Alexander: Our 2023 Southern California sports franchise rankings

In contemplating this year’s State of SoCal Sports column, our annual ranking of the teams in this continent’s most diverse sports market, there is one overriding conclusion: This place has an awfully deep bench, with not just quantity but quality.

Southern California had two championship celebrations in the 2022 calendar year, the Rams in February and LAFC in November after maybe the best MLS Cup final in league history. So far in the 21st century, SoCal has had 23 champions covering 10 teams in seven leagues.

But these rankings, as we’ve noted since starting the process for The Press-Enterprise in January 2005, are only partly based on competitive success. It’s a mixture of winning, importance in the market, interest and – not insignificantly – the passion of a team’s followers. The fact that most of these teams do seem to be working harder is a testament to fans’ willingness to vote with their wallets and the realization that, in a market this competitive, you’d better be trying to win every year.

The list, with last year’s ranking in parentheses:

1. Dodgers (2): Maybe Andrew Friedman miscalculated. The last two seasons he let shortstops Corey Seager and Trea Turner walk in free agency, and with Gavin Lux’s torn ACL the Dodgers are trying to MacGyver an important position while working through the end of defensive shifts. But this organization has not only the money but the brainpower to find solutions. They just need to do so more often in October.

2. Lakers (3): Yes, this is a legacy ranking of sorts. The Lakers are ordinary these days, a combination of injuries and roster-building issues, and even after a successful trade deadline they’re scrambling just to qualify for the play-in tournament. But their fans are the region’s most loyal and passionate (and occasionally delusional), for whom Laker Exceptionalism is a state of mind.

3. USC football (7): They’re ba-a-a-a-ck. The conference championship loss to Utah, with a CFP spot there for the taking, and the meltdown against Tulane in the Cotton Bowl provided a thud of an ending. But Lincoln Riley’s first season as coach and Caleb Williams’ Heisman Trophy-winning season brought the faithful back to the Coliseum after the Clay Helton era drove them away.

4. LAFC (tied 9): The most successful expansion/start-up franchise in this community’s history finally cleared the last hurdle by winning its first league championship in front of its diverse and passionate supporters group. For an encore, this year they’ll have another crack at the CONCACAF Champions League, after reaching the final of a condensed pandemic version of the tournament in 2020.

5. UCLA men’s basketball (4): The Bruins no longer surprise anyone, after getting to the Final Four in 2021 and running into North Carolina in the Sweet 16 in ’22. This year they have a tough, tournament-hardened team and a candidate for Pac-12 Player of the Year in Jaime Jaquez Jr., and this is another example of a once-spoiled fan base believing again.

6. Chargers (6): You can credit Justin Herbert for much of the Chargers’ rise in popularity in this market. But their dynamic young quarterback still has some heavy lifting to do, especially since “Chargering” remains an active verb in the NFL.

7. Clippers (5): This is a smart, forward-thinking, imaginative management group, with a coach in Tyronn Lue who has won an NBA championship and a roster that would seem to be well-positioned to compete for a title. So why does it feel sometimes like the sum is less than its parts?

8. Rams (1): Here’s the question: If you can go all in to win a championship while fully understanding that you’re going to be paying for it big time down the road, do you still do it? I think Les Snead would still maintain it’s worth it.

9. Angels (12): I used to think the Kings’ fan base was the most embattled in SoCal, their loyalty not rewarded with much of a payoff until 2012. I’m convinced Angels fans have assumed that title – and if you aren’t one of them you might not quite understand how painful it was when they found out Arte Moreno wasn’t selling the team.

10. Kings (8): And now a clarification: Kings fans are no less loyal than they’ve ever been. But it’s taken eight years for them to again feel like, yes, there very well might be a chance to do something special in the springtime. (Yet imagine the conflicted feelings when they see franchise legend Jonathan Quick wearing Vegas colors.)

11. USC men’s basketball (13): Maybe the best-kept secret in the region, never mind the nation. The Trojans are good, and they’re fun to watch, but in their first 16 home dates this season they drew more than 5,700 only twice, against UCLA and Arizona, and averaged 3,878 per game through Thursday’s games. Yeah, I know, football school, but still.

12. Angel City FC (not ranked): About the only thing that didn’t go the new team’s way last year was that it narrowly missed the playoffs (finishing eighth in the 12-team NWSL) while fellow expansionist San Diego made it. But ACFC averaged 19,105 fans per game, not only far and away best in the league but a little over 9,000 more than the league’s average. Need any further verification that the NWSL waited way too long to expand to L.A.?

13. Galaxy (tied 9): The one-time flagship franchise of MLS lost its way for a while. Last year’s conference semifinal loss to LAFC was just their second playoff appearance in six years, but things seemed to be looking up. Then team president Chris Klein was suspended by MLS for violating salary rules, and when the team announced he would return as president anyway, the supporters’ groups announced a boycott. Fun times.

14. UCLA football (15): If the Bruins’ head coach didn’t seem so allergic to any sort of attention directed toward his team, it might be more popular. Attendance keeps going down in the Chip Kelly era, and despite a 6-0 start and a 9-4 record, UCLA averaged 41,593 for eight home games – and that’s with 70,865 attending the USC game at the Rose Bowl. (And Friday, the school signed Kelly to an extension through 2027. Maybe they should move home games to the library.)

15. Sparks (14): Another franchise trying to find its way back. The Sparks won a WNBA championship in 2016, but they were a combined 18 games under .500 the last two seasons and missed the playoffs both years. New faces atop the organizational chart, specifically General Manager Karen Bryant and Coach Curt Miller, will help, as will making sure Nneka and Chiney Ogwumike stay in Sparks uniforms.

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16. Ducks (11): Maybe bottoming out is what it will take to get the Ducks on track again. This will be their fifth straight non-playoff season, and right now all they’re doing is increasing their chances in the Connor Bedard lottery, in pursuit of the consensus No. 1 pick in this June’s draft. Those days of extended playoff runs and exciting spring evenings in Honda Center? It’s understandable if you don’t remember.

Gone: Giltinis (16): The experiment of selling Major League Rugby in L.A. had a short life. The team named after a cocktail won the league championship in its first season, 2021, but was suspended from the playoffs in 2022 for violations of salary cap rules, and the L.A. and Austin franchises – both owned by Australian entrepreneur Adam Gilchrist – were expelled from the league in October.  As of now, there’s no replacement.

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