The English Premier League is arguably the world's most popular sporting competition, and certainly the world's most watched soccer league. It boasts a TV audience of 4.7 billion. Walk down a street in Sao Paulo or Lagos, Portland or Phnom Penh, and the one common denominator you'll see is someone wearing the shirt of a leading Premier League club.
A new data visualization produced by Twitter maps the global support for the EPL, based on the location of followers from each of the Twitter accounts of the league's 20 teams. It's probably not the most accurate assessment of worldwide fandom — a minority of people in the world are on Twitter, and following a team's Twitter account doesn't necessarily mean you back it. But the results seem credible.
On the map, larger concentrations of color reflect a greater number of Twitter users following certain teams. Large splotches of color may make it seem that overwhelming majorities of fans support one particular team in a country, but that's not the case. In most countries, loyalties are narrowly divided between the league's powerhouse clubs: Manchester United (red), Arsenal (yellow), Chelsea (blue) and Liverpool (teal).
The interactive map can be read almost as a kind of timeline. The Premier League launched in 1992 as a flashy commercial departure from the stodgy, traditional soccer structure in England.
As WorldViews discussed last year, the league's fortunes soared along with that of Manchester United, which steadily racked up trophies under the stewardship of legendary manager Sir Alex Ferguson. The club's popularity is reflected in parts of Africa and Asia, where the obsession with the EPL has given it a commercial edge over other leagues in Europe.
Arsenal, one of London's traditional powerhouses, has a huge global following, too, a direct consequence of its success in the late 1990s and early 2000s as the EPL started to eclipse its European rivals in popularity. The past decade has represented a fallow period for the north London club. But its global popularity has endured, buoyed by the club's general competitiveness, its reputation for playing an aesthetically attractive style and its status as relative underdogs — at least compared with a few other teams with more financial muscle.
That perhaps explains why Arsenal, according to Twitter, is the most-supported English club in the United States — where backing the underdog is a natural choice for neutrals, but also where everyone wants to be a winner.
Chelsea, in blue, was a modest London club with not much history (beyond a particularly conspicuous legacy of neo-fascist hooliganism) before it was bought up by Russian billionaire Roman Abramovich in 2003. His petrodollars have turned Chelsea into a giant and the most successful British club in recent years. The areas where it's most popular reflect countries or continents where the EPL arrived later, penetrating markets that either had their own robust competitions or where other European leagues, particularly those in Spain and Italy, were more popular.
In Britain, where support for English teams runs deepest, Liverpool is still a dominant force. No English club won more titles than Liverpool before the 1990s. But, in the Premier League era, it has been surpassed by nearby rival Manchester United, and even Manchester City, a new force backed by the riches of Abu Dhabi's sovereign wealth fund.
Related on WorldViews