- Association football/soccer tops the ranking of the most popular sports in the world by a wide margin.
- Other team sports like cricket, basketball, and volleyball are all-season sports, thrilling their fans since their inception and increasing their spectator count.
- Some people participate in sports professionally or for recreational purposes, and others are just spectators.
Sports are popular for several reasons and they are an essential part of our culture, with several people passionate about them.
However, many sports struggle to withstand the test of time, with new variations like esports emerging daily.
You might have noticed that various sports come and go if you have followed sports trends for some time.
Some sports like fencing, kabbadi, ferret legging, and extreme ironing are occasionally sensational before fading into obscurity, while several non-physical and extreme sports have stood the test of time.
Without further ado, here is a brief walkthrough of the most popular sports in the world ranked according to the number of fans, including vital statistics you should know.
1. Association Football/Soccer (5 Billion Fans)
Football majestically tops the list of the world’s most popular sports, with an estimated 5 billion fans. 1
About 240 million people play football professionally or otherwise, especially in Europe, South America, and Africa. However, football is a well-known sport on every continent. 2
The sport’s paramount governing body FIFA reported that over half the world’s population watched the Russia 2018 FIFA World Cup, with about 3.57 billion viewers making the competition the most-watched globally. 3
Other jaw-dropping stats include about 400 million people watching the sport’s most prestigious club competition, the UEFA Champions League (UCL) final, and 3.2 billion people watching the English Premier League’s 2018/19 campaign. 4,5
Giant football clubs like Real Madrid, FC Barcelona, Manchester United, and Chelsea are some of the most followed on social media.
Therefore, top brands like Qatar Airways, Coca-Cola, Pepsi, Nike, and Adidas have made no mistake in signing multi-million-dollar deals with governing bodies like FIFA and UEFA, top clubs, national teams, and players.
2. Cricket (2.5 Billion Fans)
English cricketer Alastair Cook believes that one keeps learning no matter how much cricket one has played.
Therefore, it is no surprise that billions keep watching the beautiful game regardless of its turns and twists.
Like table tennis, cricket is the most popular game in one of the world’s most populous countries, India, where 91 percent of its citizens love cricket. 6
Cricket is also a popular sport in Australia, New Zealand, Pakistan, and South Africa, contributing to 2.5 billion fans globally.
The sport’s most prestigious competition, the Cricket World Cup, recorded about 2.6 billion viewers during its last event in 2019. 7
3. Basketball (2 Billion Fans)
It might have surprised you to find golf, baseball, and rugby among the world’s most popular sports, but you need no convincing that basketball has a spot on the list.
An estimated two billion fans enjoy the charges, movements, passes, layoffs, dribbles, blocks, three-pointers, free throws, and dunks that lighten up the courts.
Getting the ball into the basket is how each five-person team scores points, but the thrills are beyond tossing the ball into the net.
While the National Basketball Association (NBA) accounts for most of the sport’s popularity, other countries have their National basketball team or league. 8
Basketball has known little decrease in popularity since its inception but exploded at all levels during the 1980s with the conception of cable television.
Viewer figures show that Americans who watched the NBA finals in 2022 increased by 22%, with an average of 12.4 million viewers compared to 9.91 million in 2021. 9
However, the 2017 NBA Finals average T.V. viewership surpasses other years since 2010, peaking at 20.4 million but will need over 15 million more viewers to challenge the 1998 Bulls-Jazz Finals, which amassed 35.89 million viewers. 10
Social media platforms also contribute to basketball’s staggering growth, accounting for 13 billion video views during the 2021-22 NBA campaign. 11
4. Ice and Field Hockey (2 Billion Fans)
Either the ice or field hockey variants have a large following as one of the world’s favorite sports.
Hockey fans worldwide may reach 2 billion, including ice hockey enthusiasts in the United States, Canada, and Northern Europe. However, field hockey aficionados scatter across Africa, Europe, Australia, and Asia.
In 2022, one of the sport’s most prominent leagues, the National Hockey League (NHL), based in the United States and Canada, recorded a mean television viewership of 4.59 million per game in the United States alone, during its most prestigious Stanley Cup. 12
A 2010 game between Canada and USA in the Vancouver 2010 Winter Olympics pulled an average of 27.6 million viewers to become the most-watched hockey broadcast since a USA vs. Finland match at the 1980 Olympics, amassing 32.8 million viewers. 13
5. Tennis (1 Billion Fans)
Surprising upsets are common; physicality is intensive; sociality is sufficient; what more could other sports offer?
