I ran an analysis to figure out the 11 sports that are the biggest in the world. (Our version of football is nowhere to be found.)
The World Cup is about to start, and along with it, America’s quadrennial dalliance with soccer. We always hear that soccer is the most popular sport with everyone in the world except with people over the age of eight in the U.S. — and I decided to test that out.
It’s tricky to get reliable data for global sports popularity, but I found a few interesting sources. MostPopularSports.net determines a sport’s popularity by the worldwide Alexa rankings of its primary official website (i.e. fifa.com, NFL.com and so on). BiggestGlobalSports.com calculates popularity based on population-adjusted totals of press coverage for each sport. And finally, ESPN.com says no sports exist in the world other than the NFL and the Yankees. Between those three sources, I was able to create a formula to rank 48 major sports by their global popularity.
Here are the results of my analysis on the 11 most popular sports in the world. (And yes, a second list is coming with the 11 least popular sports in the world. Keep tightly clutching your snooker cues to see what landed there.)
11 | Cycling
Cycling is ranked as the most popular sport in two countries: El Salvador and the “good” Congo. In the U.S., it doesn’t crack the top 10 — and I believe I can pinpoint a certain uniballed dream killer who’s responsible for that.
10 | Swimming/diving
Swimming is very popular in South America and an assortment of other coastal countries around the world. It cracks the top 20 in popularity — but not the top 10 or higher — in the countries that win all the Olympic medals in it: Australia, the U.K. and the U.S. Its popularity over sports like volleyball and field hockey that didn’t make this list probably comes from its massive press around Olympics time and from all the kids in the world taking swimming lessons to bump up its participation numbers.
9 | Boxing
Boxing eventually imploded under its own crapulence in the U.S. but stayed big in Latin America, Europe, Japan, north Africa, and countries where there ARE NO RULES like Thailand and the Philippines. (Rule number two: No outside food.) Although every once in a while Floyd Mayweather bets $50 million on a parlay of the Washington Generals +275 and someone with no tattoos winning Top Chef and gets Americans talking about a boxer again.
8 | Baseball
According to Harris Interactive, in 1985, pro football and baseball were essentially tied as the most popular sport in America. In 2013, football was two-and-a-half times more popular than baseball. Not only that, but college football, despite its “amateur” status, is closing in on baseball for number two.
Fortunately for baseball, no one else in the world cares about American football, so it’s still huge elsewhere. It’s the most popular sport in Venezuela, Cuba and the Dominican Republic and in the top 10 of a lot of very populous countries.
7 | Wrestling
Yes! Yes! Yes! I’d like to think this isn’t just counting Greco-Roman wrestling but also the professional ranks. The WWE is spectacular at creating their own metrics to make pro wrestling seem like the most popular entity on the planet (e.g. “Monday Night Raw is the highest-rated weekly episodic sports-oriented TV program in basic cable history adjusted for inflation!”)
6 | Golf
Tiger Woods led the push to make golf a phenomenon with hundreds of millions of people worldwide (and also later managed to really capture that elusive deviant demographic too). Golf is huge in the U.S., a lot of Europe and a lot of Asia. Golf is like Kevin Hart to me — I don’t really get it, but I see the appeal to others.
5 | Cricket
Cricket is the king of a few enormous countries (ya know, like India) but it’s arguably the least likely sport to ever captivate the U.S. (The recent failure of Million Dollar Arm reinforced that point, even though it didn’t even need reinforcing.) I could see Americans getting into rugby, team handball, badminton and — dare I say — soccer before embracing cricket.
4 | Auto racing
To some, this may seem high; to me, I’m surprised it’s this low. Auto racing takes a lot of forms — NASCAR here, Formula One over there — and just keeps on growing. Watching other people drive knows no geographic boundary.
3 | Tennis
The website that measured press coverage found tennis was in the top seven sports in every single country they studied. Its top players come from a wide variety of countries and compete against each other in a wide variety of countries. Plus it draws a lot of participation all over the world thanks to SO many people taking lessons, from millions of kids to billions of housewives.
2 | Basketball
The NBA’s 25-year plan to become the world’s most popular sport fell just short due to some rough patches (thanks a lot, era where Grant Hill was the best player in the league) — but number two isn’t too bad. Ever since the Dream Team in 1992, basketball’s popularity has exploded internationally — and the success of international players in the NBA has just fueled that even more. Also, the NBA went after China and got it; basketball is the most popular sport in China, which brings in a billion extra fans. It’s also the most popular sport in Latvia, which I’m pretty sure the NBA would trade for reaching more people in China.
1 | Soccer
And there it is. The World Cup is the most-watched event in the world, even more than the Olympics; at least one billion people will watch some World Cup action over the next few months. (And it will stay that way, until Qatar’s stadium made out of human bones and a lil’ plutonium causes an international incident at the 2022 World Cup.) Soccer is the most popular sport in 57 countries and top three in another 19. There’s no sport in the world that even comes close.
Americans still won’t get on board, though. We’ve got our thing and we’re sticking with it.
Edit from the future: And here’s the list of the 11 least popular sports in the world.