Where Do Professional Athletes Come From?

In the past few months we’ve taken the time to study the rosters of both college football and college basketball in order to learn where young talent comes from and how wide some schools cast their recruiting nets. After going through the exercise of plotting each and every active college player, we were curious to see the same results for professionals across the five major team sports in the United States. We compiled the active rosters for each team in the MLB, NFL, NBA, NHL, and MLS and plotted each of the 5,273 players in their hometown (according to Stats Inc.)

Zoom in and out or click to get player details. Toggle leagues on/off with the menu in the top left corner and view a larger version by clicking the top right.

Heat Maps

With the exception of the NFL, each of the other four professional leagues in the United States have a good amount of talent coming from outside the country and we created heat maps of the entire world to identify the regions that produce the most pro athletes.

The first heat map shows a collection of all professional athletes. Click to enlarge any of the below maps.

Geographic Midpoint

Based on population, the geographic center of the United States is estimated to be in Wright County, MO (the blue star marked on the map below) and we were interested to see how the center points of each professional league compared.

Influenced by many players from Russia and Northern Europe, the NHL stands out as the most northern point by far, settling near the top of Canada in Rivière-Koksoak, Quebec. The NBA, similarly, has a number players from Europe that pulls it’s center towards Canada, landing on Lake Ontario off of Youngstown, NY. The MLS, with so many players from the east coast as well as Europe and Africa, has it’s geographic center fall in the Atlantic Ocean, about 225 miles off the coast of Nags Head, NC. The MLB’s center point falls near Faunsdale, AL, pulled south by the large number of players born in the southeast United States and Latin America. Finally, the NFL’s almost directly mirrors the mean point of the country, falling just 115 miles away.

Country Breakdown

Overall, more than a quarter of all athletes playing professionally in the United States come from outside the country. The NHL leads the way with over 75% of their players being foreign born (over 48% from Canada) while almost 46% of the entire MLS comes from outside North America entirely.

The combination of a massive amount of hockey players and a population about a tenth of the size of the United States ranks Canada higher when it comes to professional athletes per capita (1.1878 compared to 1.0697).

State by State Breakdown

More than a third of all United States professional athletes come from just three states: California, Florida, and Texas. California ranks either one or two in homegrown pro athletes with the exception of the NHL, where it ranks 7th. Vermont is the only state in the US that doesn’t have an active professional athlete playing in one of the five major leagues.

United States Born Athletes – Per Capita

Since California, Texas, and Florida are the three states with the highest populations, it’s no surprise that they lead the way when it comes to producing professional athletes. Digging into the data a little deeper, we chose to look at how many athletes each state produces per capita (100,000 residents). While the three largest states still perform well under this lens, they are jumped by a few other states in the the southeast when it comes to per capita rankings: Louisiana (2.08), Georgia (1.90), Alabama (1.81) all rank ahead of Florida and Texas doesn’t even crack to the top 10.

Also ahead of Texas is Minnesota, which ranks 7th mostly due to the fact it sends more players to the NHL than any other state.

City Breakdown

While Miami tops the list with 72 athletes produced, St. Louis is the only city that ranks in the top 5 percentile for each of the five leagues covered. 2,369 different cities can claim a current athlete as their own, but only 15 of those have at least one player in each league: Houston, TX; San Diego, CA; St. Louis, MO; Charlotte, NC; Long Beach, CA; Chicago, IL; Newport Beach, CA, Pittsburgh, PA; Indianapolis, IN; Phoenix, AZ; Toronto, Canada; Milwaukee, WI; Mississauga, Canada; Winston-Salem, NC.

FiveThirtyEight recently published a story examining the influx in players joining teams near their birthplace this past offseason. They concluded that 8% of all free agents joined teams within 100 miles of their birthplace, the highest of any offseason since unrestricted free agency began in 1988.

Looking at all players and not just free agents, 6.26% of NBA players are currently on teams within 100 miles of their hometown. This beats out the MLB (4.32%), NHL (4.37%), and NFL (5.16%), but each of those numbers are dwarfed by the MLS, in which 12.52% of players come from less than 100 miles away.

Professional Athlete Comparison

Interestingly enough, while the MLS has highest percentage of “hometown” players, the league also boasts the highest average distance from home of all the leagues (2,484 miles) and the most countries represented (62).