The United States is one of the biggest markets for professional sport. Broadcasters across the US compete to showcase the multiple major league sports in America, as well as those played across the Atlantic in Europe, Africa, and the Far East.
The increasingly global nature of sports broadcasting means that new sports are starting to infiltrate into American culture. But what are the most-watched and most lucrative professional sports in the US in 2021?
American Football (Gridiron)
There is no doubt that American Football remains something of an institution among American sports enthusiasts. Almost two-fifths (38.8%) of sports fans surveyed for Sports Show cited the NFL as their favorite sport. The NFL is still one of the most-watched professional sports on the planet. Its television viewing figures are unparalleled, particularly for the NFL Super Bowl.
The NFL broke viewing records for Super Bowl XLIX in 2015 when the match-up between the New England Patriots and the Seattle Seahawks drew an audience of 114.44 million viewers. The Super Bowl is a commercial behemoth, with the average cost of commercials in the 2021 Super Bowl weighing in at $5.4 million apiece. That figure looks set to rise again in 2022 as the interest in the NFL continues to soar, with Kansas City Chiefs looking to build a dynasty around star quarterback Patrick Mahomes. In the futures NFL betting markets for Super Bowl LVI, the Chiefs are rated +550 favorites ahead of 2021’s Super Bowl champions Tampa Bay Buccaneers (+750) and the Green Bay Packers (+1000).
According to the Sports Show survey, NBA basketball is the second most popular sport to watch in America. 15.3% of sports fans surveyed said that basketball was their favorite sport. It’s also one of the most-watched sports, with the NBA finals attracting record viewing figures of 30.8 million – a drop in the ocean compared to the Super Bowl but still a significant number. According to Nielsen, NBA tv ratings across networks like ABC, ESPN, and TNT were up 34% year-on-year during the 2020/21 NBA season. According to Global Sport Matters, NBA is the third wealthiest professional sport in North America behind the NFL and Major League Baseball (MLB).
For some time, the MLB has been one of the most illustrious and historic professional sports leagues in the US. Baseball carries generations of tradition and is a close third behind basketball in the Sports Show survey, which saw 14.8% list baseball as their favorite sport in the US. Baseball’s World Series also appears to have greater appeal than the NBA finals too, given that its TV viewing record of 40 million dwarfs its NBA counterparts.
Dating back to 1903, MLB has 118 years of heritage, including some of the most iconic professional athletes in American sport including Babe Ruth.
If Sports Show’s survey of the top ten most popular professional sports in America is to be believed, soccer has recently overtaken ice hockey as the fourth most popular US sport. 8.2% of respondents claimed soccer as their favorite sport ahead of ice hockey (3.8%). Soccer’s TV viewing records are also impressive considering that the so-called “beautiful game” has only been played professionally in the US for a few decades. For most of the 20th century, soccer was on a par with more commercially obscure sports like badminton, swimming, volleyball, and cycling but it has since made its mark indelibly.
The US is to host a major part of the 2026 FIFA World Cup, so it’s no surprise to see significant investment being made in US soccer. Some of the most recent Major League Soccer (MLS) franchises have sold for $400 million, underlining the commercial potential for soccer across North America.
Just 3.8% of respondents to Sports Show’s survey cited NHL ice hockey as their favorite sport. That’s not to suggest that ice hockey is a poor sport, it just means its target market is undoubtedly smaller than football, basketball, baseball, and even soccer. It has been said that audiences who watch NHL are some of the richest of all US sports fans. A third of its viewers are said to earn salaries of $100,000 and above, compared with the national average of 19%. It’s one of the main reasons that Las Vegas attracted a new NHL franchise to the Nevada desert in the shape of the Golden Knights.