Sport brings people together in a way little else can. From make-or-break professional events to the most casual amateur fans, the fun and passion associated with sport make it a key part of what it means to be human.
While individual sports are often life-or-death matters for fans and players, the overall popularity of different sports varies massively, with some attracting audiences many orders of magnitude larger than others.
So what, exactly, are the most popular sports in today’s rapidly changing world? If that sounds suspiciously like a pub quiz question then consider this; in terms of consumer buying power, committed, passionate sports fans are a key group, with money to spend and fierce loyalties to defend. So it pays to know who’s following what.
But hold on – the sheer size and diversity of sports fans brings its own challenges. It’s easy to see how building a deeper understanding of what fans think, feel and do could help brands identify opportunities they might miss otherwise; the question, as so often, is how?
That’s where we come in. We’ve dug into the data to uncover answers to these important questions:
- What’s the most watched sport in 2023?
- How do people watch these sports?
- Who’s not watching football?
- Which are the most popular sports teams?
- What are the most watched sporting events?
- What’s the most popular sport people play?
Ready for the whistle? Then let’s kick off with the big one…
The most watched sport in 2023
Prepare for no surprise whatsoever:
Across 18 markets we surveyed, the most watched sport in the world is football (AKA soccer for our US cousins), with 53% following, watching, or simply interested.
Next comes basketball at 40%, volleyball at 34% and tennis at 32%. Swimming, badminton, and table tennis are all at 29%, while at the back of the pack come cycling (25%), athletics and gymnastics (both at 24%).
Digging a bit deeper into football’s position as the world’s top sport, it’s the most watched by those who watch any sport (65%) and the most played by those who participate in any sport (with 35% taking part in some way).
So returning to our pub quiz theme, here’s your handy cheat sheet for the most watched sport in the world in 2023:
How do people watch these sports?
No smart alec remarks like “with their eyes” – we’re talking context here.
A hefty 68% watch sports events either on TV or online.
Below this, 58% watch highlights only on TV or online, while a relatively modest 30% actually attend sports events in person.
Given the dominance of TV/online, it’s no shock to discover that 76% watch at home. Some way behind come at a friend’s house (31%), on the move (27%), at a family member’s house (26%), and in their office/workplace/school (21%).
Lastly there’s the question of who fans watch sports with. And the answer is, friends (45%), partners (36%) and finally co-workers, classmates, children, and siblings (all at 23%).
So who’s not watching football?
However you slice and dice it, football is the world’s most watched sport. In fact it’s one of the top two most watched sports in 15 of the 18 markets we surveyed.
The only countries where football doesn’t feature in the top two most watched sports are the Philippines, the USA, and Canada.
So what are they watching instead?
The Philippines is big on basketball and volleyball, which is watched or followed by 86% and 73% of local sports fans respectively. Boxing (59%), badminton (47%) and swimming (46%) complete the Philippines top five most watched sports.
In the USA, the Big Three sports – American football, baseball and basketball – dominate. American football is massive, with 79% either watching or following. The next two most-viewed sports are basketball at 58% and baseball, at 56%. Some way behind comes the world’s top sport, football, with 34% of US sports fans saying they watch or follow, with tennis the last of the top 5, on 31%.
Finally, in Canada, ice hockey is the most watched sport by a sizable margin, with 71% watching or following. Some way behind are basketball (44%), followed by American football and soccer (both at 42%). Baseball is watched or followed by 40%.
Which are the most popular sports teams?
Now let’s turn our attention to the top 15 teams – across all sports – that fans say they follow. It shouldn’t shock anyone if we say right away that football continues to dominate the data.
Top of the league for sports teams is the mighty Manchester United, with 13% of all sports followers we surveyed saying they’re fans.
Closely behind come Liverpool and Real Madrid, both at 12%. Below that are Barcelona and Manchester City at 11%, then Chelsea at 9%.
In fact, football clubs occupy 11 of the top 15 teams slots, reflecting football’s place as the world’s most watched sport. The four exceptions to this are the Los Angeles Lakers and the Chicago Bears basketball teams – followed by 9% and 8% of sports fans respectively – and the Ferrari and Red Bull F1 teams (at 8% and 7%).
What are the most watched sporting events?
These tend to be international competitions, and for once football isn’t the only game in town (see what we did there?).
The Summer Olympics is the world’s most watched sports event, with 47% tuning in. That’s followed – predictably enough – by the Winter Olympics at 42%.
The FIFA World Cup – a football event of course – is watched by 40% of sports audiences. After that it’s the NBA at 30% and finally the English Premier League at 29%. Given the popularity of football in general, the fact the World Cup is the world’s third most popular sporting event isn’t too surprising.
Fancy a kickabout? What’s the most popular sport people play?
So much for the most popular sports to watch, what about to actually play? We looked at the top five most popular sports for participation, and yet again football tops the league table, with 39% playing at some level on at least a monthly basis.
Perhaps a little surprisingly, it’s badminton in the No.2 position, with 34% playing monthly. After that it’s basketball (32%), table tennis (30%), and cycling (29%).
Put this in your pocket
The big takeout for brands here is simple but essential:
Sports fans are more than just fans of sport; first and foremost they’re consumers, with everything that implies.
They watch live sport on streaming platforms, share images and videos of games and stars on social media, and buy all manner of sports merchandise to express their passion.
The point is, sports fans are complex consumers with multiple hobbies, habits, and attitudes that provide a lot of unexpected opportunities for brands. Being able to tap into their interests and follow their lead is the key to success for any brand hoping to engage this huge global community.