My buddies and I were sitting around watching football the other day. It was a standard affair. The girls were out shopping. We were tossing back a few cold ones, giving each other a hard time all the while. At half time of the Pac-12 Championship game, one of my buddies made the comment that college football was the greatest sport in the world… It didn’t take long for everyone else to chime in with their opinions. One guy said poker was a great sport. While I love the mental challenge of reading my opponents and wagering accordingly, I argued that poker could hardly be called a sport. I mean, you don’t see a lot of physically talented specimens on ESPN during the World Series.
As the jabs continued to fly, I chimed in that golf was the greatest sport in the world. A couple of my golfing friends agreed. The non-golfers contested that it doesn’t take a ton of talent to ride in a cart and drink beer… I hate to admit it but, it’s a fair point.
The second half of the game started, and the conversation went another direction. I contemplated the lively debate over the next week and got to thinking… What is the greatest sport in the world? What metric is used to come up with an answer? Is it most watched? Maybe, the sport with the most participants? Sports with the most recognizable or influential players?
In consultation with a few of my mates, we came up with our list of the Top 10 sports. No, we didn’t follow an exact formula. Yes, we fully expect a wealth of criticism. Bring it on. So, without further ado, off we go.
Alright, alright. I get it. I literally “teed” this one up (pun intended). Why do I choose to golf as the number one sport in the world? A couple of reasons. First, I’m the one writing this article and have final say.
In all honesty though, golf tops the list because of difficulty. The evidence is pretty compelling, believe it or not. Let’s start with the fact that Hall of Fame athletes say so. Ask Michael Jordan, John Smoltz (who qualified for the U.S. Senior Open this year), and Wayne Gretzky what the hardest sport in the world is. Across the board, they say golf.
Let’s look a little closer though. There isn’t another sport where you’re solely in charge of the outcome like golf. Your successes and failures rest solely on your shoulders. That birdie you made on the last hole to shoot your best round ever? You get all the credit. But, you also take the blame for three-putting seven times and topping it off the first tee. That’s not fun.
The rate of winning in golf is also something worth considering. The typical field in a PGA Tour event has 144 players. There’s only one winner each week. In other sports, we talk about winning percentages of less than .500 being dismal. Tiger, arguably the greatest golfer of the modern era, has a winning percentage of .228 (he’s 82 for 359). Even more, no one else is even close.
One word. Participation. If there’s a sport that’s played and watched around the world more than soccer, I’ll gladly eat my words. From South America, to Europe, to Asia and even the U.S., soccer rivals religion. I’m pretty sure Santa even has his own Futbol Club in the North Pole.
What makes soccer so popular has to be accessibility. Unlike golf, all you need to play soccer is a ball and enough room for a pitch. Think about it. In impoverished countries where lack of infrastructure and resources make buying equipment next to impossible, it comes as little surprise that soccer reigns supreme.
We can’t overlook viewership. Soccer fans are fanatical. It’s a global phenomenon. Whether people spectate in person or from the only television in a 40 mile radius, soccer games are known to incite riots. Bottom line, soccer fans are more than a little passionate and that makes the sport great.
Even though the U.S. is home to world’s largest basketball league, it’s played around the globe.
What makes basketball so popular? Let’s start with the fact that over a billion people watch the sport regularly. Yes, the NBA is popular but, basketball also has a huge following in Europe and Asia.
Like soccer, basketball is relatively accessible for young people. This is especially true when the weather limits sporting pursuits to being indoors. That alone explains why there are so many notable players from Northern Europe where winters are long, dark and cold.
Basketball also has some of the most recognizable names in all of sport. Michael Jordan, Stephen Curry, LeBron James, Shaq, the list goes on of globally known basketball icons. They influence popular culture, politics, what we wear, etc.
Over two billion people regularly tune into cricket. While it’s relatively unknown in the U.S., it’s popularity globally isn’t far behind that of soccer. National teams have fans that are fervent and at times, unruly. What makes cricket difficult to rank is the fact that, while it’s tremendously popular with it’s fan base, it’s relatively obscure where it isn’t popular.
The salaries for the best cricket players in the world pale in comparison to those in other sports. For that reason, the impact the sport, and its players have on society, is relatively limited.
