Sports are an essential part of life for many people. Sports are a source of exercise, a means of team-building, and a popular way to meet new friends and forge strong connections with one another. Sports can unite disparate people under a shared interest, give people a cause for which to cheer, and even provide a healthy temporary distraction from the stresses of everyday life. Each country or territory in the world has its own favorite sport—in fact, many of them have the very same favorite.
Most Popular Sports in the World's 10 Most Populous Countries*:
|Rank||Country||Favorite Sport||Population 2022|
|3||United States||American football||334,805,269|
* For full data for more than 200 countries, consult the table at page bottom.
The appeal of sports is effectively universal across all of the world's countries, regardless of whether those countries are the world's richest or poorest, whether their citizens prefer coffee or beer, and whether they are located in the Arctic or the Caribbean. While many modern sports are relatively recent inventions—for example, basketball and auto racing were both conceived in the 1890s, barely a hundred years ago—others, such as archery, wrestling, and gymnastics, have been played for millennia.
Most Popular Sports in the World
While it may not be apparent in the United States, association football—also known as soccer—is the most popular sport in the world by a vast margin. Soccer is king in virtually all of Europe, South America, Africa, the Middle East, Central America, and Asia. The sport has roughly 3.5 billion fans worldwide and 250 million players across 200 countries around the world. The next most popular sports in the world are cricket (2.5 billion fans), basketball (2.2 billion fans), and field hockey (2 billion).
The Union of European Football Associations (UEFA) is the administrative body for association football, futsal, and beach soccer in Europe and consists of 55 national association members. UEFA is one of the six continental confederations of world football’s governing body, FIFA (Fédération Internationale de Football Association or International Federation of Association Football). UEFA represents the national associations of Europe and runs national and club competitions such as the EUFA European Champions, UEGA Champions League, UEFA Nations League, UEFA Europa League, and UEFA Super Cup.
Only a few European countries favor a sport other than football/soccer. In Austria and Estonia, the most popular sport is skiing. In Latvia and Lithuania, basketball is king, while ice hockey is the most popular in Finland. In Ireland, Gaelic football is the most popular sport. Everywhere else, it is association football.
Similarly, association football is also the most popular sport in all but a few Asian countries. The few exceptions include table tennis being king in China, archery in Bhutan, kickboxing in Laos and Cambodia, and basketball in the Philippines. The most popular sport in Mongolia is wrestling and the most popular sport in the Indian subcontinent (India, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Nepal, and Bangladesh) is cricket.
Moving on to Oceania, association football is the most popular sport in Indonesia and Fiji, while rugby is the most popular in Papua New Guinea, New Zealand, and some other Polynesia island nations. Australians tend to favor Australian rules football or cricket.
Association football/soccer again takes the top spot in Mexico, where men’s association football has been played professionally since the early 1900s and the Mexican Federation of Soccer was founded in 1927. Mexico’s national football team first played in the World Cup in 1930 and has participated in 16 World Cups. The first women’s professional football league in Mexico was announced in December 2016 and played its inaugural season the following year. The Mexico national football team plays its home games at the Estadio Azteca in Mexico City.
Although association football is again the favorite throughout most of Central and South America, the citizens of Panama, Nicaragua, and Venezuela prefer baseball. Cricket is the most popular sport in Guyana, likely a reflection of the country's history as a British colony, which also led to it becoming the only one of the world's native English-speaking countries located in South America.
The formerly British-controlled countries of India, Afghanistan, Pakistan, Nepal, and Bangladesh also count cricket as their favorite sport. Cricket is one of the few aspects of Indian life that unites the whole country. The first recorded cricket match in India took place in 1721, and India became the sixth member of the "elite club" alongside England, Australia, South Africa, the West Indies, and New Zealand in 1932.
