Once this was a sleepy little pueblo. Literally. The original name of what is now the second-largest city in America was “El Pueblo de Nuestra Señora la Reina de los Ángeles del Río Porciúncula.”
It is no longer sleepy. It certainly is no longer small. And when major league baseball arrived in 1958, a place that already had played host to the Olympics and had NFL and college football truly grew up.
Sports Capital of the World? That’s what the city fathers used to boast. In 1932 and ’84, when the planet’s best athletes visited L.A., it was indisputable. Otherwise it sounded boosterish … but you could make a lively case, given not only the excellence but the volume of franchises and events of which Southern California can boast.
But which of the seven decades that SoCal has been a major player in professional and major college sports has made us most proud? Would it be the ’60s, when the Dodgers won their second and third World Series in L.A., USC football won two national championships and UCLA basketball won its first five of 10 championships in 12 years?
Would it be the ’80s? Showtime took over the Forum to the tune of five Lakers championships, the Dodgers added bookend World Series at each end of the decade, the just-passing-through Raiders won the city’s only Super Bowl, hockey’s Babe Ruth came to town and USC’s women’s basketball team redefined its sport.
Or maybe it’s the 2000s, when the Lakers won another five championships, USC football left no doubt (until the NCAA investigators arrived), the Angels broke their hex and three franchises that hadn’t existed when the ’90s began – the NHL Ducks, WNBA Sparks and Major League Soccer Galaxy – won five championships among them?
The arguments can go on forever, and the era you back may have a lot to do with how old you are and who your heroes were growing up.
And while the numbers might not end the arguments – heck, we hope they’re just starting – This Space has attempted to quantify how the decades compare.
First, consider: Since 1950, Southern California teams have won 53 championships in major league sports and major college football and basketball.
The first was Dec. 23, 1951, when the Rams – who got here in 1946 from Cleveland – beat the team from their old hometown, the Browns, 24-17, on a 73-yard pass from Norm Van Brocklin to Tom Fears midway through the fourth quarter at the Coliseum. It avenged a loss to the Browns in the previous year’s championship game and remains the Rams’ only NFL championship while representing Los Angeles.
The most recent? The Sparks’ 2016 WNBA championship, achieved over the Minnesota Lynx in a five-game final and capping an MVP season for Nneka Ogwumike. There have, of course, been plenty of chances since then – two World Series and a Super Bowl, for example, and feel free to shake a fist in the directions of Houston and Boston, if you wish – and the possibility of ending that drought in the first year of the 2020s remains on hold for the foreseeable future.
But consider this, too: In addition to football and basketball championships, since 1950 SoCal’s college teams – mostly USC and UCLA but with contributions from Cal State Fullerton, UC Irvine, Long Beach State, Pepperdine and Cal State Northridge – have won 219 Division I national championships in what are now known as “Olympic” sports but were then known as “non-revenue.”
And we’re not even going to get into the number of athletes from here who prosper elsewhere, as collegians and pros. That’s another argument for another time and another mountain of research.
What we’ve done in this survey of the major league and college marquee programs is to assign number values: A World Series championship, Super Bowl, NBA title, Stanley Cup, WNBA or MLS title or national college football or basketball championship is worth seven points. Losing the final, or getting to the Final Four in basketball, is worth three. One point for winning your conference or division. Two points for a player winning a major postseason or final series MVP award.
The result? The 2000s rule: 13 championships, 25 individual award winners, and 194 points in our calculation. Just imagine how many more there might have been if those Shaq/Kobe Lakers had stayed together longer.
The No. 2 decade? Not surprisingly, it was the 1980s, with 147 points, 10 championships and 28 individual awards, and it may have led the field in compelling personalities: Magic Johnson and Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Fernando Valenzuela, Kirk Gibson and Orel Hershiser, Cheryl Miller, Wayne Gretzky, Eric Dickerson, Marcus Allen. (And don’t forget: that Raiders’ Super Bowl remains the only one won by an L.A. team.)
No. 3? The 1970s and 2010s both had 145 points. But give the edge to the ’70s because of 10 championships – six of them produced in Westwood, five by the men’s basketball team and one by the women, plus three more USC football championships and the Lakers’ first L.A. title. The ’10s had seven titles, and you think those two Dodgers’ World Series losses and one Rams’ Super Bowl loss at the end of the decade would have made a difference?
The full accounting is here. Check the numerical breakdown, and then feel free to ignore the numbers and start the arguments.
After all, we all have plenty of time to kill.
@Jim_Alexander on Twitter