What is the Most Popular Sport in the World?
Football, also known as Soccer in America, is the World's Most Popular Sport.
| Read: 8 min
Sport has, over the years, been one of the main sources of entertainment, providing real-world excitement to viewers and participants. From media frenzies to cross-border rivalries, sports elicits something unique in humans. But do you know the world’s most popular sports?
Here's is a list of the ten most popular sports around the world. This list has been curated based on metrics like fan base, TV viewership, and social media following.
And should Pickleball join the Olympics, who knows, maybe this list will change someday.
Association Football / American Soccer
Known as soccer in America and Canada, football is the most popular sport globally. The sheer number of fans of Football is staggering, with over four billion fans from all corners of the world. That’s most of the world’s population when you think about it. Most of that fanbase resides in Europe, South America, Asia, and Africa.
Participants can play this sport professionally or recreationally. As a professional sport, soccer is common in over 200 countries and has over 250 million players. And, professional leagues are everywhere: Argentina, Brazil, the Philippines, you name it.
Football’s roots can be traced to 19th-century England. Over the years, its popularity has grown globally, thanks to its simplicity and accessibility. Unlike some sports, soccer isn’t a preserve of the elite. All you need is your feet and a ball.
Soccer has a huge TV viewership, with billions of fans watching major competitions. According to FIFA, over three billion people watch the FIFA World Cup. Beyond the World Cup, the team sport is a darling of the Olympic Games, where soccer players from every nation vie for the most coveted of medals.
When it comes to social media presence, soccer has millions of fans who follow major leagues (like the UEFA Champions League) and players.
The most followed players on social media include Cristiano Ronaldo, Lionel Messi, and Neymar Junior, while the most followed teams include Manchester United, Barcelona, and Real Madrid. Too bad goalkeepers don’t get that kind of love.
Given all of that, it should come as no surprise that Football/Soccer is among the most popular sports in the world.
The NFL, which is the premier league of American Football, would have you believe that it is the most played sport in the world if you listen to any of their broadcasts. However, that statement has traction in the United States, where 37% of Americans claim that football is their favorite sport.
Nowhere is that statement more prevalent than during the Super Bowl, one of the most watched (if not the most watched) sporting events annually in the United States. Plus, listening to Football players address the media during the run up to the Super Bowl used to be excellent entertainment, that is until Bill Belichick, Tom Brady and the rest of the Patriots started winning and went silent on the mics. But who knows, maybe that’s exactly what the GOAT needed to win.
Cricket is the 2nd most famous sport globally, with a fan base of over 2.5 billion. While it’s one of the world’s most popular sports, cricket does not enjoy a global viewership. It is popular in the UK and a few former British colonies such as India, Pakistan, and Australia.
However, the sport is gaining global popularity. The ICC Men’s T20 World Cup 2021 finals between Pakistan and India broke the global viewership record. According to the game’s governing body, the sport had over 167 million TV viewership, making it the most viewed cricket match in history.
Odd fact: Cricket is a sport without an "A". Anyway ...
The cricket-playing countries are the only places where this sport has a huge social media presence. For example, most cricket stars and cricket-related pages in India and Pakistan have the highest social media followers.
Other countries where cricket is most popular include South Africa, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, and Philippines.
Basketball is a famous ball sport, with over 2.4 billion followers globally. Like soccer, basketball is easily accessible since you need a ball and two baskets to get started.
James Naismith, a Canadian teacher, invented this sport in the late 19th century. Basketball’s popularity has grown over the years, spreading to different regions.
The most popular basketball league is the NBA. According to Statista, about 1.34 million viewers watch regular-season games. Most NBA fans are from the US, although millions of viewers from Spain, Greece, Italy, Turkey, and China tune in.
Apart from the NBA, professional basketball leagues are taking root worldwide. Eastern European countries like Hungary, Poland, the Czech Republic, Serbia, and Lithuania are among the countries establishing professional basketball. However, unlike soccer and some pockets of hockey, the best basketball players do play in the NBA.
Basketball has a global social media presence, with prominent sports names enjoying millions of followers. For example, Lebron James, Michael Jordan, and Stephen Curry have millions of social media followers worldwide.
Interesting to note that the Boston Celtics have a chance to surpass the Lakers in 2022 for the most NBA championships.
With over two billion followers, hockey is among the world’s most popular sports.
There are two forms of hockey:
- Ice hockey
- Field hockey
Ice hockey has a massive following in the USA, Canada, Eastern Europe, Russia, and Scandinavia, while field hockey is popular in Europe, Asia, Africa, and Australia.
The National Hockey League (NHL) is perhaps hockey’s most famous league. The NHL is mostly graced by various clubs from America and Canada. Speaking of Canada, hockey is its national sport.
While hockey doesn’t have a large audience, it has a dedicated TV viewership in countries where it’s popular. In the 2021 Stanley Cup final match between the Montreal Canadiens and the Tampa Bay Lightning, over 3.6 million fans tuned in to watch the sport.
