The Most Watched Sports Events in the World
The Super Bowl is the biggest sporting event in North America.
Around 112 million people watched last year’s big game between the Patriots and Falcons, and those numbers don’t necessarily reflect the number of people watching at parties, in bars or streaming illegally.
Even if the Patriots might already seem like a foregone conclusion to win Super Bowl 52 (the Pats are +105 favorites on Bovada’s Super Bowl futures, while the Vikings pay +210, the Eagles are +626 and the Jaguars are +650), we can expect another huge television audience again in early February.
But, evidenced by how we declare the winner of Major League Baseball to be the world champion, we sometimes forget that they play sports on other continents, too. And when you compare the Super Bowl audience to the number of people who tune in to watch some of the other major sporting events in the world, suddenly the NFL championship game might not seem quite so huge anymore.
Here’s a list of 5 of the other most watched sports events in the world.
1. FIFA World Cup
The beautiful game never fails to deliver beautiful numbers for television executives, especially when the top soccer nations in the world gather every 4 years to contest the FIFA World Cup.
The 2014 World Cup final between Germany and Argentina drew nearly 1 billion viewers across the world. And it’s not as if people just waited for the championship game to tune in. On average, more than 200 million people watched each game in the tournament. Multiply that average by the 64 games that are played in every World Cup, and we’re talking about roughly 13 billion sets of eyeballs during the competition.
Other soccer showdowns attract huge numbers as well. The 2017 UEFA Champions League final between Real Madrid and Juventus attracted more than 3 million viewers in the United States alone on FOX and FOX Deportes. And the 2015 Women’s World Cup saw 61 million people tune in to watch the US beat Japan 5-2 in the championship game, while 750 million people watched at some point during the tournament.
But the World Cup is the biggest of them all, and it returns this summer in Russia. With oddsmakers projecting an extremely competitive tournament (Germany, Brazil, France, Spain and Argentina all pay between +450 and +800 to win it all, according to Bovada), don’t be surprised to see record television numbers set, even if the United States, Netherlands and Italy aren’t participating.
2. Olympic Games
Like the World Cup, both the Olympic Summer Games and Winter Games are held just once every 4 years. Although organizers decided in the mid-1990s to stop holding the summer and winter events in the same year, alternating them every 2 years instead, the rarity of any Games still causes us to watch in droves.
The most recent Olympics, the 2016 Summer Games in Rio de Janeiro, boasted an international audience of 3.6 billion viewers. And though you might think the Winter Games are a less popular spectacle because of the limited amount of people across the world who are exposed to snow and colder winter climates, 3.5 billion people saw at least part of the 2010 Winter Games in Vancouver.
In addition to the scarcity of the Olympics, another possible reason so many people watch on television is the variety of events, guaranteeing that there’s something that appeals to almost everybody. The opening ceremonies are always among the most-watched events during the Olympics (nearly 41 million Americans watched the 2012 London opening ceremonies on NBC), while the other most popular summer events are gymnastics, swimming and track-and-field. None of those 3 sports receive anywhere near the exposure of football, soccer or basketball, especially in North America.
Similar statistics apply to the Winter Games. At the 2010 Olympics in Sochi, freestyle skiing was the most-watched event, according to Neilsen ratings, while other popular sports to watch included snowboarding, bobsled and women’s figure skating. Speed skating also usually sees very strong numbers, largely due to the traditional strength of Asian nations in the sport.
3. Cricket World Cup
India is the second highest-populated country in the world, and cricket is the most popular sport in India. So it only makes sense that when the Cricket World Cup takes place every 4 years, or even when the Champions Trophy one-day international tournament is contested, television numbers skyrocket.
As of last year, cricket matches involving India accounted for the 4 most-watched games in International Cricket Council history. Approximately 558 million people watched the 2011 World Cup final between India and Sri Lanka, a slight increase from the 495 million who took in India’s victory over Pakistan in that year’s semis. Clashes between India and Pakistan in the 2015 World Cup (a group game, not playoffs) and 2017 Champions Trophy tournament averaged around 320 million viewers as well.
It isn’t just natives of India who are accounting for these massive television numbers, however. A record 1.1 million people tuned into British broadcaster Sky Sports to watch England defeat India in the final of the 2017 Women’s Cricket World Cup. That audience was larger than the average viewership for a typical Premier League game, no small accomplishment when you’re talking about soccer-crazy England.
4. Tour de France
Who wants to watch a bunch of guys riding their bicycles across France in a 2,200-mile race that lasts nearly an entire month? Way more people than you might think, and I’m not just talking about the 10-12 million people that annually line the roadside to watch in person.
In fact, the 2017 Tour de France enjoyed record-setting television numbers. Race broadcaster Eurosport reported a 10% increase in ratings across Europe, with an average of nearly 800,000 people watching each stage. Stage 21 of the race attracted a record peak audience of 7.3 million people.
And in host country France, the Tour drew close to a 40% share of the audience. Those ratings increases came in the first year that Eurosport covered every single minute of the race, and encouraged the broadcaster to commit to doing the same for the next 6 years.
All in all, the Tour de France is broadcast in 190 different countries. Estimates vary on the number of people that watch the race each year across the world (in 2014, a Tour clothing spokesperson suggested the race would attract 4 billion viewers, roughly half of the world’s population), but it seems safe to believe that it annually tops the 1 billion mark.
5. Tennis Grand Slams
Though the North American appetite for the finals of tennis majors tends to depend on who’s playing in them, championship matches of Grand Slam tournaments are always huge draws across the globe.
The 2017 Australian Open final between Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal attracted approximately 11 million viewers in Europe and close to 5 million in Australia. Meanwhile, in North America, despite the fact that the match began at 3 a.m. eastern time, ESPN reported that approximately 3 million Americans tuned in to watch.
Staying in North America, NBC reported record-low ratings and viewership for the 2017 French Open final, but that pitted relatively unknown Stan Wawrinka versus Rafael Nadal. The previous year, when Novak Djokovic took on Andy Murray, approximately 2 million viewers watched the match.
Streaming also accounts for a huge part of the tennis viewing audience. According to the BBC, it served 24.1 million streaming requests for the 2017 Wimbledon tournament, an all-time record for the broadcaster.
It’s been 8 years since an American competed in the men’s final at a Grand Slam event (Andy Roddick, 2009 Wimbledon final). If the U.S. can produce another elite men’s player in the near future, North American viewership will likely skyrocket once again.