As the world grows more interconnected, people are increasingly exposed to international content. You only need to look at K-pop’s influence on Western fashion to see that.
If that wasn’t enough, over a quarter of TV streamers say that international content is important when deciding which platforms to subscribe to.
And the world of sports is no different.
Let’s start with a definition of “international sports”. In the context of this blog, it refers to a sport that isn’t associated with a country or widely played/followed there. For example, soccer wouldn’t be considered an international sport in Brazil, where it sees high engagement and has deep cultural roots, but American football would. Only 19% of Brazilians follow the latter, while 85% keep tabs on soccer.
Now the field is set up, we’re going to offer some striking examples of where international sports have been able to score in new markets.
Popularity of soccer in the US
First up is the massive growth of soccer. Despite Americans playing soccer for over 100 years, it’s only recently started to gain traction. It’s now one of the fastest growing sports in the US.
As of Q4 2022, soccer is the 4th most followed sport in the country – it ranked 6th in Q2 2020, but is now only outranked by domestic sports. It’s even giving baseball – the country’s oldest sport – a run for its money. Baseball has tried to combat its loss of market share, especially among younger audiences, by introducing new rules to increase scoring – including a pitch clock to help speed up pace of play and larger bases.
And these developments are necessary with soccer hot on its heels.
The rapid growth of soccer has been driven by younger Americans.
Millennials are 11% more likely to follow the sport than the average American sports fan, while Gen Z are 25% more likely.
With increased scrutiny on contact sports, more parents are getting their kids involved in soccer at a grassroots level. In 2021, American football was the most played team sport among US 8-11s, but its popularity has dropped 15% in the last 2 years. Soccer has now overtaken it, growing 9% over the same period.
The most popular soccer competitions that Americans follow are the FIFA World Cup, the Premier League, and the UEFA Champions League. The MLS is the 5th most popular soccer league in the US. So, much of the growth of soccer has been driven by international leagues, and not from the domestic game.
The Premier League is a great example. It hosts pre-season tournaments in the US, and its streaming partnerships make access easier for many Americans. As a result, US interest in the Premier League is up 53% since 2020.
This expanded audience has given streaming providers like Apple TV+ a great opportunity to expand into the live sports space. Meanwhile, other brands can reach a previously untapped audience through lucrative partnership deals and advertising.
Interest in soccer around the world
The US isn’t the only country where soccer is seeing some big changes. The recent growth of the game’s popularity in China can be attributed to the country lifting its zero-covid policy, allowing fans back into stadiums for the new CSL season. In Canada, qualification for the 2022 World Cup caused a nation to rally around a team, inspiring a new generation of players in the process.
That aside, South Korea shows the impact individual players can have on the game as a whole. Son Heung-min, who plays for Tottenham Hotspur in the Premier League, has significantly raised the profile of the club within the country. As of Q4 2022, 18% of South Koreans support the club.
An even more extreme example of this trend can be found in Egypt, where Mohamed Salah’s move to Liverpool boosted support in the country, from 18% in Q1 2017 to 40% in Q4 2022.
When Salah left his previous club Roma, support of that club in Egypt dipped from a high of 21% in Q1 2017 down to 2% in Q4 2022. This highlights the significant influence individual players can have on fan numbers, and the importance of continuously nurturing fan engagement.
One area to watch is the many big name signings made in the Saudi Arabian League this summer. If the league becomes an attractive spot for top players, and begins to compete with Europe’s top leagues, staying power shouldn’t be an issue. The league is trying to grow its audience quickly, which could be an opportunity for sports brands and sponsors to get in on the ground floor.
Judo is one of the fastest growing sports in the US
Another sport that’s gaining popularity is martial arts. In 2019, the World Karate Foundation committed to growing the sport in Europe. Post-pandemic, we’re starting to see the impact in Germany and Spain, as people are looking to get involved in new hobbies. The same effect can be seen among Gen Alpha in Europe, where martial arts participation has increased by 38% since 2021.
Martial arts have grown in the US, too. Though MMA derives much of its popularity from UFC, an American company, it’s likely made international martial arts more attractive.
The number of Americans who follow judo has increased by 24% year-on-year, one of the largest increases for any sport over this time span. USA Judo has partnered with Judo France in order to promote the growth of the sport stateside, as the sport is twice as popular in France.
One of the key initiatives for future growth will be developing judo programmes in schools. Martial arts has seen a 25% increase in popularity among girls aged 8-15 in the US, too, which points to a broader trend of women learning self defense.
As judo followers are very community-driven, brands have a chance to build relationships with extremely loyal fan bases by association.
Basketball is growing globally
The US has done a good job of making their domestic sports cultural exports. Baseball’s seen significant growth in Spain, as the MLB eyes up Europe, and Indonesia, where the country’s first domestic league just launched.
But the top American sport around the world is basketball. Globally, basketball is the 2nd most popular sport, with 39% of sports fans outside the US saying that they watch, play, or follow it. In fact, there are 5 countries ahead of the US when it comes to engagement.
The NBA is also the most followed league in every region. In China, it’s 62% more popular than the Chinese Basketball Association among basketball fans, for example. This is similar to the MLS and the Premier League in the US.
Fans are drawn to high quality competition, where they can see the biggest stars of the sport compete.
Outside the US, engagement with the NBA has grown 10% year-on-year, which can be linked to international stars. The past 5 regular season MVPs have all gone to international players, and the first pick in this year’s draft, Victor Webamayama, also comes from outside the US. While international stars aren’t anything new, there are more international players than in the past, with over 120 on NBA rosters.
As with soccer in the US, basketball tends to be much more popular with younger groups. Gen Z are 17% more likely than the average European to engage with basketball.
We can expect basketball’s reach to grow further in coming years as international stars continue to dominate the NBA, and other markets gain more access to games.
American football is growing rapidly in international markets
Another American export in the world of sports has been the NFL. The first overseas NFL game happened all the way back in 2007 at Wembley, and the NFL has been promoting the league in Europe ever since.
The proportion of sports fans in the UK who follow the NFL rose by 8% between Q4 2022 and Q1 2023. In Germany, the increase was 6%, following sellout crowds at the league’s first live foray into the market. We expect to see these figures rise, with three games to be played in London, and two games in Frankfurt next season.
APAC interest in American football is also on the rise, as more sports fans from Australia, India, and Indonesia tune in to watch the NFL. The rise in Australian interest has been the most significant in the region, as more of their countrymen become prominent figures in the sport.
What does all this mean for American football? If games continue to be well attended and audiences continue to grow outside of the US, it’s possible that an international franchise could be a real possibility sometime in the not so distant future.
Some winning thoughts on international sports
As we enter an increasingly globalized world, where content is easily available, traditionally domestic leagues are gaining widespread popularity abroad.
Growth of sports like soccer in the US has taken decades of work, but is really starting to become mainstream – especially among younger generations, who are used to consuming the majority of their content online.
Gen Z and Gen Alpha don’t have the same loyalty to and experiences with traditional sports. As digital natives, they’re looking beyond borders for the next big thing, creating new opportunities for sports leagues and sponsors alike.