The global sports market has reached a value of $512.14, and this number is only expected to grow. Home to some of the most popular sports leagues in the world, the United States brings in billions of dollars each year through revenues from sports leagues.
Sports leagues are also a source of national pride and a huge part of American culture, which is why most sports fans are passionate about their preferred sports teams and love to show their support in any way they can. The 12 Most Popular Sports Leagues in America have more than earned their places on this list and in fans’ hearts.
Popular Sports Leagues in America
The following sports leagues have been ranked as “most popular” by combining a range of factors, including viewership, revenue, and cultural impact. This list includes the leagues that Americans love the most. Most of the leagues on the list are domestic, but some are international. You may be surprised how impactful some of these teams really are on their communities and fans.
The National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing (NASCAR) was established in 1947 by Bill France Sr., and it stemmed from Prohibition days when moonshine runners had to modify their cars so that they could outdrive the authorities. NASCAR was a way for drivers to hone their skills. The sport began on dirt tracks and the cars were just normal stock cars that had been modified, but the sport quickly developed. Specialized cars were created to maximize racing potential and the Daytona 500 was born.
The revenue that NASCAR earns is about $100 million per year, and their average viewership is 2.83 million viewers. While NASCAR might not be the most lucrative of all the sports on this list, it certainly has a lot of appeal and remains an important American sport.
For every top competitor, there is someone who wants to take that top competitor down. Some of the top racers have had to prove themselves and then hold onto their title. Figures like Richard Petty, Dale Earnhardt Sr., Jeff Gordon, and Jimmie Johnson have all increased the competitiveness and skill of the sport.
The National Women’s Soccer League, or the NWSL, is a women’s league that shows the power and ability of female athletes. Although women’s sports are exceedingly less lucrative, that doesn’t mean that women’s leagues don’t deserve a place on this list. In 2012 NWSL succeeded the Women’s Professional Soccer League, which had been established in 2007. This league has 14 teams across the United States.
The NWSL has an estimated revenue of $112 million per year as of 2023, and the average revenue per team is about $9.7 million. The viewership of the NWSL has been going up in recent times, and in 2023 the NWSL championship earned 817 thousand viewers when the final between NJ/NY Gotham FC and OL Reign, which was down from the 2022 championship but was still the second-largest viewership for the league.
Rivalries in the NWSL include Gotham vs. Reign, Angel City FC vs San Diego Waves FC, and Kansas City Currant vs. Racing Louisville FC.
In 1996, the WNBA was created to give female basketball players a chance to play professionally. This league is made of 12 teams, and these teams have had to fight to keep their place in the world of sports. The Women’s National Basketball Association has shown that women’s sports can appeal to viewers. In 2023, WNBA games received an average of 560,000 viewers per game, making the season the most viewed season in more than two decades.
Across all teams, the average for in-person game attendance is around 6,700, but certain teams like the Las Vegas Aces can have an average attendance of over 9,000. It is estimated that in 2023 the WNBA likely brought in anywhere from $180 to $200 million, yet women players are grossly underpaid compared to male players. While still falling behind in revenue, there are growing enthusiastic fans for the WNBA.
Some of the fierce competitors in the WNBA include the New York Liberty, the Minnesota Lynx, and the Las Vegas Aces
9. NCAA College Basketball
NCAA College Basketball has hosted a Division I basketball championship since 1939, and there’s no doubt that the three-week NCAA championship tournament nicknamed March Madness is one of the most popular sporting events of the year. Teams like UCLA, Kentucky, North Carolina, Duke, Indiana, and UConn have the most national titles.
It is estimated that NCAA College Basketball earns about a billion dollars from its March Madness tournament alone from ticket sales, media rights fees, and sponsorships. March Madness is overwhelmingly the main earner for NCSAA through basketball.
Some prominent rivalries include Duke vs. North Carolina, Kansas vs. Kansas State, and Purdue vs. Indiana. Like other college sports leagues, rivalries often pit schools in the state against each other, but some rivalries do cross state lines, such as the famous rivalry between Gonzaga and St. Mary’s, which are both Catholic colleges.
The UFC, or Ultimate Fighting Championship was created in 1993 and focuses on Mixed Martial Arts (MMA). It is inspired by a Greek Olympic event called Pankration that began in 648 BC. UFC was designed to give athletes of all martial arts the chance to show their skills and win the tournament; however, the UFC has expanded and has become a sport viewed by billions around the world.
There have been some intense competitors in the UFC. Two of the best featherweight UFC fighters of all time were Chad Mendes and Jose Aldo who met at UFC 142 and UFC 172. Mendes was a wrestling specialist, while Aldo was a Muay Thai specialist. The way their styles combined created one of the most exciting fights of all time; Aldo took the title both times.
7. World Wrestling Entertainment – WWE
World Wrestling Entertainment was established in the 1950s under the name of Capitol Wresting Corporation. In 1963, it became the World Wide Wrestling Foundation and eventually in 2003 it became World Wrestling Entertainment and currently just used WWE. While some people think this is more entertainment than sport, WWE is no doubt an important part of American sports culture.
The revenue of the WWE is about $1.33 billion based on the most recent financial reports. WWE also has a good number of viewers, and World Wrestling Entertainment can expect to earn from 1.7 million to 2 million on average, and on its streaming network, the company has millions of subscribers.
Major League Soccer was created in 1993 because the United States wanted to host the 1994 World Cup, and while the organization had financial and structural issues in its early years, it has since managed to become a successful sports league in the United States. The league not only has teams from the United States, but it also has teams from Canada.
