Most Popular Sports in America

The USA is a sports-centric nation. Be it pick-up games at local gyms, going to an event, or sitting back and watching something on TV, there seems to be a sport for everyone. However, though the pack is quite large, there are a few contests that truly stand out.

This article looks at the most popular sports in America. It does so by breaking them down from several different levels (amateur and professional) and seeing how they average out in terms of players and viewership. That will show why some are much bigger than others.

The Levels of Popularity

Breaking down popularity is not as easy or as straightforward as it first might seem. There are different criteria to look at, and they all need to be considered. Some sports are extremely popular to play, while others are much more popular to watch.

If regular people play and watch a sport, it goes up in popularity versus something that’s only watched or only played. That’s why, despite all of the contests played and watched in the U.S., three truly stand out from the pack.

Staying Active

Before getting to the big sports, it’s important to note there are a few activities that are widely enjoyed by all citizens. These are not technically sports, as they don’t use a ball, but they’re worth mentioning when talking about popularity in relation to physical activity.

Walking for exercise is the most popular way for people to burn calories in the country, with 90 million people doing it on a daily basis. That’s an insanely high number that puts it well above even the most played recreational sport.

From there, weightlifting is the second most popular (52 million) activity, swimming is third (52 million people), and camping is fourth (47 million). That gives a good baseline of how many people need to engage with an activity for it to be considered popular.

When looking at actual games, the most popular competitive contests are as follows: bowling (43 million), cycling (37 million), fishing (35 million), and weightlifting (33 million).

While none of the above activities are true sports in the traditional sense, they are still much more popular from a player standpoint than things like soccer, baseball, basketball, or football.

Ice and Fields

The above activities are popular for people to do, but they are not common to watch. That’s where the big sports have a distinct edge. In America, there are five that reign supreme. 

The first is hockey. While not nearly as big as the next four, it still resonates with plenty of Americans (4 percent) and gets a good amount of national coverage. It’s the fifth most watched sport, and has enough fans that the NHL is a multi billion dollar industry.

Image credit: HockeyHow

The biggest obstacle holding it back is accessibility. No matter how many people watch hockey, playing it is expensive and difficult. That’s why it’s most watched by those in northern states who have the ability to get out on the ice each winter. 

It just doesn’t have the same fan base in other parts of the country. People play it here and there, but leagues are much more difficult to come by.

Right after hockey soccer. While it’s by far the most popular sport in the world, it’s only fourth in America. The MLS, the biggest professional league in the states, just started in 1996 and has gone through a lot of adversity. 

Roughly 7 percent of the population watches soccer, but it’s been stagnant for a while. Viewership is steadily going up, but it’s a much slower climb when compared to things like basketball or football. There’s room for growth, but there’s also a long way to go.

The big advantage soccer has on a personal level is that it’s so easy to play. There are more than 4 million Americans registered with U.S. soccer, and more are joining up every year. People play in rec leagues and pick up games all across the country too.

Taking that into account, it shows that soccer will likely make up some ground in the coming years. How much ground, however, is anyone’s guess. It won’t take over the big three anytime soon.

Three and Two

Once the king, baseball has fallen quite a bit over the past two decades. Even so, it’s still an extremely popular sport that rakes in billions of dollars every year. It’s fallen out of public favor, but that’s relative to what it used to be. It’s still the third most popular sport in the country.

Baseball is on the decline from where it was during the absolute peak in the 90’s. Even so, millions and millions of people tune into games every year. It’s watched throughout the entire season, with the playoff games still earning high viewing numbers time and time again.

The playoffs or individual games don’t pull in a ton of viewers on their own (usually around one to three million) but the sheer number of games per season adds up after a while.

Something else to note is that roughly 25 million people play organized baseball across the U.S. That’s an incredibly high number, especially considering that baseball requires so much gear to play. That shows it’s still at the soul of the country.

Unlike viewership, the number of people playing has remained constant. As long as there are diamonds and warm spring days, that’s unlikely to change.

Right ahead of baseball is basketball. Though baseball has more aggregate viewers, the court sport has exploded over the past few decades. It’s come a long way since its origins in Massachusetts. That’s due to a combination of the internet, increased fanfare, and bigger stars.

It’s currently one of the most watched sports in America, averaging around 3 million viewers a game, with the playoffs and finals both being huge events. Extrapolated out to an entire year, that’s a ton of viewers, and that doesn’t even include the sheer number of people who play it.

While the NBA and NCAA both have plenty of fans, what truly pushes basketball up is its accessibility. It is by far the most played sport in America, and there’s not a close second. 

More than 26 million Americans play organized basketball, with millions upon millions more shooting around in their yard or at the local park. Basketball is the most casual friendly sport in the U.S. It’s also the only one that you can easily play at your own home.

There are so many available places to run a game that it’s no wonder it’s become such an incredibly popular option.

The Reign of Football

For years, baseball was the most watched (and played) sport in the U.S. It’s the oldest game in the nation, was easy to pick up, and had a ton of fanfare. Now, times have changed. When it comes to current viewership, nothing is close to American Football.

As hinted at by the name, it’s the biggest sport in the country and has been for some time. It’s a fun game to watch, has a lot of excitement, and even dominates a day of the week.

Where baseball and basketball average 68 million and 17 million viewers a season respectively, football averages a staggering 114 million. 

The Superbowl also pulls in more than 100 million views a year. That makes it, not just the most watched sporting event on Earth, but one of the most watched programs period. When it comes to average viewers, football pulls (and stays) ahead of everything else by a mile.

However, despite the TV popularity, football’s player base is much lower than the other sports on this list. Not only does it take a lot more people and equipment to play, but it’s also more dangerous than other activities as well.

Many parents don’t want their kids playing the sport, and recent scientific advancements have shown that it can lead to health issues. Millions of kids still suit up for the game each year, but it doesn’t have the same ease to get into as sports like baseball or basketball.

It’s on either side of the spectrum. It’s by far the most popular sport to watch (37 percent of Americans call it their favorite game), but it lags behind when it comes to actual play.

Final Words

America is a country of sports. There are plenty of popular options across the states, and they combine to bring in more than $80 billion. It’s the most lucrative sports market in the world, and shows no signs of slowing down. In fact, it’s only getting bigger and bigger with time.

Baseball, basketball, and football sit atop the pack, but there’s room for hockey, soccer, and recreational/physical activities as well. In that way, the states aren’t just enamored with sports, they are intrinsically linked to them in a way few other places in the world can match.

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