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OC Register: Alexander: The State of SoCal Sports, 2022

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The original premise was simple: Rank Southern California’s teams, top to bottom, using a combination of competitive success, importance, interest and passion. This is, as we’ve said often, the most diverse and sometimes fickle sports market in North America … and by far the most competitive, for not only victories but for attention and the entertainment dollar.

Dating to our first attempt to rank them for The Press-Enterprise in 2005, the list has been an attempt to separate those who succeed in this market from those who, frankly, need to work harder. (The other premise was that this would be one of the easiest columns of the year. That concept lasted only until I started compiling the first one.)

Anyway, for the first time since COVID-19 upended everyone’s routines, we are back with the State of SoCal Sports rankings. The identities of the teams at the top shouldn’t be surprising, but if you have an issue with where your favorite team is ranked, you know who to blame.

The current list, with the last previous ranking in 2019 in parentheses:

1. Rams (3): The NFL does not dominate the L.A. market as it does elsewhere, in large part because the league’s 21-season absence balkanized the fan base. But winning a Super Bowl, the most recent act of a five-year stretch of excellence, positions the Rams well in the market with this team, that stadium, and an operating philosophy that’s perfect for L.A., i.e., doing everything you can to win.

2. Dodgers* (2): The asterisk should be self-explanatory as long as the lockout lasts. My suspicion is that the Dodgers’ deep-pockets ownership group is absolutely not among those hell-bent on more punitive spending penalties. What the Dodgers have done over the last decade – as one of the few teams in their sport that has stayed in contention every year – should earn them some indulgence when the lockout finally ends.

3. Lakers (1): This is obviously not on the strength of the team’s current on-court performance. Laker fans are the most passionate (and occasionally myopic) in the market, and they’ve been whipsawed over the last few years: Rebuilding with lottery picks, casting the young guys away for one big swing at a title, winning that title at the conclusion of the elongated pandemic season, then falling back because of injuries and poor personnel decisions. The fan base still believes that 18th championship is attainable, but when Jeanie Buss leaves early, as she did during that recent New Orleans debacle, that should be a wake-up call.

4. UCLA men’s basketball (10): Mick Cronin has this program up and running again. The big-game buzz has returned to Pauley Pavilion, too (9,268 average attendance since COVID attendance restrictions were lifted, going into Saturday night’s game with USC). It helps that Johnny Juzang, Jaime Jaquez Jr. and most of the others who got the Bruins to the Final Four last year are still in the program.

5. Clippers (4): Carving out their share of the audience in SoCal is a long-term play and the building under construction across from SoFi Stadium in Inglewood will help. And they’ve established themselves as the more likable of the region’s NBA teams, as the gritty underdogs while waiting for their stars to get healthy. There’s immense potential here, even if Laker Nation refuses to acknowledge it after seven straight losses to the Clips.

6. Chargers (6): It is at least a more balanced crowd when the Chargers play at SoFi than when they were in Carson (unless the Raiders are in town). Justin Herbert should make them an offensive terror in years to come – but GM Tom Telesco still has to prove he can build a sustainable contender around his franchise quarterback. (And it’ll help if Brandon Staley is more selective about going for it on fourth down.)

7. USC football (9): I didn’t rank them higher because they haven’t played a game yet for Lincoln Riley. But there already seems to be a different feel around what had been an embattled program. This is what Trojan fans craved over the last four seasons of the Clay Helton administration.

8. Kings (13): The most loyal fan base in L.A. sports, year after year, is finally being rewarded for its patience through a five-year plan. Now, will GM Rob Blake make the necessary moves to again approach the elite status of the Stanley Cup years?

9. (tie) LAFC (5): Under Coach Bob Bradley, LAFC was one of the best expansion stories in sports, much less soccer, until things started going south in 2021. Now it’s Steve Cherundolo’s job to restore some of that energy, but much might depend on what happens to Carlos Vela in this summer’s transfer window.

9. (tie) Galaxy (7): With four non-playoff seasons in the last five it’s easy to forget the Galaxy was once MLS’ gold standard. They’re banking on a revitalized Chicharito, and if they and their El Tráfico rival are both relevant it’s good for the rivalry, for the region and for MLS.

11. Ducks (12): They’re young, they’re skilled, and in Trevor Zegras they’ve got a guy you have to watch because you don’t know what crazy play he’ll make next. Even with a recent slide, the Ducks are on an overall upward trajectory and it will be interesting to see how new GM Pat Verbeek approaches the trade deadline.

12. *Angels (8): The Angels have the best player in the game in Mike Trout and the most electrifying player in the game in Shohei Ohtani. But hasn’t it been really hard to be an Angel fan the last few years? Revelations from the recent trial over the death of Tyler Skaggs cast even more of a pall over the team.

13. USC men’s basketball (15): There’s always the possibility that the contract extension Andy Enfield signed in December might have to be sweetened further if other programs come after him. And maybe the USC community is finally beginning to get it. This season’s home attendance average was a sickly 3,860, but last Tuesday night’s sellout against Arizona was as good a big-game atmosphere as it gets, at least until the Wildcats turned it into a rout.

14. Sparks (11): They missed the playoffs a year ago and resolved to do something about it in true L.A. fashion, with a flurry of moves highlighted by the signing of free-agent center Liz Cambage. Theirs is a solid and devoted following – and those of you who claim “nobody cares” should just pipe down.

15. UCLA football (14): Athletic Director Martin Jarmond went with the easiest course and extended Chip Kelly through 2025, which means that 62-33 victory over USC in November might have been the best thing to happen to … the Trojans. Remember, UCLA’s 8-4 season didn’t include one victory over a team with a winning record. Bruin football’s seeming commitment to mediocrity over the years has bled its fan base, and there are times I wonder if the school’s administration is somehow content with that.

16. Giltinis (No ranking): A new team and an unfamiliar sport create a huge challenge in this market. But the franchise named after a drink won the Major League Rugby championship in its first try, and in building a clientele it’s crucial to get and keep local rugby clubs on board and get them to spread the word.

Incomplete: Angel City FC (No ranking): It took long enough for the National Women’s Soccer League to get a franchise into the nation’s second-largest market. Before ACFC has played a game, it has sold more than 13,000 season tickets while boasting maybe the most star-studded ownership group in pro sports and putting a particular emphasis on community involvement and service. Not a bad start.


@Jim_Alexander on Twitter

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