The world of football fandom

Dissecting the popularity of the global game

Robin Meakin, Head of Insight

The World Cup is over and the European football leagues are cranking back into gear for a new season. It’s no secret that football is the world’s most popular sport and any football fan knows that it has the power to excite, inspire and frustrate in equal measure. But just how popular is football and does this vary across the globe?
 
Using data from our annual survey of 18,000 sports fans from 18 different countries (representative of over 2 billion adults across the globe) we can try to provide a few answers to this question and delve a little deeper into the phenomenon that is football fandom.
 
How popular is football?

Across all 18 countries in our survey, football is the clear number one sport with just under 60% of the adult population saying they are interested in it. It is the number one sport in 12 countries and in the top five sports in a further four.
 
There are only two countries in our survey where football is currently less popular. The first is India where football is the seventh most popular sport and is well behind the number one which is cricket, in which 57% of the adult population say they are ‘very interested’.
 
The second country is the USA where football (or soccer) ranks some way behind the well-established ‘big three’ of American football, baseball and basketball. Yet, whilst football is currently only the ninth most popular sport in the US, it’s a close-run thing. An increase of a couple of percentage points and football would be fourth on the list.


 
With the recent arrival of global stars such as Wayne Rooney, and the birth of David Beckham’s new Miami based franchise, the momentum behind Major League Soccer continues to build, as does youth participation within US soccer.
 
Add to that the fact that the USA will co-host the FIFA World Cup in 2030, and the likelihood of a spike in the popularity of football in the US becomes clear. It is a trend that prospective brands and sponsors would do well to monitor.

Which international football competitions are most popular?

 Going down to the next level of detail, across all 18 countries, 5 of the 10 most popular sporting competitions are international football tournaments, as highlighted in the table below.
 
According to our data, the World Cup is the most popular sporting event in the world, even more popular than the Summer Olympics. Whilst this is not a huge revelation, it is interesting to note that our research was conducted in late 2017,  before the build up to Russia 2018 really gathered pace, confirming that the World Cup retains an enduring appeal among sports fans.

It will be interesting to see if there has been an increase in the popularity of the World Cup in our survey this year, given that Russia 2018 exceeded most people’s expectations in terms of entertainment, organisation and spectacle.

The other four football events in the top 10 list are the UEFA European Championship, UEFA Champions League, FIFA Confederations Cup and the UEFA Europa League.

The Europa League is sometimes characterised as being a second-tier tournament, certainly compared to the Champions League. Indeed, some clubs give the impression that they would rather avoid it if they could and focus on the much bigger perceived prize of Champions League qualification.
Although it may not have quite the cachet of the Champions League, it is worth pointing out that from a fan perspective, the Europa League is still a very big deal. It is, after all, a top 10 global sporting competition with 22% of adults saying they are ‘very interested’ in it compared to 27% for the UEFA Champions League.
 
Add in more casual fans and the gap narrows, with 43% of adults interested in the Europa League compared to 46% for the Champions League. Brands that are looking for reach into a large audience could consider the UEFA Europa League as it may represent a strong value proposition given its huge and passionate fan base, and the cheaper cost of sponsorship rights packages.
 
Which national leagues are most popular?  

The most popular national football league across our 18 countries is the English Premier League (EPL). The EPL is the 15th most popular sporting competition globally with 20% of the adult population saying they are ‘very interested’ in it.
 
It is closely followed by the Spanish La Liga at 18%. Italian Serie A and the German Bundesliga are further down the list with both enjoying an interest level of around 15%, while around 11% of adults say they are very interested in the French Ligue 1.
 
A key reason for the EPL’s high ranking is that it transcends national borders in a way that other national leagues can’t quite match. For example, it is a top 5 sporting competition in six of our 18 countries. In Indonesia, it is number 4 while in Singapore and Thailand our data show that the EPL is the second most popular sporting competition in both countries after the FIFA World Cup.
 


The EPL isn’t strong everywhere of course. In Brazil and Mexico, for instance, it is trumped by the Spanish La Liga, which is much more popular for cultural and linguistic reasons.

What is clear is that the European national football leagues are increasingly global properties. Brands with ambitions to expand internationally could therefore consider investing in one of Europe’s Top 5 national leagues, or a team in that league, which is popular in the markets that they have targeted for growth.
 
Which countries are the most football-mad? 

 Trying to answer this question by comparing interest levels by country can be misleading. As an alternative way of finding an answer, we have looked at two things: (i) what proportion of people say that football is their favourite sport rather than just being one of many in which they are interested, and (ii) how many football-related events and competitions figure in the top 20 for each country. The chart below shows how each of the 18 countries plots against these metrics.
 
In terms of depth of interest (the vertical axis), Saudi Arabia is the country where football is most popular as all its top 10 sporting events are football-related. On the other hand, Brazil tops the list in terms of having the highest proportion of people saying that football is their favourite sport (the horizontal axis).
 
There are some surprises in the countries that feature in the chart. Perhaps the most obvious is the UK. There are only 4 football-related competitions in the UK top 10 and just 36% of the population say that football is their favourite sport.
 
Is this surprising for a reputedly football-crazy country with the most globally popular national league? There’s no denying that football is hugely popular in the UK, but the answer is perhaps more that the UK is sport-mad not just football-mad!
 
There are 5 different types of sport in the UK’s top 10 (football, rugby, motor-racing, tennis and athletics). This compares to two in Brazil for example. The UK (in various guises) is competitive in a higher proportion of sports on a global level than many countries, which could explain why people in the UK spread their interest over more sports than in some other countries.
 
Another surprise is France, where only 35% said football was their favourite sport with loyalties again divided over many different sports. Like the UK, France has 5 different sports in its top 10 – football, tennis, Olympics, motor-racing and athletics. It will be very interesting to see whether the proportion of French people saying football is their favourite sport will increase following the euphoria of Frances’s FIFA World Cup victory.

What does this mean? 

 So, has football maxed out in terms of popularity? The answer perhaps lies in the chart above. Broadly speaking, countries divide into two groups - those where football completely dominates (like Brazil or Saudi Arabia) and those where football is one of many sports competing for attention. This suggests that while football may be nearing peak popularity in some countries, there is still lots of room for growth in countries like China, India and the USA if the sport continues to develop and is perceived as relevant and exciting.
 
Our research confirms that football has an unmatched ability to appeal to people regardless of gender, age, location, culture or religion. While FIFA World Cup and UEFA Champions League grab many of the headlines, the sheer variety of global football competition means there are multiple opportunities for brands to get involved both nationally and internationally and associate themselves with this incredible sport.

If you want to know more about CSM’s data on sports fans and how we can help you learn more about using sport as a way of engaging with consumers, please click here to contact us.