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World Cup 2014 panel

Will football always be the biggest sport in the world?

I’ll have the ‘football head’ please, barber. EPA

On the eve of the World Cup, football seems bigger and more dominant than ever. It’s the world’s richest, most watched and most played sport. The summer Olympics is the only sporting event able to match the World Cup, and this is only through combining some 41 sports.

But football’s dominance isn’t inevitable. Other sports inspire as much passion and fervour and dominate in certain countries or regions. So will any other sport ever take over from football?

Football certainly seems deeply ingrained in our psyche. It has roots in so many parts of the world. Other sports may be strongly supported in a country or region, such as cricket and rugby in Commonwealth countries, or American Football and Baseball in North America. Versions of football, however, emerged millennia ago in far-flung parts of the world from China and Japan to Argentina and England. Football is played across the richest parts of the world and in emerging markets in Asia, Latin America and Africa.

Yes, football might be considered more of a participation sport in the US, but the MLS is growing fast and currently has higher average attendances than its rival ice hockey or basketball leagues. Cricket is still the main sport in India, but even there interest in football is on the rise among young people, although it is mainly centred on international clubs watched via satellite TV in bars, rather than being watched in the home or at live matches.

So why might football dominate? It may partly be because it has a format and rules which are relatively easy to understand. Football might even be compared to those types of products (technology and “high-touch” or luxury), which are apparently easier to standardise globally. Football matches last 90 minutes, half as long as baseball and far more reasonable than cricket’s encounters of up to five days. A shorter game fits well with the busy lives of sports consumers and bodes well for football’s continued global expansion.

In terms of format, other challengers for most popular global sport have their issues. Cricket and rugby are complicated, as is American Football. They could find ways round these difficulties though: cricket, for example, has introduced one-day and Twenty20 matches. American football does well at building an audience through global TV coverage, the Superbowl is the most watched single sporting event and, through initiatives such as playing competitive matches in other countries and through getting grassroots participation with young players, it is building a more international fan base. But the sport’s complexity is likely to hold it back and it has ground to make up as a mass global participation sport.

Basketball has a chance. It should work well in terms of format – the games aren’t too long, the rules are relatively simple and you don’t need expensive equipment to play. The sport is already massive in some countries, such as China, but it still seems to be struggling to break into “national sport” status in countries with a footballing tradition. As a basketball official once said to Sports Illustrated, “we have football, cricket and rugby. There just doesn’t seem to be room in the British sport psyche to embrace another sport.”

Athletics could be a strong contender. It represents sport at its most simple, and can easily be replicated throughout the world. Different nations seem to dominate different types of events, and TV coverage around the Olympics inspires future generations across the different disciplines. No wonder participation rates are high.

This can also be a problem though. In sports such as athletics, swimming or cycling, it isn’t always clear where leisure activity ends and sport begins. Not having such a strong league and competition structure between tournaments means that, while no doubt a massively supported sport, athletic events are not as regularly followed week in, week out, not televised as frequently and therefore do not generate the same fervour and tribal rivalry as football.

Sporting encounters engage our emotions like few other things can. Sport has been seen to transcend political, religious and other divides. It has the power to unite. The global popularity of football has created national and international heroes and global brands. Like other types of brands, success is down to winning the battle for hearts and minds – and football’s greatest strength is perhaps that of winning the hearts of its global fan base.

When a major club team or national side does well in a sport, there is a buoyant mood, a feel good factor which draws in even occasional and less interested fans. As psychology professor Robert Cialdini put it, fans “BIRG”, or bask in reflected glory.

This would happen with any success, whether it be of a national rugby team, cricket team or in Olympic events, but that it happens in so many nations simultaneously is why major global tournaments such as the World Cup or Olympics are hard to rival. And when these major events end, then football’s club seasons will soon be ready to start. This relentlessness, along with its commercial success, will make football a hard act to follow.

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