The world loves sports. In America alone, 66% of people actively watch sports. When you take that percentage and apply it to a global audience, the power of sports is astonishing. Not only do high-earning athletes surpass $100 million in revenue per year, but the number of sports fans has been growing steadily year-over-year for the past 50 years.
Sports play a huge role in our society. Children learn life skills on the field/pitch, and sports are a way for cities to bond, people to relax, and humans to admire the raw athleticism and tactical intelligence of our most experienced athletes.
But the sports we love aren’t all the same. In America, football is the fan-favorite of the majority of people, according to recent surveys. In Europe and South America, it’s all about soccer.
Let’s look at some of the biggest sports on the planet in terms of viewership.
A Quick Forward
When we talk about the “most viewed” sports, we’re looking solely at the global fanbase. There are other metrics we could measure like TV deals, sponsorships, total income, and live viewers, but we’re primarily focused on how many people consider themselves fans of these sports. This means we’re combining live viewership, TV viewership, and even people who watch sports on free sports streaming sites.
Total fans: 1/2 of the planet or 3.5 billion people
Soccer is king. Over half of the entire world’s population tunes in to the World Cup each year. And, over 250 million people admit to actively playing soccer. This makes it the most-watched, most-played sport on the planet. Without touching on the absurd number of TV viewers and sponsorship deals, it’s important to remember that soccer crosses boundaries. It’s the most popular sport in Europe, Asia, Africa, and South America. There’s only one continent where soccer doesn’t reign supreme — North America.
- Soccer originated in China in the 2nd century
- Lionel Messi is the highest-earning player with a whopping $90 million per year contract
- Soccer balls were made from inflated pig bladders in the Medieval ages
Total fans: 2.5 billion people
While cricket doesn’t even make the top 10 list in America, it’s global influence is undeniable. The Cricket World Cup regularly draws in over 200 million viewers, and cricket dominates the charts in many countries — like India, Pakistan, and Australia, and other former British colonies. Cricket games have two teams of eleven players looking to score the most runs. It’s most similar to baseball, though there are many notable differences that have caused cricket to remain popular in Europe but less so in North America, where baseball is incredibly popular.
- The first recorded cricket game was played in 1646
- The longest cricket match (between South Africa and England in 1939) lasted 9 days.
Total fans: 2.4 billion people
The rise of basketball is a modern story. Unlike soccer and cricket, basketball isn’t an ancient sport or a 300-year-old tradition. It was started in the late 19th century, yet it’s quickly become a globally influential sport. The fanbase of basketball is relatively concentrated, with the majority of fans belonging to the USA, Canada, Japan, and China. But it’s rapidly spreading across the world, picking up new fans at an incredible pace. In fact, basketball is on-track to becoming the most popular sport in the USA, with faster viewership gains that football or baseball.
- Until 1926, basketball was played with a soccer ball.
- For the first 9 years, slam dunks were considered an illegal play.
- The shortest basketball player (“Muggsy” Bogues) was 5’3, and the tallest player (Manute Bol) was 7’7.
Total fans: 2.2 billion people
There are two versions of hockey — ice and field. Field hockey (or hockey played on a field of grass) is popular in India and Pakistan, while ice hockey (or hockey played on ice) is popular in the US and Canada. In terms of revenue, hockey isn’t nearly as big of a goliath as many of the other sports on this list. In fact, baseball and football enjoy a much smaller fanbase, yet a much higher revenue stream. Part of that is due to the split between hockey versions. While hockey enjoys a modest social media presence, it does have a semi-large online streaming base that regularly tunes in.
- Legend speculates that early hockey pucks were made of frozen poop.
- In ice hockey, pucks are frozen before the game to prevent bouncing.
- According to the rulebook, if two goalies are injured during the game, anyone is allowed to play the goalie position — including fans.
Total fans: 1 billion people
Another globally popular sport, Tennis is the first on the list that isn’t played with a team. In tennis, it’s every man (or woman) for themselves. In fact, women’s tennis has outranked men’s tennis in the past in terms of TV viewership. Tennis is also a regular showing at the Olympics, making it a sport that’s globally watched, recognized, and played.
- The biggest tennis event, Wimbledon, requires over 24 tons of Kent strawberries to be served.
- Women have been a regular part of tennis for many years, and the first female players even wore dresses.
Total fans: 900 million people
While volleyball may not have the money or viewers of some of the other sports on this list, it is unique. Volleyball is one of the most evenly spread sports in terms of popularity. Almost every country watches a moderate amount of volleyball. In fact, volleyball isn’t the leading sport of any country, yet it makes our list at number 6, above football and baseball. Most of this popularity stems from its Olympics status, and it’s one of the most-watched Olympic sports during the Summer Games.
- Volleyball was inducted into the Olympics in 1964.
- The average volleyball player jumps over 300 times per game.
7. Table Tennis
Total fans: 850 million people
Table Tennis (or Ping Pong) is one of the least-watched, yet most popular sports in the world. Viewership for ping pong is mostly limited to the Olympics, with a few hobbyists watching specially televised events. The main draw of pin pong is that anyone can play it. It doesn’t require incredible athleticism, and it’s a regular hobby sport at homes and arcades.
- Ping pong is incredibly popular in China — who holds the most gold medals in the Olympics.
- In the 1970s, ping pong was used as a diplomatic tool between the US and China.
Total fans: 500 million people
America’s past-time, baseball, makes the list despite its extremely consolidated popularity. In the past, baseball was the most-watched sport in America, a title it has since given to football (and may soon pass to basketball). Baseball is also incredibly popular in Japan, where it is the most-watched sport on TV. While baseball has low(ish) streaming numbers and live viewers, it continues to be a popular outlet for live viewership, as baseball games continue to be a cultural phenomenon in America.
- Fans consume over 25,500,000 hot dogs a year at baseball games.
- Eddie Gaedel was the shortest baseball player coming in at 3’7.
Total fans: 410 million people
American football’s fanbase to revenue ratio is insane. While American football is the most-watched American sport, it doesn’t even play on TV in many countries around the world. Possibly due to sharing the same name with European football, American football has become a sport primarily associated with a single country — the USA. Still, football has plenty of fans, viewers, and generates an incredible amount of revenue.
- Only Canadians and Americans call the sport football.
- It takes 600 cows to make one season’s worth of footballs for the NFL.
Total fans: 400 million people
Both rugby and American football originated from soccer. The split between the sports has created three sports, all of which are widely watched. Like American football, rugby enjoys popularity in highly condensed regions. Australia, New Zealand, France, Fiji, Samoa, and Tonga are the countries where rugby is most regularly watched, with Australia pulling in the most viewers.
- In 1995 Japan lost to New Zealand to a score of 145 to 17, making it the highest-scoring match in history.
- In 2000, Italy joined the Rugby Union, changing it from 5 nations to 6 nations.