There is maybe a general consensus that there is no argument about football being the number one sport around the world in terms of popularity, though, in some corners of the globe, this could well be heavily disputed.
Every country essentially has their own ‘national sport’, while it is not unusual for some countries to have two or three in which they have a respectable track record.
Of course, this can be determined by many different factors, that includes not just history or culture but also funding at a grassroots level over time. A nation’s media may also have a considerable influence on this, while the population can also determine the figures when it comes to popularity.
Even sports may become popular for other reasons. If a country does well in a particular discipline at the Olympic Games, this could lead to an influx in participation and also the amount of funding that is allocated to this. Meanwhile, if a country hosts a World Cup (regardless of the event), it could lead to this becoming even more popular as the nation embraces the tournament’s spirit.
Sport as an entity, though, is one of the biggest commodities in the world, regardless of which one; if there is a market for it, then money-making opportunities follow in the shape of sponsorships, merchandising and media deals.
Below, we take a look at some of the most popular sports by country and how these have developed over the years.
A true sporting nation, the main sport in the country is, and has, for a long time, been football, with the sport even originating from England as far back as the 18th century.
Throughout the 1900s especially, this is when it truly became a thriving footballing nation, aided by the country’s 1966 World Cup win – a tournament that England hosted.
The Premier League has emerged as one of the most watched football competitions in the world, which has led to lucrative commercial deals and global viewing figures in the 100s of millions every year.
However, there are a number of other sports in which the country has historically flexed its muscles and had notable success. Rugby union is one in particular that is recognised as a sport in which the nation has a great deal of pride. England famously upset the odds in the 2003 World Cup to dramatically beat hosts Australia in extra-time, while they also reached the final of the 2019 World Cup to be beaten by fellow rugby-loving nation South Africa.
Meanwhile, cricket is another sport that the nation loves. Reflected by the 2019 World Cup win, when the country beat fellow shock finalists New Zealand, cricket continues to be one sport that has a considerable following in England.
A different animal compared to other countries around the world, the USA has essentially formulated their own sports, which have turned into considerable money-making machines. American football and baseball especially have for many years been major sports in the country, with baseball teams such as the New York Yankees and Boston Red Sox having become globally renowned.
Indeed, football or ‘soccer’ as it is called in the US, did not really take off in the country until the mid-2000s following an interesting strategy. It saw the MLS (Major League Soccer) organisation invest in signing popular players from Europe that drew in the crowds, with David Beckham being the first to be attracted with his move to LA Galaxy.
Basketball is also another major sport in the US, with Michael Jordan especially putting the sport on the global map with his exploits for the Chicago Bulls in the early nineties – the NBA has grown significantly in popularity and global television audiences over the last couple of decades.
According to a recent study, basketball is the third most-watched sport in the world, with an estimated 2.2 billion fans, while outside of the US, the Phillippines ranks as second in terms of NBA viewing figures.
Arguably the undisputed number one nation when it comes to cricket popularity. The country, quite simply, lives and breathes the sport. It is understood that according to research (June 2023), cricket in India has the attention of 93 per cent of sports viewers in the country, which has hosted 19,000 international, national and domestic tournaments.
Despite its huge popularity, the sport of cricket actually originated in England (of course, India is a former English colony), though it has swiftly taken the top spot for the sport over the last few decades.
Meanwhile, football is a distant second in the country in terms of popularity, many of the sport’s followers being fans of the English Premier League and clubs such as Manchester United.
Unbeknown to many people, the ISL (Indian Super League), is the fifth most-watched in the world, based on viewing figures, though, with the largest population in the world, this makes sense. Also, domestic club partnerships with well-known European clubs have also helped to strengthen popularity, as highlighted by Hyderabad FC’s affiliation with the German Bundesliga club Borussia Dortmund.
It is perhaps not surprising that the most popular sport in Canada is ice hockey, and certainly, there are many people who associate this more with the US.
This assumption is based on the fact that the NHL (National Hockey League) is mainly affiliated with the US because of the number of teams that are based there. According to Statista, the viewing figures for the Stanley Cup reached 1.27 million in 2022.
Not the most obvious sporting country, however, over the last couple of decades, China has dominated the Olympic Games, based on sheer numbers and dominates the medals charts.
Basketball is understood to be the most popular sport in China. One of the reasons for this is because the NBA has several Chinese players, some of which are rated as the best in the world.
Viewing figures for a single round of NBA games in the country stood at nearly 500 million according to data released in 2020 and these figures continue to rise.
Football is close behind basketball in the country with many fans having allegiances to the English Premier League. Manchester United were one of the first clubs in England to recognise the potential in China and focused a lot of their global commercial merchandising in the country, leveraging this with pre-season tours, while it wasn’t long before Chelsea joined the party.
A particularly proud sporting nation, the number one sport in the country is Australian Rules Football (Aussie Rules), which is a combination of rugby and American football. The nation’s competition is called the AFL (Australian Football League) and has a considerable following in the country.
According to the AFL report for 2022, it is understood that 125.5 million people tuned into league games during that season (including the finals), which was a one per cent increase from the previous year and 13 per cent up on the 2019 season.
In addition to Australian Rules Football, the country also has a significant following of other sports, including rugby league, cricket, rugby union and soccer.
This small eastern European nation is associated with a number of sports that you perhaps would not expect. While football is the most popular, this is actually closely followed by handball and water polo, with the nation always performing very well in both of these sports at their respective World Cup and European tournaments.
The nation ranks a respectable eighth in the world for handball, according to data compiled in 2023. Indeed, for the European Championship in 2022, a tournament that Hungary co-hosted, an estimated 2.6 million people (one third of the population) tuned into the games.
