Is Soccer Really The Most Popular Sport In The World?

Tom Malone/Adventure Tribune
Short answer: Yes. But, why is soccer so popular in both the impoverished villages in the Peru and the richest areas of England?

People often claim that soccer is the most popular sport in the world. Those people are completely, utterly correct. But we often don’t look deeper into that statement. Why is it the most popular game in the world? With whom is it popular? If the United States tends to promote its culture (Coca-Cola) throughout the world, why isn’t soccer that popular in the States?

Soccer, football, futbol (or whatever you may call it) is a beautiful game. It’s slow-developing nature makes each goal and attempted goal exciting. It’s physically demanding (players run a half-marathon per game). There’s much more contact involved than diehard, anti-soccer, NFL-only fans would ever admit. And, it’s rooted in culture and history in a way that no other sport can even fathom. In short, it’s the most popular sport in the world.

Nearly 100,000 fans pack Camp Nou to watch FC Barcelona. (Tom Malone/Adventure Tribune)

Just How Popular Is Soccer?

When it comes to global culture, nothing is more popular than soccer, both in player participation and fan viewership.

In 2007, the governing body of soccer, FIFA, conducted a study that found 265 million registered soccer players around the world, which equated to roughly four percent of the world’s population. The study found a dramatic increase in overall participation in soccer participation, meaning the popularity of the game is only growing, especially in regards to the women’s game.

Furthermore, this study did not include those who play recreationally, or on teams not registered with a FIFA-approved organization (like kids who play in the favelas of Brazil).

The amount of soccer fans is even more staggering. According to CNN, 3.2 billion viewers tuned in for the 2014 FIFA World Cup tournament alone. To put that number in perspective, 3.6 billion people tuned in for at least one minute of the entire Olympic games.

Over one billion fans watched the World Cup final match in 2014, whereas a mere 114 million viewers tuned in for Super Bowl XLIX’s record-setting television audience in 2015. (Many Americans incorrectly tout the Super Bowl as the most-watched television event in the world).

In global club soccer, the numbers are just as impressive. The UEFA Champions League final match broadcasts to over 200 countries and draws in an audience three times that of the Super Bowl.

“The UEFA Champions League [final in 2014] drew a global audience of 380 million viewers, while Super Bowl XLIX had the attention of 114 million viewers, a record for US television,” according Max Kraidelman of Vocativ. “The Super Bowl has an international audience, but the numbers are too small to make a significant difference.”

Another factor that enhances soccer’s international popularity comes from the fact that there’s essentially no off-season. With international clubs playing in multiple leagues, international friendlies throughout the year, and annual international tournaments leading up to the World Cup, it’s no wonder people can’t get enough of watching soccer.

International soccer teams draw huge crowds (in person and on television) and enhance national pride.

Men’s teams like Germany - a country that is an economic powerhouse and stabilizes the European economy - tend to top the international soccer list. But, so do teams like Brazil - a country in the midst of an economic crisis that has a history of drastically impoverished citizens.

The diversity in country type and continents that dominate international soccer prove why the sport carries so much weight in so many countries: Egypt, Iran, Portugal, Switzerland, Chile, Colombia, France, Senegal, etc.

Women’s teams show a similar story. In the United States, where soccer is definitely not the most popular game, the country’s women’s team is consistently the best in the world. Economically powerful countries, like France, Japan, Germany, and England, also frequent the list. But, so do economically downtrodden countries, like Brazil and North Korea.

The amount of money that a country is willing to spend on its national soccer team often reflects the country’s economic stability, but it can also reflect the general popularity of the sport within that country.

A soccer field on a passionfruit farm in a remote area of the Peruvian Andes. (Grant Allen/Adventure Tribune)

Why Is Soccer So Popular In Poor Areas Of The World?

Soccer seems to be most popular in some of the world’s poorest areas. In places where people don’t have access to clean water or enough food, they still find ways to play and watch soccer, often daily.

Soccer has the fewest official rules of any major sport, making it a ridiculously simple game to learn and play. The main objective is to get the ball into the goal; whether that goal is regulation size on an official field, or two shoes in an alleyway, the objective is the same.

The equipment is also inexpensive. All you really need to play soccer is a ball. Sometimes, that ball is an official FIFA-sanctioned ball. Other times, it’s dozens of plastic bags taped together, or a shirt stuffed with more shirts.

