The conventional belief holds that soccer is the most popular sport everywhere in the world except the United States, but:
Basketball is played by more people – worldwide – than soccer.
Claims about soccer’s popularity often fail to distinguish between the game as a spectator sport and as a participation sport.
Both FIBA (the international basketball federation) and FIFA (the international soccer federation) report the number of people around the world who play the sport. They both appear to encourage their national affiliates to exaggerate. FIFA guesses that 270 million worldwide play soccer, and FIBA says that 450 million play basketball. Assuming they are both inflating their total numbers at about the same rate, basketball’s participation rate looks higher.*
* For more reliable numbers on participation, we need to compare registered players in each sport (those who signed up for a league that organizes teams and schedules games). FIFA reports those numbers and FIBA doesn’t.
China may – all on its own – be the factor giving basketball its participation edge. A Scripps newswire report from 2008 said that “today, some 300 million Chinese play basketball…” Turns out basketball is central to “the [Chinese] government’s long-term plan for national sports development. The government views basketball not only as recreation but also as a significant industry impacting both society and its commerce.”
It also worth noting that this report of 300-million-Chinese-playing-basketball doesn’t come from FIBA. It comes from the Chinese government. And when they say 300 million players they mean 300 million registered players (FIFA reports 38 million registered players world-wide). What we can’t know is how many of those 300 million actually want to play basketball.
This is not to say that soccer is somehow not an incredibly popular spectator sport. Though FIFA has made exaggerated claims about World Cup viewership, World Cup finals and major club games like the Champions League finals draw record numbers of viewers from around the globe.
So, once again, we must qualify our words about soccer. We started discussing soccer with the bold claim that soccer is the most popular sport everywhere in the world, except the United States. Then noted that – actually – most people in the world live in a country where soccer is NOT the most popular sport. And now have trimmed the claim further – soccer is only the most popular spectator sport.