Throughout much of recorded history, humans have been participating in athletic activities. But what was once simple recreation or tests of skill and strength evolved over time. In the 19th century, sports took the first steps to transform into the colossal cultural pastime they are today. But what are the most popular sports in the world?

There are many different metrics one can use to measure popularity. TV viewership, attendance, revenues, and so on. Then there is the wrinkle that some sports are wildly popular in some regions, but totally irrelevant in others.

So it can be tough to create a unified criteria for ranking popularity. But we’ll try to craft a top 10 list – based on these factors in order of importance:

  1. Global reach (how many nations are members of each sport’s international governing body – i.e. FIFA)
  2. TV viewership for major games
  3. Annual average attendance for major competitions
  4. Annual revenue

Also, for the sake of argument, we’ll count motorsports (F1, NASCAR, etc.) as an entirely different category, and limit the choices to athletic sports played with a ball (or equivalent).

The top 10 most popular sports in the world

So what are the top 10 popular sports around the world? Here’s where we’d rank them:

10. Australian Football
The AFL is the fourth-highest-attended sports league in the world.

The Aussie’s variant of football is a bit of a hybrid between rugby and soccer, both also popular pastimes in the island continent nation. Contested on a large oval field (usually in venues that can double as cricket grounds), the game draws big crowds and TV numbers domestically. The AFL Grand Final at the Melbourne Cricket Ground each year routinely draws over 100,000 fans – the biggest crowd for any annual sports championship.

It’s the biggest sport in the country for sure, but hardly anyone else in the world plays the game.

There are only around 40 officially recognized national teams in the sport aside from Australia. But in each of these countries, the game is eclipsed by other more popular sports. In fact, the Aussies are so dominant that they don’t even compete in the Australian Football International Cup world championship, as it wouldn’t be fair to the other countries trying to develop the game.

9. Ice Hockey
Hockey’s fanbase around the world is relatively small amongst major sports, but incredibly passionate.

Hockey is a major professional sport, but it’s hampered by a few factors. For one, it requires expensive equipment to play, which unfortunately keeps many people – young and old – from ever playing the game at all. Second, you need a specialized playing surface. That’s either a pond in winter someplace it gets cold enough for water to freeze, or an indoor rink facility. Neither are terribly widespread or easy to access for a lot of the world’s population.

That’s why the International Ice Hockey Federation only has 83 member nations. And among them, the wealthier, and further-north, nations dominate the sport.

Still, there are premier events that garner attention. The NHL’s Stanley Cup Finals are considered the pinnacle of the professional game. Sold-out arenas throughout North America make the NHL playoffs one of the most electric sports atmospheres anywhere.

While the crowds and facilities are a bit smaller, Europe is no slouch either. Supporters sections (as seen above) similar to those at soccer games often create raucous scenes in Nordic countries, the Swiss and Czech leagues, and the KHL.

The Olympic tournament is always a marquee event at the Winter Games, especially when NHL pros are included in the rosters. However, the stack of requirements needed to actually play the sport will likely keep hockey from becoming a truly global game anytime soon.

8. Gridiron Football
The gridiron game is king in America, but struggles to gain acceptance elsewhere.

The various flavors of the sport that splinted off from rugby in North America at the turn of the 20th century remain relatively niche on a global scale. Only 74 nations are members of the International Federation of American Football (bet you didn’t even know that existed!). Outside the USA and Canada (and select pockets of German fandom), the gridiron game is largely ignored.

But with the National Football League as the driving force, the sheer numbers the game pulls in are hard to ignore. The NFL alone generated nearly $12 billion US dollars and drew almost 19 million total fans in the 2022 season. And that’s before even considering the massive popularity and financial power of the collegiate game in the States.

Each year the league hosts several regular season games abroad that draw big crowds – in England for many years now and starting in 2023 in Germany.

But the massive local crowds and huge pile of cash the game earns can only go so far. The game really only being relevant in North America holds it back.

7. Cricket
Cricket isn’t popular in every corner of the world, but where it is, it’s a pretty big deal.

It’s a sport that is mostly popular in Commonwealth countries and the former British colonial world. But cricket does go beyond, as 108 nations are members of the International Cricket Council.

The professional Twenty20 variant of the sport is wildly popular in India and Australia, in particular. The Narenda Modi Stadium in India, at a 132,000 capacity, is the biggest in the world. And the Melbourne Cricket Ground also holds over 100,000 fans. The finals of the Indian Premier League and Big Bash League draw massive crowds. In 2022, the Caribbean Premier League T20 tournament had a combined broadcast/digital viewership of nearly 722 million.

But for cricket, in any given locale the sport is either incredibly relevant or borderline nonexistent. Any participation in the latter is mostly undertaken by ex-pats from cricket-playing nations, garnering slim to nil interest from the general public. For example, the USA now has the professional Major League Cricket and a minor league circuit as well, but it has yet to become anywhere close to mainstream.

6. Rugby
Modern rugby split from soccer early on, and has since carved a dedicated following of its own – and spawned multiple offshoot sports itself.

Rugby can count over 130 nations as members of World Rugby, while 68 participate in the rugby league variant of the sport. Between the three main variants of the game (union, league, and sevens), rugby is played all over the world.