Compare that to, say, basketball - you need a decent basketball to dribble, a flat court, and a basket that’s ten-ish feet off the ground.

Compared to American football, soccer seems even more simple. For American football, you need cleats, a grass field, a helmet, shoulder pads, and a quality football. Plus, you need enough players to field a full team on both sides.

Soccer can be played with a full team, just a few people, and even individually. Whether you’re playing on a club team in Argentina with a full team on both sides, in the back alleys of Rio with just a couple buddies, or juggling solo on a dirt road in Senegal, you’re getting the same soccer experience.

The sport can be played with anyone, anywhere. Basketball requires a flat, hard surface to dribble the ball. American football requires a flat, grassy area. Even baseball requires a diamond with four bases. But soccer just requires a little bit of open space.

On any soccer field, speed and agility are valued, but especially in the slums of places like Rio and Mumbai. These tight quarters force kids to boost their footwork and creativity, as opposed to other sports that value brute strength and size. This allows kids of all sizes and nutrition levels to participate on an equal playing field in the soccer world.

And then, there comes the dream of making your country’s national team. From the time most of these kids are able to walk, they start pretending that they’re international soccer stars, just like kids in the U.S. pretend they’re LeBron James and Steph Curry. They look at these international soccer stars who came from the same places that they came from and view them as inspiration to keep playing.

A rolling soccer ball in a park in Paris. (Tom Malone/Adventure Tribune)

Why Is Soccer So Popular In The World’s Richest Areas?

Soccer is just as popular in some of the richest parts of the world as it is in the world’s poorest areas. Partly for the same reasons, but some reasons seem drastically different.

“Developed” countries tend to have more organized soccer teams, leagues, and tournaments for both kids and adults. Participation in these leagues can cost a fair amount of money, and many people view participation in these leagues as the avenue to make it to the next level.

When it comes to the success of a professional international or club team, money tends to drive that team’s success. Bottom line: it takes money to buy the best players in the world. And cities and countries want their team to be the best, so they’re willing to spend absurd amounts of money to fund those teams and players.

People from rich areas find value in the fact that their city or their country is the best in the world at the world’s most popular game. The status of one’s team reflects upon the status of that country, that city, and the individuals who associates themselves with that team.

Soccer in wealthier European countries is big business. Teams like Manchester United even sell shares of stock in their team so people can feel like they’re rewarded financially for that team’s worldwide success. Spanish soccer generates 7.6 billion Euros per year, which equals 0.75 percent of the country’s gross domestic product.

Countries who are economically poorer than some of the traditional European powerhouse teams find other ways to rise to the top of the international ranks. Brazil has a tradition of creative soccer, partially due to the creativity necessary to succeed in playing games in narrow favela alleyways.

Colombia, on the other hand, rose to power in the late 1980s based on millions of dollars contributed by Pablo Escobar, the notorious drug kingpin. He almost singlehandedly funded the struggling Colombian soccer program, starting with the construction of youth soccer fields and working toward hosting entire national team practices at his mansions and compounds. As illustrated in ESPN’s The Two Escobars, the meteoric rise in Colombia’s international soccer team catapulted them to a phenomenal world ranking before the 1994 World Cup at the end of Escobar’s rise.

Since that era, Colombia’s men’s soccer team dropped in ranking as the country’s economy destabilized; the team rose in ranking over the past ten years as the country has climbed the GDP ranking list.

In fact, most national teams in the top 25 FIFA rankings come from countries that have a top 25 GDP ranking.

Providence Park before a Portland Timbers game. (Tom Malone/Adventure Tribune)

Why Isn’t Soccer Popular In The United States?

Despite the fact that the United States tops the GDP charts with the strongest economy in the world, our men’s soccer team never shows well in world competition (our women’s team consistently wins the World Cup, though).

Further, soccer is nowhere near the most popular sport in the country. According to a 2016 Harris poll, 43 percent of Americans ranked football as their favorite sport (college or professional). Baseball took second place at 15 percent (an eight percent drop from 1985), hockey and basketball took a mere five percent each, while soccer came in at four percent.

Why is this the case?

