The 2018 World Cup telecasts showing huge stadiums full of passionate soccer fans from nations of all sizes got me thinking about how extremely popular the sport is across the globe.  Soccer is inexpensive for kids to play and therefore capable of cultivating lifelong fans to watch it in person and on television.

Compared to other major sports events, the 2018 World Cup does not garner high television ratings in the United States but it is a huge draw globally.  The reason is apparent:  soccer is the world’s most popular sport and the second-place finisher, cricket, is not even close.

Horse racing is correctly referred to as a “niche sport” and its popularity varies vastly across the countries in which racetracks are located.  People don’t grow up “playing” horse racing so it is at a considerable disadvantage in creating a love for the sport.

When one looks at the popularity of various sports, the ratings differ considerably according to how the term is defined.  For example, popularity can be measured by the number of people actually playing a sport, watching as a spectator only, or both?

The World Atlas ranks sports on the metric of “estimated global following,” which is vague.  Its latest rankings are shown below, with the sport listed first and then followed by its estimated number of fans.  Note that the list is comprised entirely of sports that people can play as well as watch.

Soccer, 4.0 billion estimated followers
Cricket, 2.5 billion
Field Hockey, 2.0 billion
Tennis, 1.0 billion
Volleyball, 900 million
Table Tennis, 875 billion
Basketball, 825 million
Baseball, 500 million
Rugby, 475 billion
Golf, 450 billion

The number of fans a sport has following it does not automatically translate into cash flow, profitability, and television ratings.  American football is not in the World Atlas top-10 rankings but the National Football League is the runaway fan favorite in the United States and thus is a commercial goldmine.  Table tennis may be more popular than the NFL but is certainly not as lucrative.

That horse racing is not a top-ranked sport globally is to be expected because it has no presence at all in many countries.  Additonally, it is beyond the financial means of most people to participate in horse racing as an owner.  However, horse racing is a top-5 or top-10 fan favorite in some major venues where it has a long tradition, such as Ireland, Great Britain, France, Australia, and Hong Kong in China.  While horse racing is not close to being a top-10 fan favorite in the United States, telecasts of Triple Crown races typically do well.  For instance, the 2018 Preakness had the lowest TV rating of the three Triple Crown races, yet had a higher rating than the fifth and concluding game of the National Hockey League playoffs.

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