The NFL has tried for years to get the sport to take off across the pond. The NFL owners look at the United Kingdom as a rare opportunity to win over another large market. While much of the world globally embraces the NBA, other sports have taken note. College basketball is following suit. This December Kentucky was scheduled to play Michigan in London, then Marist vs. UMBC in a doubleheader at O2 arena. It was organized by the basketball hall of fame, but it’s been pushed back two years due to the pandemic. Syracuse has a popular and historically successful study abroad program in London, with plenty of relationships and ambassadors in London built over the years. Could we see Syracuse one day play in this series? It would make plenty of sense, especially if the first games go particularly well and the organizers see financial success. SU has proven it is willing to be creative in its scheduling, like aboard an aircraft carrier. Syracuse has looked for ways to expand its brand and has alumni living in London, especially with Newhouse’s deep media footprint.
But does the NFL, NBA or College Basketball resonate on the list of most popular sports in the UK? Historically, many of the world’s most popular sports were invented in the UK and exported around the globe by travelers.
To this day sports remain a very important part of British culture. There are rituals that surround match day in various sports, the atmosphere generated in stadiums and other sporting venues around the country is famous and the exporting of domestic sport to a global audience continues to grow.
Before the sports shutdown thousands of tourists flocked weekly to the UK to watch soccer, rugby, darts, snooker, cricket, boxing, horse racing and the like. To many, the United Kingdom is the home of sport.
With that in mind, here a list of the top 10 sports in the UK in order of popularity.
This one was easily atop the list. The Premier League is the most exciting and marketable soccer league on the planet. It’s the richest domestic league in the world and boasts many of the best players on the planet. Champions elect Liverpool are also the current Club World champions. They also won the European Cup last season, becoming the first UK team to win the Premier League, Champions League and Club World Cup within 12 months.
The league includes marketable global brands such as Liverpool and Manchester United, as well as other world famous teams such as Arsenal, Chelsea, Manchester City and Tottenham Hotspur. TV audiences continue to grow and the English Premier League has remained the most well-watched league in the world for over 20 years.
2. Rugby Union
Rugby Union is the 15 man version of the game played across much of the world. It was invented at Rugby School in the UK, when William Webb Ellis picked up the ball during a game of football and ran with it. From that day onwards, the game of Rugby Football was born.
Rugby Union turned professional in 1996, signalling the start of a dramatic change in the game. Standards improved domestically, which had a knock-on to the national team, culminating in a Rugby World Cup win in 2003. This was followed up by a Runner up finish in 2007 and 2019. Domestically Rugby Union remains very popular, with over 200,000 people per week playing the sport and TV audiences in the millions, particularly for international matches.
Another English invention, the game of cricket was spread around the world to British colonies overseas. Although seen as odd to non-playing nations, Cricket is a hugely popular sport in the UK. After decades of declining popularity, recent re-inventions of various cricket formats have seen participation and audience figures growing.
Traditionally test Cricket was the most popular, but audiences went into decline. The invention of one day matches, T20 matches and the most recent ‘Big Bash’ version of the game has reversed this decline and it remains the third most popular sport in the UK. The England World Cup win in 2019 certainly helped to boost participation, with a peak TV audience of 8.3 million viewers.
4. Horse Racing
In terms of overall viewing figures and revenue, Horse Racing is a hugely popular sport in the UK. There are race meetings held almost every day of the year in the UK, across two seasons – the National Hunt and the Flat Race season. There are a number of major race meetings, including The Grand National, the Cheltenham Festival and the Derby.
Although participation in Horse Racing is low, with TV viewing figures reaching the millions and the attendance at major events reaching hundreds of thousands, it remains a major UK sport. Book makers alone generate billions of pounds in revenue from Horse Racing throughout the year.
5. Rugby League
Rugby League is a regional variation of the more popular Rugby Union and is played mostly in the north of England. It is an international sport as well, with a World Cup attracting 16 teams from around the globe.
Rugby League saw a surge in popularity across the UK in the 1990’s, with the advent of the ‘Super League’. This saw a shift in the seasons (including summer games), a massive increase in TV exposure and a revenue increase, allowing the league to attract big name players from overseas. Around 2 million people per year watch Super League in the UK.
When it comes to boxing, the UK is leading the pack. With 12 reigning world champions, plus all of the Heavyweight belts belonging to British fighters, it’s a sport that has never been healthier here. In terms of participation, the numbers are relatively low with around 20,000, but it remains a hugely popular sport.
When it comes to TV viewership, boxing is hindered by the fact that its major events are held on a pay per view platform and are often held very early in the morning (catering for the US market) but even so the big events still exceed 1.5 million views. In terms of in-person shows, Anthony Joshua regularly sells out the biggest stadiums in the country, with gate sales in excess of 80,000 tickets.
The Forumla 1 Grand Prix remains one of the most popular sports in the UK. With a domestic Grand Prix in the circuit, annual audience figures have remained in the tens of millions despite the dramatic decline since moving to Sky Sports. Figures show that 54.8 million viewers per year tuned in to watch the F1 season in 2019.
The success of British driver Lewis Hamilton has helped ensure the sport remains popular in the UK and fans will hope to see new UK drivers entering the competition in the coming years.
Tennis in the UK remains popular thanks to the success of Andy Murray and the Wimbledon Tournament remaining the most popular event on the tour. Millions of people tune in to watch on TV Wimbledon every year, with another 500,000 or so turning up in person to watch the Tennis live.
In terms of participation, there are around 750,000 tennis players in the UK at all levels of the game, so participation remains healthy. There has been an increase in young children and women playing Tennis, so this may rise considerably in the coming years.
Traditionally one of the most popular sports in the UK, golf has seen a decline in both viewers and participation over the years but still remains popular in the UK. When it comes to large events, TV viewership is still in the millions, with tens of thousands of people per week tuning in to watch minor tour events every week.
UK golf participation numbers remain steady, with over 650,000 registered players and a further 300,000 playing semi-regularly. This makes the UK the European country with the most golfers, but it is significantly lower than the peak figures a decade earlier. Some estimates suggest a 40% drop in golf club members over the last decade.
Yes, the traditional pub game of darts has seen a revival over the last 10 years thanks to the involvement of promotional company, Matchroom Sports. They have taken darts to the mainstream and what used to be enjoyed by men in pubs has now reached a mass market, with tour events and even a worldwide popularity.
The World Championships held in London’s Alexander Palace is now screened on Sky TV and has 50,000 in-person attendees and over 4 million TV viewers, making it number 10 on our list. In terms of player popularity, it’s impossible to quantify because so much of it is played at home or in pubs, but it’ll be very high!
That’s a list of the 10 most popular sports in the UK, across viewer and participation numbers. College basketball isn’t on that list, but SU may find itself playing a game there one day if the series proves to be successful.