India’s inaugural match against England attracted 24,000 people. India recorded its first victory in 1952, the same year that Pakistan joined the club. Two years later, Pakistan had its first victory against England. Since then, cricket has been beloved by those on the Indian subcontinent, with India and Pakistan as the leading cricket rivals in the region. The Indian-Pakistan rivalry creates some of the most anticipated matches and the most-watched television broadcasts in India.
American (NFL) Football
In the United States, the most popular sport is American football. Football is one of the most-watched sports in the U.S. and has about 390 million to 410 million fans worldwide, the majority of which are in the United States. American football’s leading league is the National Football League (NFL), consisting of 32 teams divided equally between the National Football Conference (NFC) and the American Football Conference (AFC).
The NFL's regular season is 17 weeks long, during which each team plays 16 games and has one off, or "bye" week. As in most sports, the regular season is followed by end-of-the-season playoffs. The NFL's ultimate championship game, the Super Bowl, is one of the most-watched sporting events in the world. The winner receives the coveted Lombardi trophy, which is named after seminal coach Vince Lombardi, whose Green Bay Packers won the first two Super Bowls.
While the NFL is easily the most successful American football league in the U.S., it has had plenty of competition. The following is a non-exhaustive list of alternate leagues that have existed over the decades.
- The AFC conference was originally a rival league, the American Football League, that merged with the NFL in 1970.
- The United States Football League (USFL) played three seasons, from 1983 to 1985.
- The World Football League existed from 1974-1975 and again from 2008-2011.
- In 1991, the similarly named World League of American Football attempted to bring American football to the wider world by debuting teams in Barcelona, Spain; Frankfurt, Germany; and London, England. It was rebranded as NFL Europe in 1998, but shut down in 2007.
- The Arena Football League, which played on a shortened field and had a faster pace, operated from 1987 to 2019.
- The XFL was a short-lived league founded by World Wrestling Entertainment executive Vince McMahon, which operated in 2001 and again in 2020 before its season was cut short by the COVID-19 pandemic. McMahon then sold the XFL to a group that included former wrestler Dwayne "The Rock" Johnson. As of mid-2022, the XFL is planning to relaunch in February 2023.
Canada’s most popular sport is ice hockey, which originated in Montreal and is the official winter sport of Canada. The Canadian Hockey League (CHL) was formed in 1975 and represents the three Canada-based major junior hockey leagues. The three member leagues are the Western Hockey League, the Ontario Hockey League, and the Quebec Major Junior Hockey League. There are 60 teams total, 52 of which represent nine Canadian provinces and eight of which represent four American states. The Memorial Cup is the CHL’s top award for the championship team.
Canadian hockey teams also participate in the National Hockey League (NHL), the U.S. hockey league, in an annual effort to win the prized Stanley Cup. Canadian NHL teams are the Toronto Maple Leafs, Ottawa Senators, Winnipeg Jets, Edmonton Oilers, Calgary Flames, and Vancouver Canucks.
The most popular sport in Japan is baseball. American Horace Wilson first introduced baseball to Japan in 1872, and the first professional competitions emerged in the 1920s. The first Japanese professional league formed in 1936 and grew large enough to divide into two leagues by 1950: the Central League and the Pacific League. The professional league is known as Nippon Professional Baseball for Puro Yakyū (“professional baseball”).
Baseball in Japan is slightly different from Major League Baseball (MLB) in the United States: the ball, strike zone, and playing field are all smaller; game lengths are limited; and ties are allowed. High school baseball is also extremely popular in Japan. More than 50,000 people watch the national High School Baseball Championship in person at Koshien Stadium, and millions more watch it on television.
Australian rules football
The most popular sport in Australia is Australian rules football. Australian football is a contact sport played by two teams, each with 18 players. The game is played on an oval-shaped field with an oval-shaped ball to kick the ball between two goalposts. The Australian Football League (AFL) is the sport’s only fully professional competition and is Australia’s wealthiest sporting body. The AFL Grand Final has the highest attendance of any club championship in the world.