Estimates for 2023 suggest that MLS attendance has reached a high point of around 10.9 million in the 2023 season thanks to big league moments such as Argentine player Lionel Messi joining the MLS Inter Miami team. Sponsorships have also been a major boost in the league’s revenue. For example, the MLS has signed up for a broadcasting deal with Apple that is valued at $250 million per year. Other sponsors include Adidas, AT&T, Heineken, Proctor & Gamble, and Coca-Cola, leading to an estimated to be worth $812.7 million in sponsorships.
Some teams in this league have had fierce feuds. For instance, the Seattle Sounders and Portland Timbers have been meeting since 1975 and have culminated in more than 100 meetups throughout their rivalry. Other rivalries include the CF Montreal vs. Toronto FC and FC Dallas vs. Houston Dynamo.
5. NCAA College Football
The National Collegiate Athletic Association is in charge of a range of sporting programs across programs, many of them quite lucrative, and of course, the most lucrative of all the NCAA leagues is the NCAA College Football League, which is made up of smaller conferences and divisions. The first college football game was played between two New Jersey schools, Princeton and Rutgers in 1869, and since that time, college football has become a major televised sport.
Within the Power Five conferences of the NCAA College Football, more than $3.3 billion in revenue was earned during the 2022 fiscal year. Of the power five, the top earner was the Big Ten, followed by the SEC, ACC, Pac-12, and Big 12. New Media deals mean that more money will be coming in during the coming years.
While college football may be at a lower level than professional football, that doesn’t mean that things don’t get heated between NCAA football teams. Big football matchups include Ohio State vs. Michigan, Alabama vs. Auburn, and Army vs. Navy. NCAA college football even has a rivalry week in which schools often are put up against their rivals.
In 1904 the International Hockey League was created to be the first fully professional hockey league. It later became the National Hockey Association in 1917 before eventually becoming the National Hockey League. The League didn’t move into the United States until 1924 when the Boston Bruins became the first United States team and the league would continue to expand and evolve over the coming decades.
The NHL’s revenue for the 2021/2022 season was about 5.93 billion. Games average more than half a million viewers, and big games like the Stanley Cup games often get multi-million viewers per game. However, since 2019, the viewership has decreased significantly. Nevertheless, the NHL remains one of the most popular leagues in America.
Things can get awfully intense in the world of hockey, which can lead to a lot of penalties, such as in “The Battle of Pennsylvania” between the Philadelphia Flyers and the Pittsburgh Penguins, which often leads to games with lots of penalties and high scoring. Other Rivalries include the New York Rangers vs. New York Islanders, who had big battles in the 1980s, one of the NHL’s oldest rivalries between the Toronto Maple Leafs and Montreal Canadiens, and the perhaps most notorious rivalries between the Montreal Canadiens and the Boston Bruins
The MLB, or Major League Baseball, has a special place in American history because while football may be the most popular sport in the United States, baseball is known as America’s Pastime. Baseball as we know it originated in 1839 after Abner Doubleday created it in Cooperstown, New York, but it was likely inspired by an English sport called Rounders that was plated in the 18th century. The MLB is the oldest major professional sports league in the world and in 1903 combined the National League and the American League, which were established in 1876 and 1901, respectively.
While the MLB earns a lot less compared to the top two spots on this list. Its $1.5 billion earnings aren’t too shabby and have seen an increase between 2022 and 2023. With all that being said, baseball is certainly less popular than it once was, and the 2023 MLB World Series had the lowest viewership ever. However, there’s no doubt that the MLB has a special place in the heart of Americans.
Certain matchups will go down in history as some of the most intense battles between teams, some of the biggest matchups in baseball history include the Boston Red Sox vs. the New York Yankees, Los Angeles Dodgers vs. San Francisco Giants, and the Cincinnati Reds vs. Pittsburgh Pirates
The National Basketball Association was created in 1946 and was initially called the Basketball Association of America before changing its name in 1949. The league currently has 30 teams, including one Canadian team. The NBA is commonly known as the top basketball league in the world.
The NBA gets great viewership, and during the 2023 season has had some of the viewership numbers in six years. Estimates on the NBA’s revenue is more than $10.5 billion, which was $500 million more than the previous year.
While there have been many moments of comradery in the NBA, the competitors are tough and love to beat their rivals. Some of the most notable NBA rivalries include the Los Angelos Lakers vs. Boston Celtics, New York Knocks vs. Miami Heat, and Detroit Pistons vs. Chicago Bulls, just to name a few big matchups.
There’s no doubt that the NFL is the most popular sport in the United States. In 2022, NFL teams brought in nearly $12 million in revenue, and that number is expected to be even higher in 2023. The NFL began in 1920 and was originally called the American Professional Football Association. Two years later, it was renamed the National Football League. Football history was made in 1967 when Green Bay beat Kansas City in the first Super Bowl.
The Super Bowl established itself as one of the biggest sports events in the world, and because of such great television ratings, it has the most expensive commercial spots of any TV event. By 1980 when the Steelers became the first team to win four Super Bowls, more than 35,000,000 households watched the Super Bowl, and by 1999, more than 127 million watched the game. 22 of the 30 most-watched TV broadcasts in the United States of all time. It shouldn’t come as a surprise that NFL teams in 2022 earned about 18.6 billion dollars in revenue.
Fans can get quite heated when talking about their favorite team, so it’s no wonder that the rivalries are just as intense. Fans often enjoy these rivalries and look forward to competitions against their rival teams; however, these rivalries can sometimes go from good old fun to bitterness. Rivalries include Dallas Cowboys vs. Washington Commanders, Pittsburgh Steelers vs. Baltimore Ravens, and New England Patriots vs. New York Jets.
Written by Allen Lee
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