Over 100 million people watched the New England Patriots play the Seattle Seahawks in Super Bowl XLIX. Whether you’re a 12th man loyalist or just an average fan, chances are you were tuned in. The Super Bowl has long been much more than just a game here in the States. Across the country it has become a highly anticipated annual social gathering that Americans worldwide plan around each February. It has undoubtedly become a cultural event, and although the majority of the Super Bowl’s viewership comes from American households, the game’s popularity has certainly grown far beyond the United States.
But it’s not just football. Thanks to globalization, sports that have until now remained popular in certain regions are now growing beyond their native borders, and connecting with new people and cultures. While sports like baseball, basketball and tennis have long maintained a large degree of popularity both inside and outside the United States, three sports in particular – soccer, cricket and football – have increased global viewership exponentially.
There is no doubt that soccer is the world’s most popular sport. Anyone traveling outside of the United States will likely witness the game’s passionate fan base first-hand, especially in Europe and Latin America, and although the game has recently grown in popularity across the United States it has been a long and slow process. This past summer however, the sport saw its biggest jump in viewership. The question that now remains is, can it continue?
Major League Soccer (MLS) began play in 1996, but it was not until recently, and after years of financial struggle that the MLS earned mainstream popularity. The league currently consists of 20 teams, 6 of which entered the league in the last five years, with 2 more teams expected to join in 2017. The MLS has also attracted international star players like David Beckham, Thierry Henry, Robbie Keane and most recently, Steven Gerrard. But it was during the 2014 World Cup this past summer that soccer drew vast amounts of attention throughout the country. Across all 64 matches, Stateside World Cup broadcasting on ESPN and ABC averaged above 4.5 million viewers per game, but the World Cup final between Germany and Argentina drew 26.5 million viewers, making it the most ever watched soccer match in the United States.
Cricket is coming home. That’s right! Believe it or not, the sport of Cricket was once one of the more popular sports in the United States. As reported recently in The Atlantic, cricket was regularly played in Philadelphia, New York, Hartford and Boston during the 1700’s. The game hit its peak in the mid 1800’s when close to 1,000 cricket clubs existed across 22 states. But its popularity dwindled during the Civil War. Baseball became a common sport played amongst the soldiers, and naturally it took on the public reputation of being a patriotic game. At the turn of the century baseball grew to replace cricket as the country’s most popular sport, and by the end of World War I interest in cricket was almost non-existent throughout the United States.
Today, cricket is most popular in England, India and Australia. But over the last few decades increasing numbers of Indians and West Indians have moved to the United States, naturally increasing the sport’s popularity. Last April, ESPN broadcasted an Indian Premier League cricket match between India and Sri Lanka, and matches like these are now regularly streamed online and through digital media players like Apple TV and Chromecast. ESPN estimates that the growing cricket market in the United States currently consists of about 30 million fans, with New York City being one of the biggest hotbeds for the sport.
Football has been engrained in our culture for almost 150 years, dating all the way back to 1869. Outside of the United States, however, it has been slow to attract new fans. A short lived league in Europe, named NFL Europe, existed from 1991 to 2007. After lackluster attendance the NFL shifted its international strategy to broadcasting and playing NFL games abroad, with a long-term goal of launching an overseas NFL franchise.
Since 2007 the NFL has hosted games abroad in London’s Wembley stadium. This season the NFL played three games in London, all of which were sold out. Sky Sports, a British based sports channel has shown live NFL games since 2005. This past September however the NFL expanded their TV deal with Sky Sports through 2020 which now includes Monday Night Football, making it a total of 80 games broadcasted in the United Kingdom.
The NFL has maintained high levels of brand awareness in the UK and Germany, where NFL European teams were seen as the most successful, but it’s also not shying away from growing its market in countries like Russia and China. Yahoo Sports reported last week that the NFL “is enjoying a significant surge in global interest with Russia and China.” German sports marketing research company Repucom reported that 13.3% of Russians (10.8 million) are fans of the NFL, up 5.3% from last year. But China has seen the biggest and possibly the most aggressive growth trend amongst its population. In 2013 only 1.35% of Chinese had an interest in the NFL, but the Repucom report now states that interest has grown to 7.9 % in the last two years. This translates to an additional 31 million fans in China.
Beyond Asia, Yahoo Sports also claims that South America is seeing a growing interest in the NFL. Although Brazil is famously known for its soccer crazed culture, there are reportedly 3.3 million NFL fans in the country. But countries in South America are beginning to show interest in the NFL in more ways than one. Ecuador, for instance, jumped into the Super Bowl ad ring vying for a new cultural audience. Ecuador showcased its country’s beauty with its very first Super Bowl ad and a series of digital ads leading up to the event itself.
The beauty of sports is that it connects us regardless of where we live. Across the globe, we love rooting for our favorite team, and of course playfully heckling anyone who isn’t on our side – Go Patriots!