A couple of quick things on the Lightning. One, they are working hard to put Tampa on the map as one of the best sports cities. And two, they are one of the very few American Pro Sports Teams that doesn't end in "S".
Hockey doesn’t enjoy an impressive social media following and searches on the internet. However, the number of followers and searches vary by country and season.
Tennis enjoys a pretty good fan base, with over one billion people following the sports in different parts of the world.
Tennis is played against a single opponent or between two teams, with each team having two players. According to the ITF Global Tennis Report 2019, this sport has over 87 million men and women players worldwide.
Tennis dates back to the early 14th century and has grown into one of the most prestigious sports in the world. The sport is more prevalent in the UK, Europe, USA, Canada, France, and Australia.
Some of the biggest competitions include the US Open, the French Open, Wimbledon, and the Australian Open. These competitions are known as the four grand slams.
Tennis enjoys a huge TV viewership as a global sport, especially the four grand slams with over 400 million fans. On social media, tennis has big names such as Roger Federer, Novak Djokovic, Andy Murray, Serena Williams, and Rafael Nadal, who enjoy millions of followers.
Volleyball is a competitive and popular sport globally, enjoying a following of over 900 million people.
There are two forms of this sport:
- Regular volleyball
- Beach volleyball
Regular volleyball involves two teams, each with six players, while beach volleyball involves two teams with two players.
Western Europe, North America, South America, Asia, Africa, and Australia are the regions where volleyball is more popular.
TV viewership is limited to major competitions such as the FIVB Volleyball Championship. This competition is the biggest globally, and 24 countries participate after every four years.
The social media presence of volleyball is not that high. However, people in different countries follow their volleyball teams and players on various social media platforms.
Also known as Ping Pong, this sport involves two teams, each team with one or two players. The sport is similar to tennis, except it’s played on a table and a net at the center.
It arose in England in the early 20th century, and its popularity has grown worldwide. Table tennis enjoys a following of over 875 million people, with most followers in Asia, Europe, Africa, and America.
Table tennis has more professional players in China, Malaysia, and Indonesia when it comes to professional sports. The rest of the players are hobbyists and amateur players scattered worldwide.
TV viewership is limited to major international events such as the World Table Tennis Championship and the Olympics. The World Table Tennis Championship is held every two years, with top players participating.
Table tennis does not enjoy massive popularity on the internet and social media. Most people search about the sport during major tournaments and competitions. The social media presence of table tennis is relatively mild, with fans following professional players from their countries.
One of the only knocks on the sport we have is that playing it doesn’t really happen organically, as no one really just has a ping-pong table laying around at a family cookout, the way they might have a volleyball net or a badminton setup.
Baseball is the national pastime of America. It has over 500 million followers in different parts of the world, including the United States, Canada, Cuba, Japan, and the Dominican Republic. The game involves two teams, each team consisting of nine players.
Baseball used to be the most viewed sport in the US, but it’s now declining. Front Office Sports claims only 45.3 million fans graced MLB’s games during the regular 2021 season. That said, this sport is still a cultural phenomenon in the US, where it's most popular team, the New York Yankees, have won an absurd 27 titles, making them the team with the most championships in American Pro Sports.
TV viewership varies depending on the tournaments, with some of the biggest tourneys enjoying a huge viewership in the US and Japan.
The most-watched tournaments are the World Baseball Classic and Baseball World Cup. Baseball popularity on the internet and social media is limited to countries where it’s commonly played.
Rugby is among the world’s most popular sports, with over 475 million fans in France, England, Africa, and New Zealand.
Rugby pits two teams, and the number of players in each team depends on the rugby version. The most famous rugby variants are:
- Rugby Union
- Rugby League
- Rugby Sevens
Unlike many sports, rugby is a game of contact with a lot of tackling. It originated in England, and its popularity has spread to different countries globally.
The sport has a huge viewership in rugby-playing countries but negligible in other countries. Rugby popularity and TV viewership have grown in South Africa, Fiji, Samoa, and Tonga.
The sport enjoys a high level of search and followings on the internet and social media during major competitions such as the Rugby World Cup. Fans in participating countries search about various teams and follow rugby clubs and stars.
Golf is a famous sport globally, with over 450 million fans. The origin of modern golf originated in Scotland in the 15th century. Today, this sport is prevalent in North America, Western Europe, and East Asia.
Unlike most sports, golf is common among rich upper-class people. Golf has costly entry barriers, which might deter some people.
TV viewership is higher among adult males in the US, Canada, and Europe. Most fans follow big competitions such as the US Open, the Master’s Tournament, the PGA Championship, and the Open Championship.
Since golf players and followers are usually older than 35, it has a minimal social media presence. These followers and players are not as active on social media as the younger generation.
One of the crazy things about this list is what it does and does not include. For instance, if you ever watch the Olympic Games, you'd swear that Gymnastics was the most popular sport in the world, as that's pretty much all the TV coverage shows. While not among the most popular, Gymnastics is one of the hardest sports in the world. So at least there's that.
Hopefully this all makes sense. If it doesn't, or, you think our analysis is off, reach out and let us know.
References & Sources