Most Watched Sporting Events of All Time
Sports are universal. But rooting interests vary by country. Fans from the United States go crazy for football, basketball and baseball. International fans love soccer and cricket. And don't forget about extreme sports.
This bears out on television. The Super Bowl is the mecca of U.S. sports, followed by the World Series and NBA Finals. For international sports, the Olympics and FIFA World Cup are the most-watched events across the globe.
But what's No. 1? These are the most popular sporting events in the world, based on television viewership numbers.
20. Stanley Cup Final
TV viewership: 5.8 million for 2013 series
Greatest Stanley Cup Final Moment: Bobby Orr Scores and Takes Flight
Bobby Orr joined the Boston Bruins in 1966, seven years removed from the franchise's last playoff berth and 25 years from their last Stanley Cup championship in 1941.
By 1970, Orr had the Bruins back in the Stanley Cup Final facing the St. Louis Blues and delivered the single most iconic moment in NHL history to cap off a sweep in Game 4, scoring the series-clinching goal in overtime, then flying through the air, his arms raised in victory.
Bottom Line: Stanley Cup Final
Nothing like two bitter rivals for decades, the Chicago Blackhawks and Boston Bruins, to spur viewership numbers as the highest-rated series.
But you have to go back to 1971 to find the most viewed Stanley Cup Final game in history. The Montreal Canadiens beat the Blackhawks in Game 7 with 12.4 million watching.
However, with the NHL’s history of on and off national TV, the average numbers suffered over the years.
TV viewership: 8.42 million (per telecast) for 1980 event
Greatest Wimbledon Moment: The Greatest Match Ever Played
Roger Federer and Rafael Nadal were both at the peak of their powers when they squared off in the 2008 Wimbledon finals. The two men had won 14 of the last 16 Grand Slam finals heading into the match.
Almost five hours later, fans had been treated to the greatest match of tennis ever played, with Nadal coming out on top 6-4, 6-4, 6-7 (5-7), 6-7 (8-10), 9-7.
This was the third straight Wimbledon finals meeting for them, and Federer had won their previous two matches and the previous five Wimbledon titles.
Bottom Line: Wimbledon
From viewing numbers, tennis has seen its glory years come and go.
In 1980, the classic five-set match between Bjorn Borg and John McEnroe was the highest-rated match. But since 2001, the average numbers per telecast are 2.5 million.
Of note, more viewers watched the 2018 women’s final than the men’s final for the first time in 13 years.
18. The Masters
TV viewership: 15.8 million for the 1997 event, final two rounds
Greatest Masters Moment: World, Meet Tiger Woods
Tiger Woods won the first of his 15 major championships at the Masters in 1997, when the California native became a worldwide phenomenon and set the Masters record with a 12-stroke victory.
Woods was the youngest Masters winner ever, at 21 years old, and was the first non-white winner of the tournament. His overall score of 270 (18-under) stood until 2020.
Bottom Line: The Masters
The Masters continues to be the most-watched golfing event in the U.S., pulling in about 10 million for the final two rounds. But no question that Tiger Woods controls the show.
His incredible 12-stroke victory in 1997 ushered in the "Tiger Woods Era," his first major victory, and many fans gravitated toward the event.
Call it the Tiger Woods Effect.
17. Kentucky Derby
TV viewership: 18.5 million for 1989 race
Greatest Kentucky Derby Moment: Secretariat Wins Triple Crown
Secretariat is largely regarded as the greatest racehorse of all time and won the Triple Crown in 1973. It was the first Triple Crown winner in 25 years when he capped things off by winning the Belmont Stakes by 31 lengths.
Secretariat still holds the speed records at the Kentucky Derby and Belmont. Secretariat died in 1989, at 19 years old and after siring 663 foals. The examination of his heart showed it was 22 pounds — about 2.5 times the size of the average horse.
Bottom Line: Kentucky Derby
Prior to 2019, the Kentucky Derby’s audience numbers have been climbing to around 16 million over the past few years with help from digital numbers.
Still, the rivalry between Sunday Silence and Easy Goer sparked remarkable interest in 1989 where Sunday Silence got the better of Easy Goer at Churchill Downs.
Of note, Sunday Silence also won the Preakness, but his bid for the Triple Crown was squashed by Easy Goer, who won the Belmont Stakes by eight lengths.
16. Daytona 500
TV viewership: 19.4 million for the 2006 race
Greatest Daytona 500 Moment: Dale Earnhardt Finally Wins It All
Dale Earnhardt shook off 20 years of disappointment when he finally won the Daytona 500 in 1998 and created a spectacle unlike any that's ever occurred there. Every member of every crew lined up along pit row to shake his hand.
Earnhardt's victory showed everything the Daytona 500 is capable of as a sporting event — the ultimate triumph for one of the greatest race car drivers who ever lived.
Bottom Line: Daytona 500
The Daytona 500 has become the most popular motorsports event among U.S. viewers, surpassing the Indianapolis 500.
Since 1979, the first time the Daytona 500 race was televised in full, the 2006 race was the highest-rated NASCAR event in broadcast history. It had the latest start because NBC used the race as a prelude for its prime-time Winter Olympics coverage, and that may have added some viewer numbers to the race.
The race was filled with wrecks — a total of 10 cautions. Jimmie Johnson took the lead with 10 laps to go and powered his way to victory.
15. NBA Finals
TV viewership: Average 29 million in the 1998 series
Greatest NBA Finals Moment: Michael Jordan's Game 6 Winner in '98
Basketball fans can give you chapter and verse on what occurred in Game 6 of the 1998 NBA Finals between the Chicago Bulls and Utah Jazz.
