Sports have always served as a point of connection between people — but sports broadcasting took that bond to new heights. When live sporting events are broadcast on television or streamed online, viewers can watch alongside fans from around the world as a competition unfolds. It creates an unparalleled sense of camaraderie, and as a result, televised sporting events bring in large viewership numbers (plus plenty of advertising dollars).
Sports fans today, however, are consuming their favorite sporting events in different ways, and the next generation of industry thought leaders will need to understand the numerous ways in which the world of sports is evolving. Knowing what sporting events people love most and how they want to experience them could help you create powerful career opportunities in this ever-growing industry.
What Is the Most-Watched Sporting Event in the World?
The World Atlas notes that the most popular sport in the world is soccer, with more than 3.5 billion fans worldwide. Because nearly half the world’s population thinks soccer is the best sport to watch, it comes as no surprise that the FIFA World Cup is the most-watched sporting event in the world.
According to FanNation Futbol, the final game of the FIFA World Cup in 2022 brought in more than 1.5 billion viewers around the world, including both television and streaming viewers. In total, industry insiders believe there were more than 5 billion viewers who watched at least a portion of the tournament — a shockingly high number compared to other global sporting events.
Brief History and Evolution
Around the turn of the 20th century, when the ways we communicated with one another were rapidly changing, it was clear that people would want to use the latest technology to keep abreast of their favorite sports teams.
Updates about major sporting events and games were first sent on the telegraph wires, and once radios became a household staple, people could get up-to-date information right from their living rooms. By the middle of the century, live sports broadcasting on radio and television became the norm. Ever since that time, fans of all ages have been tuning into sporting events they care about.
What Was the First Televised Sporting Event?
Long before every home in the United States had a television set, sports events were broadcast live on TV. The first televised sporting event occurred in 1939. The National Broadcasting Company decided to give live coverage a try, and they broadcast a Columbia-Princeton baseball game to nearly 400 TVs in the local area. The audiences loved it, so they quickly began covering major league games — and the rest is history.
Over the years, sports viewership continued rising, particularly as technology became more accessible and affordable to the masses. In the U.S., the Super Bowl became the clear favorite among audiences, with viewers increasing rapidly year after year. This fervor over the Super Bowl essentially led to Super Bowl Sunday becoming an unofficial national holiday of sorts — with people having parties, buying new large-screen TVs and tuning in to watch the game as well as the infamous commercials. In 2023, the Super Bowl drew in more than 115 million viewers in the United States, making it the most-watched Super Bowl of all time.
The rise of live sports broadcasting also began to shape pop culture, especially in the U.S. There was a sense that everyone had to tune into these major events because no one wanted to be the person who didn’t witness that incredible play or seemingly impossible catch. Around the world, people are drawn to live sporting broadcasts because they want to feel part of something larger than themselves, and there is a sense of camaraderie that comes from cheering on a team or an individual athlete with both friends and strangers.
International Sporting Events
International sporting event viewership trends tend to look slightly different from American sports trends, as fans across Europe, Africa, Asia and the Middle East prefer different sports. Data compiled by the World Atlas shows soccer and cricket as two of the most well-loved sports around the world, whereas basketball and baseball have the most fans in the United States specifically.
Women’s World Cup
While the Men’s World Cup is considered the most-watched sporting event internationally, the Women’s World Cup is not far behind. The event’s popularity has increased significantly in recent years, with more than 2 billion viewers in some capacity in 2023, per an article on roadtrips.com. According to Reuters, the broadcast peaked on BBC One, with more than 12 million viewers tuning in at once — which was more than the Men’s Wimbledon final that same year.
Olympics – Summer and Winter Games
By bringing together world-class athletes from around the globe and having them compete in the name of their country, the Olympics attracts an international audience that is different from any other televised sporting event.
In 2020, during the Tokyo Summer Olympics, more than 3 billion people tuned into the televised events. In 2022, the Winter Olympics in Beijing drew an international audience exceeding 2 billion viewers. The vast number of sporting events available, as well as the compelling tales of athleticism and heroism, make them some of the most captivating live sports broadcasts.
Cricket World Cup
The Cricket World Cup is a beloved event around the world, particularly for enthusiasts in England, India and Australia, where the sport is incredibly popular. The 2023 Cricket World Cup was considered a resounding success. Across the entire event, it’s possible that more than 2 billion people tuned in — but the highest concurrent viewership level took place during a semi-final match between India and New Zealand, when 53 million people were watching at once. According to the Economic Times, that was the highest total global viewership ever recorded for a cricket match.