Part of the reason comes from the speed and scoring rate of the different games. Americans tend to like anything fast: fast food, fast cars, fast cash, etc. Soccer is not fast; it’s a process, a progression, and a strategic game. American football is fast, basketball is fast, hockey is fast, and auto racing is fast.

Many Americans voice their distaste for soccer based on the speed of the respective games, claiming that soccer is too slow. This could be a major reason in the decline in baseball’s popularity over the last 30 years as well.

The scoring style in soccer plays a part in this too. A 0-0 tie is not uncommon in soccer, whereas scores in basketball routinely surpass 100 points per team. Even in a slow NFL game, a team that scores once still receives seven points.

American sports fans have been indoctrinated into the fast-paced, constant-scoring sports mentality, so finding the beauty in a near-goal in a soccer game is something that will take adjustment.

Another major reason that soccer is not the most popular sport in the U.S. comes from money. Between television contracts, ticket sales, endorsement deals, and apparel, the NFL made $13 billion in 2016 alone, compared to the $461 million acquired by the MLS (the United States’ professional men’s soccer league).

The MLS numbers continue to pale in comparison when matched against the top-grossing soccer leagues in the world: English Premier League, Bundesliga, La Liga, Serie A, and Ligue 1 totaled $13.7 billion in revenue, beating the NFL.

Television broadcasting companies rarely spend the money to acquire the rights to soccer games in the United States. NBA revenue topped $5 billion in 2016, and the advertising revenue that ABC acquired from the 2016 NBA Finals alone nearly reached $300 million (almost the entire revenue acquired by the MLS in a year).

The most popular sports in the U.S. leave plenty of room for commercials, which is where these large-capacity television broadcasters make their money. Basketball features timeouts, quarter breaks, and built-in television timeouts so that advertisers can have their commercials played - the companies make money and the broadcasters make money, so they continue to broadcast more NBA games; therefore, the NBA makes more money.

The same is true for the NFL: quarter breaks, timeouts, changes of possession, and built-in commercial breaks allow advertisers plenty of chances to pay for time slots. Baseball’s nine innings give at least 18 breaks for commercials.

Soccer, on the other hand, just has halftime. Sure, companies pay big sums to have their logos on a team jersey, or their message across the sideline banner, but the opportunities for advertising in soccer just aren’t there like they are in these big market U.S. sports, which means that television broadcasters in the U.S. aren’t likely to take risks promoting soccer, since they won’t rake in the same advertising revenues that they would from an NFL game.

As a result, young U.S. kids aren't’ exposed to soccer like they are to football, baseball, and basketball. Kids go outside and play these sports instead of soccer, so some of our best potential athletes don’t make it to the U.S. men’s national soccer team like they do in Brazil or Germany. Instead, they aim for the NBA or the NFL.

Soccer camp in a remote village int he Peruvian Andes. (Tom Malone/Adventure Tribune)

Why Should We Play, Watch, And Learn About Soccer?

So, if you’re not already a soccer fan, why should you become one? Why invest your time and energy into learning about a sport that you might not care about?

As the most popular sport in the world, soccer provides a common connection point. When you travel, you’re guaranteed to find a group that loves soccer. If you can jump into the conversation, you’ll find common ground with new people immediately.

Soccer also provides a common language. When I lived in Spain, I would play soccer three times a week with guys from Africa, South America, and Spain. Some spoke Spanish, while some spoke Portuguese and various African languages. Even though it was difficult for us all to communicate verbally, we were able to bond through soccer.

As you travel and watch different countries play on television, or as you play with people from other countries, you’ll find that certain nationalities approach the game differently. The way in which a person from another country plays soccer can tell you a lot about that person’s culture, if you take the time to learn the game, of course.

Soccer is a part of nearly every country’s culture. If you can appreciate soccer, you drastically enhance your ability to relate to the world around you, which makes travel much more fun. Knowing the game allows you to play with people from other countries, watch games with people from other cultures, and appreciate the common ground that bonds the world together.

Soccer is a beautiful game that’s played in every corner of the globe. It’s a common language, a common pastime, and puts everyone on a common playing field, regardless of an individual’s or country’s fortune.


Tom Malone is the Editor-In-Chief of The Adventure Tribune and author of adventure novels, like Across Americana. He is based in Denver, Colorado, where he adventures through the Rocky Mountains while not traveling abroad.
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