Ranking America’s Favorite Sports League’s By Popularity


By: Matt Stallknecht


The business side of sports has always been a twisted little passion of mine. I follow the television ratings, attendance figures, and financial news surrounding all of the major sports leagues in the United States.

Yes, I know it’s a nerdy thing to be interested in. But who are you to judge? Everyone has nerdy interests, so back off, judgmental Dolphin reader.

Anyways, a good friend of mine recently solicited my opinion on how I felt all of the major sports leagues/organizations in the United States ranked out. The prospect of putting together such a list was tantalizing. So here goes nothing: I put together a list of the most popular sports organizations in the United States, through a combination of scientific and unscientific methods.  TV ratings, attendance figures, and my own (attempt at) unbiased observations were the backbone of the rankings.

Some of you probably won’t agree with me. Oh well. Write a response letter if you don’t like it. Here we go!

  1. NFL – Ever since the mid-80s, the NFL has ruled the roost in the American sports landscape. No other league comes close. The average NFL game draws 17.6 million viewers. That’s just for regular season games. By comparison, the NBA struggles to draw that for it’s Finals matchups. The only thing that could potentially hurt the NFL juggernaut is the ever-present threat of concussions which have already fundamentally changed the game. But make no mistake, until that happens, the NFL is only going to continue to rise.
  2. NCAA Football – Were you expecting another pro league to occupy the number 2 spot? If so, you were wrong. College football has experienced a renaissance in popularity over the past decades, largely on the strength of uber strong regional interest and rock solid alumni support. The sport’s television ratings are the highest among sports not named the NFL or NASCAR, and attendance for major BCS conference games is oftentimes better than average NFL attendance figures. And with the advent of the new College Football Playoff, this sport has nowhere to go but up, and may actually be the only “league” capable of going toe to toe with the professional gridiron game.
  3. NBA – Courtesy of extremely savvy marketing and a growing popularity with millenials, the NBA has enjoyed a nice resurgence over the past decade to become the #3 sporting league in the United States. Big stars such as LeBron James, Kevin Durant, and Carmelo Anthony have elevated the popularity of the league as media outlets like ESPN gradually shift their coverage strategy to individual starpower over actual teams. NBA Finals TV ratings have overtaken World Series ratings since the mid-2000s, and with the all-important millennial generation showing a strong preference for basketball as opposed to baseball, Mr. Naismith’s famous game of roundball has solidly locked down it’s place as the most popular non-football sport in the United States for the foreseeable future.
  4. MLB – If you asked anyone in the 1980s what they felt was the most popular sport in the United States, the unanimous answer would have been baseball. But oh, how times have changed. The MLB has been on a slow and consistent decline since the late 1980s, as the steroid era and the ADD generation have largely both played a role in eroding the league’s once rabid fan base. While regional interest in the sport remains strong in cities that have legacy teams (think Boston, New York, St. Louis, and Chicago), national interest has taken a nosedive, so much so that top NASCAR races are now outdrawing the World Series. Unless league management is able to change speed up the game and learn to market it’s stars correctly, the MLB will continue to decline for the foreseeable future.
  5. NASCAR – There was a point in time in the early 2000s when NASCAR was the fastest growing sport in the United States. But alas, for a sport so reliant on corporate sponsorships, the economic recession of 2008 (along with a few other factors) grinded that growth to a halt, and the sport has largely stagnated since then. Of course, that’s not a huge problem for NASCAR, as it’s average television ratings trail only the NFL and it’s attendance figures are still envied by others in the industry (races routinely attract 100,000+ spectators). Also, the new Chase format (NASCAR’s version of the playoffs) has been with the all-important millennial demographic, which is reflected in the large TV-ratings bump NASCAR experienced at the end of 2014. Overall, NASCAR appears to be positioned for another modest growth period as it repositions itself for the changing landscape of the industry’s future.
  6. NHL – The NHL looked like it was on death’s door in the mid to late 2000s, as two very serious work stoppages nearly destroyed the league’s popularity in the United States. However, the league has bounced back in a big way since then, as an extremely high level of gameplay quality coupled with a series of exciting Stanley Cup finals has rocketed the league back into relevancy once again. Television ratings have stabilized, and the league has found a committed media partner in NBC Sports. It’ll never be number 1 in the US, but barring any major disasters, hockey is in good shape popularity wise for at least the time being.
  7. NCAA Basketball – The last of what I would consider the “major” US sports organizations, college basketball has been steadily rising since the mid-70s. The season ending March Madness tournament has become a cultural staple of the United States, and rivals only the NFL playoffs in terms of postseason popularity. The only thing that holds college basketball back is lagging interest during the regular season, as there remains a perception that the regular season “doesn’t matter” due to the hectic and often arbitrary nature of the “Big Dance.” Nonetheless, the sport is on the rise, and will only continue to do so going forward.
  8. PGA Tour Golf – Much like baseball and to a lesser extent NASCAR, golf has suffered to adapt to the changing, ADD-esque viewing-generation of today. The relative “lack of thrilling action” in the sport compared to it’s competitors has hurt the sport’s popularity, as people look to high-energy and high-contact sports like the NFL and the UFC to satisfy their insatiable craving for violent entertainment in today’s fast-paced world. It is a cultural battle that I don’t think golf can win, which is reflected in the sport’s shockingly low TV ratings as of late. Nonetheless, there will always be a place for the sport in the US TV landscape, I’m just not sure it will ever reach the once soaring heights of the peak-Tiger Woods era.Honorable Mentions:
  9. UFC – Fastest growing sport in the US, it will be considered “major” within the next five years and will challenge NASCAR as the most popular non-team sport (although NASCAR IS a team sport, but that’s a debate for another day).
  10. MLS – Another sport that is growing exponentially by the day, with the league planning to expand to 24 teams by 2020. The World Cup has elevated soccer’s popularity in the US, and within our lifetime, soccer will be a major U.S. sport.