Tour de France
It might come as a shock to an American sports fan, but the Tour de France pulls in higher viewership numbers than the Super Bowl game. According to Advertising Week, global viewership for the Tour de France totals more than 3.5 billion across the entire event, making it one of the most-watched sporting events in the world. Its highest viewership numbers typically come from the French audience; in 2023, more than 42.5 million French viewers tuned in.
UEFA Champions League
It may not be the Men’s World Cup, but the UEFA Champions League event is still one of the most widely-viewed sporting events in soccer. According to U.S. News and World Report, more than 450 million viewers tuned into the final game in 2023.
When it comes to seeing the best of the best in the realm of tennis, Wimbledon is a must-watch. In 2023, it’s estimated that more than 25 million people watched all or part of the event, peaking at 11.3 million BBC viewers during the final match.
Sports and Technology
Content consumption is changing rapidly around the world, with more people using their phones and mobile devices to catch the shows and events they want to see. Rather than tuning into a traditional TV broadcast, more and more viewers are looking into their streaming options. As a result, the sports industry is rapidly changing and adjusting to accommodate the evolving preferences and advancing technology of today.
Impact on Sports Broadcasting
As digital sports viewership continues rising rapidly, the sports broadcasting industry has had to evolve and meet the needs of consumers who want instant gratification and immersive experiences. More than 90 million people are expected to watch live sports on digital platforms in 2025, which is a 26 percent projected jump from current levels. The way that sports are broadcast, the platforms on which they are available and the advertisers supporting those events will need to adapt to this seismic shift in sports broadcasting.
Technology’s Role in Increased Viewership Numbers
While technology is changing the playing field for major sports events and how they are broadcast, it’s also making those same events more accessible to new viewers. In total, viewership appears to be rising across many major sporting events, with fans from new demographics becoming excited about sports from around the globe.
American Sporting Events
Sports have become an integral part of culture in the United States, and Americans of all ages are tuning into the country’s most exciting sporting events. Though American sporting events don’t draw the same viewership levels as some international sporting events, they are still iconic in their own right.
Super Bowl Sunday is one of the most beloved days of the year in America, with football fans and non-football fans alike gathering to watch the big game together. Over the years, the event has embedded itself in American life and become more than just a game. It’s an immersive experience, one that inspires people to host parties, actually pay attention to commercials and watch in wonder at the larger-than-life half-time show.
The 2023 Super Bowl made history, when more than 115 million people in the U.S. tuned into the live broadcast. According to Statista, not only was the 2023 Super Bowl the most-watched Super Bowl, but it also became the most-watched television program of all time in the United States.
Taking place in early June each year, the NBA Finals are the culmination of basketball season in America. While viewership has trended down more recently, this event still rakes in more than 11 million American viewers each year. In 2023, more than 11.64 million people watched the event.
For a race that takes less than 5 minutes to complete, the Kentucky Derby garners a shockingly high number of viewers. This is largely due to the ambiance and pageantry of the event, which is filled with mile-high hats and fantastic backstories about the horses and their jockeys. According to Front Office Sports, more than 14.8 million people watched the 2023 Kentucky Derby, either on NBC or Peacock.
NCAA Final Four
In the waning days of winter, the American population becomes consumed by brackets and college basketball standings. This frenzied fervor can be attributed to March Madness, the nickname for the college basketball tournament that pits champion-level schools against others that just feel lucky to be there. The NCAA Final Four is the last round of the tournament and is known to draw high viewership numbers. In 2023, more than 12.85 million American viewers watched the Final Four.
Baseball has long been considered America’s pastime, so it’s not surprising that the World Series is anticipated by baseball fans around the country. The World Series determines the championship MLB team for the year, and in 2023, it is estimated that more than 9 million viewers tuned in. Sadly, though, viewership for the World Series has been on the decline, with seemingly fewer people tuning in year after year.
Future of Televised Sporting Events
Clearly, the landscape for televised sporting events is shifting, thanks in large part to the needs and preferences of digital consumers. Some trends taking shape include:
- Local sporting events are finding alternative networks on which to broadcast.
- Major events are finding ways to stream online in addition to broadcasting on traditional TV.
Live sports broadcasting is still going to play a pivotal role in American communities as well as countries around the world. However, audiences may just be watching their favorite teams on different channels or platforms than before.
Turn Your Passion Into a Career at Johnson & Wales University
The sports and entertainment industry is one of the most powerful and dynamic fields of our time, and you could have a front-row seat as you watch it evolve. At Johnson & Wales University, we offer an online Bachelor of Science in Sports, Entertainment and Event Management, which will prepare you for a future-forward career in this area.