Little wonder there are over a billion people that enjoy tennis worldwide.
While it is more of an individual sport, except for doubles and mixed doubles, influential tennis figures like Serena Williams, Rafel Nadal, and Novak Djokovic, among others, draw crowds to watch their heroic athleticism levels.
The BBC reported that roughly 973 million viewers watched the men’s 2015 ATP tour. Nevertheless, the WTA events in 2019 reported a record-breaking global audience of 700 million. 14
Also, reports show that a total of 2.8 million on-site spectators and 850 million global broadcast audiences watched the ATP Tour Finals at the London O2 Arena between 2009 and 2019. 15
Tennis is where you find audience figures, attracting big brands like Rolex, Audemars Piguet, TAG Heuer, and several others.
6. Volleyball (900 Million Fans)
While there are about 500 million registered volleyball players worldwide, the popular beach sport is a thrilling recreational activity enjoyed by about 900 million people, playing it non-professionally or watching it on screens. 16
Volleyball is prevalent in North and South America, Australia, Western Europe, and Asia.
Still, it is one of the fastest-growing sports in other regions, with over 800 million people playing it at least once a week, according to Northern California Volleyball Association (NCVA). 17
Viewership also runs into seven digits as millions flock to their T.V. screens or YouTube to watch volleyball matches.
The USA vs. Cuba (NORCECA Champions Cup Men 2015) readily comes to mind, amassing 7.4 million views on YouTube.
Spectators would not miss a chance to view a thrilling volleyball match — the reason behind 96,500 spectators at the Maracanã Stadium during a match between Brazil and the USSR in 1987. 18
7. Table Tennis (875 Million Fans)
The World Championship and the Olympic Games are the biggest competitions in the Professional Table Tennis world.
The smashes, flicks, serves, and incredible agility that table tennis players display are enough reasons for an estimated 875 million people to follow table tennis enthusiastically.
Fans rallied to YouTube to watch the thrilling semi-final highlights of the 2019 ITTF World Tour Platinum China Open between China’s Ma Long and Japan’s Tomokazu Harimoto.
Millions of people watched Ma Long’s victory, which was important in his quest for a record-breaking 28th ITTF World Tour men’s singles title of his career.
We can also attribute tennis vogue to its popularity in the world’s most populous nation, China.
Reports show that 350 million Chinese watched CCTV-5’s coverage of all table tennis games during the Tokyo 2020 Summer Olympics. 19
8. Rugby (500 Million Fans)
The history of modern-day rugby may be traced to the 1700s, but earlier game forms have existed for about two millennia since the onset of the Roman empire. 20
Whichever date we are inclined to go with, we cannot deny that rugby has lasted a lifetime to become one of the world’s most prominently known sports.
The sport has amassed over 500 million fans that support some 10 million players worldwide, and countries like New Zealand, Australia, and South Africa are keen participants. 21
The Japan 2019 World Cup became rugby’s most-watched competition in history, with 857 million people, including spectator and rights-holding broadcast partners’ viewers, watching the competition. 22
We commend the sport’s prominence considering its struggles between league and union and other sports factions like American Football.
Therefore, it is no surprise that Gilbert, Nike, Adidas, and Canterbury International are among the sport’s sponsors.
9. Baseball (500 Million Fans)
With an estimated 500 million followers of the game, baseball is the ninth world’s most popular sport.
Two nine-player teams electrify the crowd by hitting balls with bats and running around the bases to score runs.
While baseball most likely originated from a much more popular sport, cricket, it has done well to entertain millions, especially in North America, where baseball is amongst the United States’ most popular sports. 23
In 2021, Baseball-Reference estimated about 42,688,283 spectators in the country’s most popular league, the Major League Baseball (MLB), and 61,898,534 in 2022, an 18,266 and 26,486 spectators per game average. 24
Remarkably, these numbers increase considering the network’s entire footprint, including cable, satellite, and digital subscribers.