Hungary is also considered to be one of the best water polo nations in the world, both in the men’s and women’s games. Indeed, the men’s team won the 2023 European Championship to claim its fourth title, while its Under 20s women’s team also beat Spain to claim the equivalent tournament crown in 2023.
There is only one sport worth mentioning when it comes to this South American country. Football in Brazil is almost considered to be a religion and makes up most of the nation’s fabric.
Having won a record five FIFA World Cup tournaments, the country was heavy favourites to make it six when it hosted the competition in 2014, only to be shocked by eventual winners Germany 7-1 in the semi-finals. #
During the tournament, a record 42.9 million viewers tuned in to watch the country’s game against Croatia, while figures in the country continue to increase year on year.
While like most other countries, football is the most popular sport in Norway it is not actually its national sport. As a result, it is perhaps not surprising that skiing – especially cross-country skiing falls easily into this category.
There is a proud history of cross-country skiing in the country, while the downhill discipline of the sport has also seen the country perform well in recent years, most notably, men’s skier Axel Lund-Svindal has been somewhat of a figurehead.
The country is also home to some of the most exhilarating ski resorts and stunning scenery, which sees many people from around the world frequent every year.
It may not perhaps come as too much of a surprise that the most popular sport in New Zealand is rugby union, closely followed by rugby league. For years spanning the nineties and most of the new millennium, the country’s rugby union team dominated the sport, while their rugby league team has also risen in the ascendancy in recent years.
However, their cricket team has always been considered to be respectable; indeed, it reached the final of the 2019 World Cup, narrowly losing to England.
In addition, New Zealand is a country that is also known for its extreme sports participation due to the country’s landscape being conducive to these. Such sports as kayaking, rock climbing and even winter sports like skiing are all popular pursuits in the country.
The country also has one of the best sailing teams in the world, along with England (and has for years), with the team always performing well at the Olympic Games and in the Sailing World Championship.
Like in the majority of African countries, football takes centre stage in terms of popularity; however, South Africa is considerably diverse. Although football just shades it, it may be surprising to know that there are two others that come very close.
Both rugby union and cricket are two sports where South Africa excels on an international level, with its respective teams consistently performing much better than its football team.
Indeed, the country won the last rugby union World Cup in 2019, beating England. The national team has always historically been strong, even as far back as the nineties and beyond, consistently performing well at the World Cup.
Meanwhile, the same can be said of the cricket team, which is ranked fourth in the world currently.
While football is very popular in the country, perhaps unsurprisingly, Austria has a strong track record in winter sports, especially downhill skiing, with this recognised as the country’s national sport.
Every Skiing World Cup, Austria has always performed significantly well in downhill skiing and is home to the world-famous Kitzbuhel resort built around the fearsome Hahnekamm mountain, arguably the most technically challenging in the sport.
At the 2013 World Skiing Championship, which Austria hosted, television audiences in the country grew from 800,000 to 1.4 million, underlining the sport’s importance among Austrian viewers.
Table Of Most Popular Sports By Country
|Country||Favourite Sport||Population (2022)|
|United States||American Football||334,805,269|
*Data from the World Population Review
National Sports By Country
|Country||1st Sport||2nd Sport||3rd Sport|
|United States||American Football||Baseball||Basketball|
|Australia||Australian Rules||Rugby League||Cricket|
|Norway||Cross-country Skiing||Downhill Skiing||Football|
|New Zealand||Rugby Union||Rugby League||Cricket|
|South Africa||Rugby Union||Cricket||Football|
*Data from a range of sources linked throughout the page
How Are Sports Likely To Evolve Around The World Over The Next Few Years?
One of the most noticeable observations is that football is certainly the most popular sport in virtually every country around the world, which is hardly surprising, considering the amount of money that is in the game. This has, in turn, led to rising interest from a popularity standpoint.
However, until the nineties, football in countries in continents such as Asia had little interest, and it was the success of clubs like Manchester United that saw a dramatic increase in popularity. The club was able to leverage its success from a commercial standpoint and identify countries that had a considerable population, such as China, in order to help raise awareness about the sport.
These were seen as key investment countries, especially taking into account China’s growing middle class, where clubs were able to focus on merchandising opportunities and essentially carve out a considerable fanbase. While Manchester United were arguably the first club to do this, Chelsea were not far behind, following Roman Abramovich’s takeover in 2003, which led to the club being able to compete with their Premier League counterparts in a marketplace that had a significant amount of potential.
It is a trend that will likely continue over the next few years. We are already seeing countries such as Saudi Arabia focus on leveraging the huge amount of wealth that it has at its disposal to emerge as a major sporting nation, investing significant amounts in sports such as football, golf and most recently, boxing. It will likely see the country put considerable resources towards grassroots in order to create strong national teams in their chosen sports over the next decade.
However, by investing considerable amounts into foreign markets and attracting the top sports stars from around the world, it is hoped that this will amass substantial interest from a domestic perspective.
China was able to tap into the considerable resources that it had available (mainly its sheer population) in order to enjoy a meteoric rise through the medals tables at the last few Olympic Games, with the US always historically topping the medals charts.
Meanwhile, some countries are always likely to stay true to the few sports that have been the fabric of their national identity. Instead of focusing on multiple, ensuring consistency will likely be the main priority, such as countries like Austria and Norway continuing to earmark skiing.
However the next decade or so unfolds, one thing that we can be sure of is that sport will always be popular around the world, regardless of how a country performs on a national or international level.