Dodgers had reversed the margin, getting 38% of the vote to 30% for the Lakers.
On Jan. 26, Bryant died in a helicopter crash in Calabasas. The survey was underway, and at that point the Dodgers were favored by 33.7% and the Lakers by 33.5%.
Over the final weeks of the survey, and amid the outpouring of respect and emotion surrounding Bryant’s death, the Lakers drew 37.7% of the vote and the Dodgers 27.8%. That swung the overall vote to the Lakers.
Guerra said he did not believe that result warranted an asterisk.
“Of course, there’s a bias: The Lakers are playing at that time, the Dodgers are not. Kobe dies. The Lakers are winning, for the first time in a long time. All three of those things influence it,” Guerra said. “Events happen that change our opinion, that impact our behavior.
“I’m very comfortable saying the Lakers are the most popular team.”