America’s favorite pastime is transcendent. Especially in Latin America and East Asia. In fact, more than ¼ of the players in the MLB hail from countries outside the U.S. Even more, professional leagues are becoming more and more relevant in countries like Mexico and Japan.
Just like soccer and basketball, baseball is accessible to young people in even the most impoverished countries. With need for little equipment and infrastructure, baseball provides an opportunity for young people to participate in sport for next to nothing.
Of course, we have to acknowledge the controversy baseball has endured. Notably, the use of performance enhancing drugs. Some suggest that the stories of Mark McGwire, Alex Rodriguez and Barry Bonds brought attention to the sport. Others argue that it tarnished the baseball’s reputation. Whatever the case may be, baseball continues to be one of the most popular sports around the world.
I remember watching boxing with my father when I was young. He watched it because his dad watched it. Personally, I never really got too excited about it. Some say that it’s a dying sport. Maybe that’s true in the U.S. However, the sport’s popularity continues to hold strong abroad.
Boxing’s most famous athletes are globally recognized as well. Muhammad Ali was an icon for both his boxing prowess and outspoken political thoughts about the Vietnam War. Filipino fighter Manny Pacquaio was so popular in his home country that he was elected as a Senator.
Even though the rise of WWE and MMA command the attention of combat sport viewership, boxing still remains a hot ticket.
I love football. So much so that my girlfriend has threatened to leave me because it occupies so much of my time in the fall and winter. Bottom line, Americans love their football. We spend an astounding $7 billion a year on fantasy leagues every year. I know, the amount of money I spend is pretty obscene.
As crazy as us Yanks are about the pigskin, it’s almost like the rest of the world could care less. Despite the NFL’s attempts to “grow” the sport by having games in the UK and Mexico, people outside the United States clearly have better things to do on Sunday.
I really didn’t want to put E-Sports on the list. In my eyes, it’s hard to call a game a sport when all that’s physically required is two opposable thumbs and a little dexterity. With that being said, E-Sports are a global phenomenon. The amount of money that kids under the age of 10 are competing for is unfathomable. The industry alone generates over $1 billion a year. Sounds like a marketer’s dream to me. Bottom line, there’s a case for to be made for giving your newborn a joystick instead of a book.
Unless you live in the frigid climes of the Far Great North, you could probably care less about hockey. While that might be the case, hockey is like religion to its fans. Who can blame them? When you don’t see the sun and counting caribou gets old, you’d tune into hockey too.
And, I’ll tell you something. A hockey player is probably the last guy I’d ever want to see in a bar brawl, unless he’s on my side. Hockey players are some of the toughest dudes around. The fact that fights break out all the time and, referees don’t do anything until someone hits the ice, is pretty astounding. I’m guessing that dentists in hockey country are some of the wealthiest people in town. After all, it’s not uncommon for broken teeth to outnumber goals scored in a game.
If it was totally up to me to rank the sports on this list, billiards would probably be four or five. I love pool. I love the strategy, the different formats, and the fact that it’s not hard to find a friendly wager on a game. No, I’ve never seen a pool player at the gym. And yes, the nutrition amongst the folks I play with consists of light beer and deep-fried chicken. I don’t care. It’s still a tough pursuit. I fully expect the haters to hate. Bring it on. Does the fact that it’s broadcasted on ESPN once a decade make it worthy? I think so, but I’m clearly bias.
Now that my senseless rant is out of the way, let’s look at pool, or billiards, on a macro level. It’s hugely popular in the U.S. In fact, it’s made a resurgence amongst millennials that fancy bar games, social interaction in large groups, and good fun.
So, where else is billiards fancied? Well, the UK and that’s about it. The Brits love themselves a good game of one-pocket or snooker. Other than that, the sport isn’t much more than an afterthought.
The debate of best, or most popular, or greatest or whatever sports in the world will be ongoing until the end of time. It’s impossible to quantify, so I haven’t really tried. I did some research. I looked at some stats. To that end, I enlisted the “help” of my sporting peers. This list reflects the consensus opinion. Other than golf and billiards. There’s no doubt in my mind that most folks will disagree with my ranking and reasoning. It’s all good. Let me know your thoughts in the comments below. Until then, I’m calling eight-ball corner pocket.