Sports Popularity in America

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I was traveling around the U.K. recently, and I was struck by how much everyone there likes soccer. It’s not that I think their sports fandom is on a totally different level from ours here in America, or anything, but it was kind of amazing to see everyone obsessed with the same sport. I have friends here who are big sports fans, but they like multiple sports and care the most about different sports than each other. Football seems to be the most popular here, obviously, but some people care way more about baseball or basketball.


So I’m curious: which sports are the most popular in America? Why does America have such diverse taste in sports?


Americans certainly do love their sports! Six out of every 10 of us identifies as a sports fan. In a country as big as ours, that’s a lot of fans–of, as you point out, a lot of different sports!


But which of our sports is the most popular? By most measures, it’s football–but there are a lot of ways to measure such things.


For instance, we could look at attendance. The largest stadiums in the United States are college football stadiums, and the NFL leads single-game attendance among professional leagues, with nearly 70,000 fans showing up to a typical game. But is that fair? After all, there are only 16 games in an NFL regular season. Major League Baseball teams play more than ten times that amount a season, and still pull in 30,000 or so people per game, on average. Total MLB attendance–including all 162 games–dwarfs that of any other league.


But then there’s television, where the NFL dominates and where the NBA soars in national broadcasts. Baseball beats basketball at the local broadcast level, though–so even within this one metric, things are complicated.


We could trust Americans to self-report, of course. Polls show that football is far and away the most popular sport in America, with 37% of Americans citing it as their favorite. Next comes basketball (11%), which has recently passed baseball (9%). That’s the lowest score ever for baseball, which held the number one spot over football until the mid-1960s.


But what about second- and third-favorite sports? The NBA clearly boasts a lot of fans besides the ones who call it their favorite–TV numbers don’t lie, and they don’t put the MLB and the NBA nearly so close together. And what about the dozens of other sports that enjoy healthy fan bases in the United States? Mixed martial arts, or MMA, has plenty of practitioners and even more fans who watch its major league, UFC. Tennis and golf have rich histories in America, too. Trying to rank each and every one of these sports is quite difficult. We might be able to safely say that NFL football leads the way, but we’re on shakier ground in giving MLB a clear second-place slot ahead of the NBA and NCAA football. Ultimately, determining America’s “favorite” sports forces you to first choose which standard you will use to measure!


One thing is for sure: Americans are quite omnivorous in their sports fandom. That’s not to knock the many fans of sports like rugby and cricket in the UK, or the fans of soccer and other sports in hockey-obsessed nations like Finland or baseball-crazy ones like Japan. It’s just to celebrate the diversity of American sports fandom, which reflect our diverse roots as well as our country’s diverse geography.


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