Canada is another country with significant baseball popularity, with 22%, about 8,459,951 of its citizens claiming to be baseball fans. 25
Reports show the declining popularity of baseball, but it still has the figures to make a list as millions still enjoy watching it for various reasons. 26
Little wonder big companies, including Nike, Master Card, and PepsiCo, are associated with the sport.
10. Golf (450 Million Fans)
Golf has existed for centuries, enough time to amass 450 million global fans, with spectators reaching hundreds of thousands in some ground-breaking events.
Golf has gained global acclaim to become one of the most popular sports, explaining why you find golf courses on every continent, reaching 38,864 worldwide. 27
Over 25 million people play the sport each year, using clubs to hit a ball into small holes in the ground. 28
The 2018 Professional Golfers’ Association (PGA) Championship recorded over 700,000 spectators throughout the event, including a tremendous 216,818 on one of the days. 29
The PGA is only one of some of the sport’s most reputable events; The Master’s Tournament, U.S. Open, and Open Championship are other crowd-drawing events.
Prominent golfers, including Tiger Woods, Jack Nicklaus, and Phil Mickelson, have played in The Master’s Tournament, drawing crowds with a mean attendance of 35,000 – 40,000. 30
What are the Most Popular Sports in the World?
|Rank||Favorite Sport||Est. Following Worldwide||Regional Popularity|
|1||Association Football (Soccer)||5 Billion||Globally|
|2||Cricket||2.5 Billion||Asia, Australia/Oceania, Middle East, Africa, UK|
|4||Hockey (Ice and Field)||2 Billion||North America, Europe, Africa, Asia, and Australia/Oceania|
|6||Volleyball||900 Million||North and South America, Asia, Europe, Australia/Oceania|
|7||Table Tennis||875 Million||Globally|
|8||Rugby||500 Million||United Kingdom, Australia, New Zealand, Europe, Americas|
|9||Baseball||500 Million||United States, Caribbean, and East Asia|
|10||Golf||450 Million||Europe, North America, Asia, and Oceania|
Competition, excitement, and drama abound in the sports world as it features athletes from all over the world that entertain a wide-ranging audience with their various arts and skills.
Sports have unified tribes and countries and currently fight to end racial discrimination.
Therefore, it is only deserving that it has enjoyed and continues to bask in global acclaim and attention now and in the future.
References & Notes
- The Football Landscape, via FIFA.
- Soccer, via Library of Congress.
- More than half the world watched record-breaking 2018 World Cup, via FIFA.
- Super Bowl vs World Cup & Champions League: How do viewing figures for soccer & NFL showpieces compare? via Goal.
- Premier League Viewing Figures, via Sporting Index.
- 9 in 10 Indians Watch Cricket, via Business Insider.
- The Most Watched Sporting Events in The World, via Roadtrips.
- Global interest in the NBA 2021, via Statista.
- NBA Finals average US TV viewership 2022, via Statista.
- NBA Finals Ratings History (1988-Present), Sports Media Watch.
- NBA generated 13 billion video views across socials in 2021-22, via Basketball News.
- NHL Stanley Cup games average TV viewership 2022 via Statista.
- Olympic final most-watched hockey game in 30 years, via NHL.
- Partnership Opportunities, via WTA Tour.
- 2020 Nitto ATP Finals Caps Off Successful 12-Year Stay In London, via ATP Tour.
- Millions of active players in the world after volleyball introduction, via ResearchGate.
- History of Volleyball, NCVA.
- Top 5 Volleyball Records, via VolleyCountry.
- TV figures skyrocket as table tennis remains the most-watched sport in China, via International Table Tennis Federation (ITTF).
- History of Rugby Football, via Historic UK.
- About World Rugby, via World Rugby.
- RWC 2019 sets new broadcast records and inspires new audiences, via Rugby World Cup.
- Who Invented Baseball? via HISTORY.
- 2022 Major League Baseball Attendance & Team Age, via Baseball Reference.
- Winning MLB fans in Canada, via Mintel Group.
- How Popular Is Baseball, Really? via The New York Times.
- How Many Golf Courses Are There In The World? via Golf Monthly.
- Golf Demographics: How Many People Play Golf and Who Plays it?, River’s Edge Golf Course.
- The Biggest Crowds in Golf History, via Golfshake.
- Masters attendance: How many patrons attend Augusta National each year? via Golf News Net.