Traditional powers like New Zealand, South Africa, Australia, England, and France give the game a relatively widespread of influence. But South America, Asia, the South Pacific, and North America have produced quality sides and players as well.

The Super Rugby league (which has teams in New Zealand, Australia, and the Pacific Islands) averages crowds of over 32,000 fans per game. England’s Premiership, France’s Top 14, and Japan’s League One also are big draws in their nations. And the European Rugby Champions Cup offers an equivalent to the international prestige of soccer’s Champions League.

The Rugby World Cup is a major event on the calendar and has taken place since 1987. Nearly 45 million fans tuned in in 2019 to watch the tournament.

5. Baseball
“America’s Pastime” goes far beyond the USA.

You wouldn’t necessarily think baseball is super widespread, but 141 different nations field programs in the World Baseball Softball Confederation.

However, the main strongholds for the sport are concentrated in the USA, East Asia, and the Caribbean.

While not the juggernaut in the US it once was, the MLB still pulls in millions of fans and viewers every year. Meanwhile, fans in Japan’s NPB league are some of the most passionate supporters anywhere.

Recently, the MLB started playing a few games each year in London at the former Olympic Stadium, now home of West Ham United. Nearly 60,000 fans showed up each day in 2019 to see the Yankees and Red Sox battle. Similar crowds turned out in 2023 to watch the Cubs and Cardinals, with more games scheduled for future seasons.

2023’s World Baseball Classic set viewership records and produced a thrilling final that saw Japan beat the USA for the world crown.

4. Golf
Golf cultivates stars and attracts fans from the world over.

The sport of golf has spread from its genesis in the UK to every corner of the planet. Anywhere you can grow grass (and even some places you can’t), you’ll probably find at least one golf course.

It’s one of the most popular recreational sports in the world. Most of us aren’t really any good at it, but that doesn’t stop millions of players from hitting the links. But beyond the leisure crowd, golf also has a robust, very competitive (and lucrative) professional scene.

Professional tours like the PGA Tour link individual tournaments into an annual golf season, with marquee events captivating audiences – both on TV and in-person – several times a year. Tournaments like The Masters and British Open carry a level of prestige that rivals any high-level sporting event.

And legends of the game can come from anywhere – the USA, Europe, Africa, Asia, and beyond. As an individual sport, there are no teams to cultivate fans. But legendary players like Tiger Woods, Jack Nicklaus, and Arnold Palmer were so successful that they elevated beyond golf and into the public consciousness.

3. Basketball

The sport originated in North America, the pro game is dominated by the NBA, and usually, in international b-ball, the USA has reigned supreme.

But internationally basketball has grown immensely in recent decades. The NBA has imported many star players from Europe, South America, and Asia over the past 30+ years. And other nations have given the USA a run for their money at the Olympics and FIBA World Cup recently. Speaking of FIBA, it actually has one more member nations (212) than FIFA does (211).

Domestic leagues in Europe, and the EuroLeague continental tournament, feature many clubs well-known for their soccer sides.

The basketball tournament at the Olympic Games is one of the premier team events, attracting the best professional players in the world and pulling in big TV viewing figures.

In addition, the NBA, particularly in Asia, has skyrocketed in popularity in recent years.

2. Tennis
Tennis’s Grand Slam tournaments are major events each year.

Like golf, tennis is a sport that has two sides: the recreational pastime and the intense professional game.

The relative availability of public tennis facilities and the inexpensive cost of equipment make tennis easy to pick up in most places around the world. In fact, the International Tennis Federation, the world governing body, has 211 national members.

On the pro circuit, the annual calendar is dominated by the four major tournaments, known as the “Grand Slams”. Both the men’s and women’s Australian Open, French Open, Wimbledon, and US Open tournaments draw big crowds, offer huge prize money, and capture big TV audiences – especially for the finals.

Players from Spain, the US, France, UK, Serbia, Poland, Germany, Belgium, Russia, Japan, and others have become champions over the years. If a player can sustain a streak of success, they often cultivate passionate fanbases in their home countries, making each match a must-see affair.

1. Association Football (soccer)

They don’t call it “The World’s Game” for nothing. 211 nations are members of FIFA, with dozens of additional non-recognized regions organizing “national” teams of their own.

Leagues like the Premier League, La Liga, Liga MX, and others are absolute obsessions in their home countries and far beyond. Germany’s Bundesliga leads the way averaging over 42,000 fans per game – behind only the NFL in any sport in that category.

Even in regions where soccer is less popular than other domestic pastimes – like the USA, northern Europe, Asia, and elsewhere, the sport has been able to develop and maintain a foothold.

Meanwhile, the UEFA Champions League Final is the most-watched club sporting event on Earth. But it is dwarfed by the FIFA World Cup. Around 1.5 billion viewers around the world watched the 2022 Final in Qatar. The quadrennial tournament is the undisputed king of sporting events. The world over, millions of fans stop in their tracks to watch the games – even if their own nation isn’t playing.

The widespread nature of high-quality competitions around the world means soccer pulls in the most money, too. It’s estimated that soccer generates over $28 billion dollars every year.

Perhaps it’s the easy availability of high-level soccer the world over. Maybe it’s because the game is so simple. You only need a ball to play, and no translation is needed to enjoy a match. But whatever the reason, soccer is undoubtedly the world’s most popular sport.

Photos: Imago