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8 of the Most Popular Sports Outside the United States

By Jennifer Hassan in Sports
| September 10, 2020 8:58 am PDT
The Most Popular Sports Outside the U.S.

Americans can be a bit myopic when it comes to sports. We forget that American football is played in very few places in the world. Baseball is played in more nations than American football is, but it’s still not a universally recognized sport. And ice hockey requires either an ice rink or a frozen pond, two things that simply aren’t found in much of the world.

Here are 8 of the most popular sports outside of the United States.

Futbol/Soccer/Football

It should come as no surprise to you that soccer tops the list in world popularity. FIFA, soccer’s governing body, estimates that the sport is played in nearly every nation in the world. With more than four billion fans on the planet, this game is pretty ubiquitous in parks, playgrounds, and schoolyards everywhere.

Its universal appeal is understandable given a) how easy the sport is to learn, unlike, say, American football with its complex and convoluted rulebook, and b) the lack of expensive equipment required.

Soccer has been around for about 160 years in its current form. However, I suspect that groups of kids kicking around a ball and keeping it away from the opposing group has been around on the planet for a much longer period. We know of the ancient Chinese game of cuju, which is similar to modern soccer in many respects.

Also, of course, is the ancient Olmec culture of Mexico, which engaged in a very similar sport. The Maya were even rumored to play the game with human heads instead of balls. Given how frenzied modern fans of the game can become, it’s easy to believe that ancient forms of the game could involve death and dismemberment.

Cricket

Despite cricket’s popularity—nay, fanaticism—in more than 100 countries, it’s virtually unknown in the United States.

Cricket looks physically like a game of baseball, with bats and bases and outfielders, but it’s actually more akin to a game of chess. Strategy is everything.

Since a cricket bat is not round, but rather flat and oblong, tilting it just a few degrees when one takes a swing will change the length and trajectory of a hit, which will determine how many points are achieved. How many points are achieved will determine who bats next.

Depending on who the bowler (who throws the ball) is, how long he’s been playing, and how shiny or scratched up the cricket ball has become, you will then determine which batsman you want up next. It’s a constant reshuffling of variables.

Field Hockey

Estimated to be the second most popular team sport in the world behind soccer, field hockey is played in about half of the world’s nations. From Britain to Pakistan to Argentina, this game is played indoors and out, professionally and on the streets. The game’s concept has been around for millennia, and hockey scenes have been found in ancient Greek art (back when athletes played the sport naked).

Unlike ice hockey, which is found in nearly every state in the US, field hockey can only be found in the US along the Eastern Seaboard. The rules are very similar to soccer, but the ball is propelled with an L-shaped stick, rather than the foot.

Because England colonized so many of the world’s countries and because British Army soldiers enjoyed playing field hockey, the game spread throughout the Empire, from India to New Zealand and even farther afield.

Hockey was the third-most-watched sport at the London Olympics. Spectators enjoy the clear, simple rules structure and the fast pace of play.

Bullfighting

Man versus beast is as ancient a struggle as humankind itself.

Many Americans consider bullfighting to be a thing of the past, a historic Spanish sport that was already waning in the time of Ernest Hemingway. However, nothing could be further from the truth.

Several countries from Europe to South and Central America participate in the sport. Mexico City has a bullring that seats nearly 50,000 avid spectators. They do not turn away in horror when blood is drawn, but lean forward, not wanting to miss the kill.

The toreros—the bullfighters—enter the ring to music and wild applause. They follow their “team captain,” the matador, the one who will attempt to kill the bull or be killed himself in the attempt. They show off their moves, their costumes, and make an event of their entrance.

The matador then faces the bull alone. One of them will die. The matador attempts to use his cape to get the bull into the correct position to be pierced with a sword. The bull will attempt to kill the matador with his horns. No one knows how the fight will turn out.

With this level of excitement, no wonder this sport hasn’t gone away quietly, despite the vocal antipathy toward the sport by animal rights activists.

Competitive Road Bicycling

There are three major cycling races during the year. Americans tend to only be aware of the Tour de France, a 23-day-long test of grit and power. If nothing else is on TV, we may watch a few minutes of it. However, the idea of men in cycling gear racing in grueling endurance runs does not fire our blood like the Super Bowl does, or baseball’s World Series, or hockey’s Stanley Cup.

Yet in many parts of the world, these cycle races are the apex of excitement, drama, cutthroat strategy, and risk to life and limb. Cyclists can travel at more than 60 mph, which creates many opportunities for tragic error when clumped into an aggressive pack, all riders seeking the win.

The International Cycling Union (UCI) governs sport cycling, with more than 120 member countries. The UCI controls competitive road racing, track racing, BMX, and mountain bike racing.

Here in North America, we do see groups of Lycra-clad cyclists on the side of the road, but we’ve yet to see a popular, televised US road race. I suspect it’s not far off, though, considering the burgeoning numbers taking to the sport for health reasons.

Tennis

Reputed to be 800 years old, this sport has become renowned for its international character. At Wimbledon, the French Open, and other large tournaments, you’ll see players from more than 60 nations competing for the top prize. At the 2019 Wimbledon tournament, players from Finland, Uzbekistan, Korea, and elsewhere fought for the cup.

In the United States, tennis courts are found in many public parks and schools. Tennis can be played on grass, clay, and on hard courts. The type of material used can affect play dramatically, and there are world champions who trained on hard courts and who may play poorly on grass or clay.

Ping-Pong

Considered a fun pastime in the US, ping pong is a cutthroat sport in other nations. If you’ve seen Chinese pros play the game, you’ll know that your eyes aren’t fast enough to track the play.

It’s laid out just like a tennis court, but the “court” is painted onto a table. As in tennis, ping pong (called table tennis abroad) can be played in a singles or doubles style, i.e., with two or four players.

It is estimated that more than 300 million people across the globe play ping pong.

China has dominated the game. Interestingly, even when China had isolated itself from foreign influence in the late 1960s, it invited ping pong players from various nations into the country for a tournament. The move was titled “Ping Pong Diplomacy.”

Ping pong has been an Olympic sport since 1988. Although the US has an Olympic team, the idea of ping pong as a highly competitive athletic pursuit has not been widely accepted in the country.

Basketball

Americans are often surprised at how international a sport basketball is. Although it was developed in the United States back in the late 1800s, it has now spread to more than 50 nations, from Egypt to Lithuania.

Of all the American sports that could have been exported to the rest of the world, why basketball? Sports that require the least equipment are often the most popular. Sometimes Americans forget that in many parts of the world, going out and purchasing a leather ball is out of the financial reach of many people, and certainly most children.

That’s why soccer is such a universal game; very little equipment is needed to play except some spherical object to kick. With basketball, baskets are necessary, of course, but they needn’t be the standard 10-foot poles complete with backboard. Baskets placed on a fence or a high wall can suffice, and once a ball is found, the game can be enjoyed.

To Sum It Up

Outside of the NBA, the NFL, Little League, Pop Warner football, and suburban soccer teams, there is a multitude of sports to experience. We haven’t even covered the new Olympic sport of competitive rock climbing, much less white-water kayaking and endurance horseback riding.

There’s a whole world out there…literally. And if you’re interested on betting on these sports, and others, we cover many of them in our sports betting guide.

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