Football: The Most Popular Sport in the U.S.

Mom. Baseball. Apple pie. For decades, these were seen as the most quintessentially American things. But it’s probably time to update this particular reference. No, we’re not saying it’s time to kick mom off the list. But we might need to talk about baseball.

The truth is that baseball hasn’t been the most popular sport in the U.S. for decades. And today, the sport’s cultural relevance and impact are dwarfed by the undisputed heavyweight champ of American sports: football. Let’s dig into all the evidence that the gridiron has supplanted the baseball diamond as the home of America’s game.

Measuring Football’s Dominance

There are a million ways to measure football’s pre-eminence in the sports landscape. The NFL consistently draws more television viewers than anything else. The Super Bowl is the most-watched program on television every year. The 2024 Super Bowl set a record as the most-watched program in history, with over 200 million viewers across all platforms. Of the 20 most-watched telecasts in the year 2023, 19 of them were NFL games.

And it’s not just professional football that attracts tons of fans. The biggest college football stadiums regularly draw over a hundred thousand people to games. In 2022, over 37 million fans attended a major college football game.

Even high school football brings in crowds that make other sports jealous. The state high school championships in Texas regularly draw about 200,000 fans for a 10-game, multi-day extravaganza of football. Those are numbers most professional baseball teams would look at enviously.

Doing More Than Watching

Forty-one percent of adults in the U.S. named football as their favorite sport to watch, with baseball and basketball lagging far behind. But football’s popularity isn’t limited to watching from the couch. People love to play the game as well.

High school sports participation numbers show that football is far and away the most popular sport for boys. More than one million boys played high school football in 2022-23, far outpacing other sports. This is true across the Midwest, with football ranking as the number one boy’s sport everywhere from Arkansas to Wisconsin. The only exception in the region is North Dakota, where football comes in second place, just behind basketball.

When Did This Happen?

Football’s rise to the most popular sport in the U.S. has been happening for quite a long time. The sport was first broadcast to a wide national television audience in the 1960s (a time when baseball was still the country’s #1 sport). Not long after, in 1972, a Gallup poll showed that football had overtaken baseball as the country’s favorite sport to watch.

Since that time, football has maintained its spot at the top among sports in the U.S. While fear of concussions and head injuries caused a decrease in youth football participation in the 2010s, that trend now seems to have reversed. More youth players now start out playing flag football, and all levels of football have seen rule changes aimed at increasing player safety.

Television ratings bear this out. Although viewership dipped a bit between 2016 and 2020, ratings neared all-time highs in 2023. The most recent NFL season was its best ever among female viewers, and male viewership rose as well.

State of Play in the Midwest

The Midwest boasts several of the most popular football teams in the country. The Kansas City Chiefs, Green Bay Packers, Minnesota Vikings, and Dallas Cowboys each rank as the most followed team in their respective states. The most prominent team in Nebraska is the college football program at the University of Nebraska. The same holds true for the state of Arkansas, where the Razorbacks dominate the sports landscape. And the most popular sports team in Oklahoma is something of a toss-up between the NBA’s Oklahoma City Thunder and the Oklahoma Sooners college football team.

But the NFL and NCAA aren’t the only game in town when it comes to Midwest football. The United Football League, a merger of the XFL and USFL, is kicking off in March 2024. The league will feature several teams in the Midwest region, including the Houston Roughnecks, the Arlington Renegades, the San Antonio Brahmas, and the St Louis Battlehawks.

Off the Field

Some of the biggest reasons that football is the most popular sport in the U.S. don’t even happen between the sidelines. The popularity of fantasy football is hard to overstate. Statista estimates that more than 29 million people participate in fantasy football in the U.S. Major sports websites like ESPN have entire sections of their website devoted to fantasy football, and YouTube channels like FantasyPros have hundreds of thousands of subscribers.

Additionally, with the legalization of sports gambling, betting on football games has become increasingly common. Americans bet on football more than any other sport. More than 80% of sports bettors who use mobile betting apps have placed bets on NFL games. Football is winning the sports popularity contest on and off the field.

Looking to the Future

It’s almost impossible to overstate how popular football is compared to other sports. There’s really no question that it is currently the most popular sport in the U.S. and is likely to maintain that position for quite a while.

Football does well across demographic groups. Forty-six percent of men name it as their favorite sport to watch, as do 38% of women. It also ranks as the most popular sport among people of different races and income levels. It is slightly less dominant among the youngest demographic, with only 28% of those aged 18-29 identifying it as their favorite sport. However, even among younger adults, no other sport is close to matching football’s popularity.

Football Is King

The evidence is overwhelming. Baseball was indeed once the country’s “national pastime.” But that well-known phrase is ancient — it comes from a newspaper article that dates back to 1856!

Today, there is no question what the most popular sport in the U.S. is. Football is king, and its reign is likely to continue well into the foreseeable future.

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  • David Francis

    Dave is a published author who has written about everything from travel to finance to pop culture trends. He also has years of experience in the nonprofit industry, authoring grant proposals, training manuals, and white papers. He’s had the privilege of calling multiple Midwestern states home.

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