Playing in Salt Lake City and with the series on the line, everyone in the world watching the game knew the last shot was coming from Michael Jordan, who nailed a long jumper over Bryon Russel for the Bulls' third consecutive championship and sixth title of the 1990s.
It was also Jordan's final game with the Bulls.
Bottom Line: NBA Finals
Michael Jordan didn't put the NBA on the map, but he took the league to new heights.
In the 1998 NBA Finals, fans tuned in to see their favorite player, Jordan of the Chicago Bulls, against the Karl Malone-John Stockton combo for the Utah Jazz. And the series was the most-watched series overall. Game 6 was the highest-rated game of all time, drawing nearly 36 million viewers.
Fun fact: The final five minutes of Game 7 of the 2016 finals drew an astounding 90.5 million viewers to see the Cavaliers defeat the Warriors for the franchise’s first title. Was that spike coming from Ohio?
14. College Football National Championship
TV viewership: 35.6 million for the 2006 game
Greatest National Championship Moment: 'Canes Upset Huskers in Orange Bowl
The Miami Hurricanes were huge underdogs headed into the 1984 Orange Bowl against the undefeated No. 1 Nebraska Cornhuskers, who were 11-point favorites.
The game became famous for a gutsy decision by Nebraska coach Tom Osborne, who went for the win instead of a tie with 48 seconds left and trailing 31-30. Nebraska failed on the two-point conversion and Miami leaped from No. 5 to No. 1 in the final polls for its first national title.
Bottom Line: College Football National Championship
There have been a lot of big games in college football history, but no national championship game drew a bigger audience than the 2006 BCS national title game between USC and Texas. The Longhorns got the win in USC's backyard at the Rose Bowl is a classic game for the ages that lived up to the hype.
The expansion to four teams to decide the college football national championship has had its peaks and valleys among fans. The 2015 game between Ohio State and Oregon — the first game of the College Football Playoff — was the second-most-watched national championship game with a TV audience of 33.4 million viewers.
13. March Madness Final Four
TV viewership: 35.1 million for the 1979 national championship
Greatest Final Four Moment: North Carolina State Stuns Houston in '83
North Carolina State and head coach Jim Valvano were big underdogs against powerhouse Houston in the 1983 NCAA Championship Game in Albuquerque, New Mexico. They got the ball back tied 52-52 with time winding down.
North Carolina State's Derrick Whittenburg heaved a desperation shot at the buzzer that was sailing wide right of the rim. Teammate Lorenzo Charles grabbed the ball out of the air and dunked it at the buzzer for the 54-52 win.
The indelible, iconic image from the game is Valvano, wildly running around the court after the shot, "looking for someone to hug."
Bottom Line: March Madness Final Four
The 1979 national championship game between Michigan State and Indiana State ushered in the Magic Johnson-Larry Bird rivalry that caught the attention of basketball fans nationwide.
That championship game was slightly ahead of the Duke-Michigan matchup in 1992 that featured the popular Wolverines Fab Five, who lost to the Blue Devils in front of 34.3 million viewers.
12. X Games
TV viewership (U.S.): Summer X Games 37 million, in 2011, Winter X Games 43 million viewers, in 2010 (not including digital viewers.)
Greatest X Games Moment: Tony Hawk Lands First 900
Skateboarding legend Tony Hawk added the "legend" part at the 1999 X Games in San Francisco, when he landed a 900 in the Skateboard Vert Best Trick competition.
The more lasting impact of Hawk's feat came in the realm of pop culture. The first "Tony Hawk's Pro Skater" video game debuted later that same year.
Bottom Line: X Games
What many of us dreamed of became reality with the X Games.
Imagine riding your bike or skateboard on worldwide television for great recognition. That’s what ABC and ESPN brought to fans young and, well, older, and it became a worldwide success.
Yes, they can thank participants such as Shaun White, who became a superstar not only as a brilliant skateboarder, but also as a snowboarder. Go big or go home.
11. World Series
TV viewership: 44.28 million in the 1978 series
Greatest World Series Moment: Kirk Gibson's Walk-Off Home Run in '88
It's pretty incredible that the greatest moment in World Series history came in a Game 1 and wasn't even the series-clinching home run, which has been done several times.
For pure drama and guts, it's impossible to overlook Kirk Gibson's game-winning home run for the Los Angeles Dodgers in the 1988 World Series. It was the injured National League MVP's only at-bat in the entire series, which the Dodgers won in five games.
Bottom Line: World Series
World Series ratings have been riding a roller coaster, depending on if a big-market team is involved.
For instance, its peak came in 1978 when the New York Yankees faced the Los Angeles Dodgers, and its valley came in 2012 when the San Francisco Giants swept the Detroit Tigers.
Obviously, a four-game sweep would draw fewer numbers overall, but Game 3 was tied for the lowest-rated game in World Series history.
10. Super Bowl
TV viewership: 114.4 million in the 2015 game
Greatest Super Bowl Moment: Patriots Pull Off Miracle Comeback Against Falcons
The Atlanta Falcons were leading the New England Patriots 28-3 in Super Bowl LI with 8:31 remaining in the third quarter — a seemingly insurmountable lead.
Behind quarterback Tom Brady, the Patriots engineered the greatest comeback in Super Bowl history, scoring 31 unanswered points before James White scored the game-winning touchdown in overtime.
Bottom Line: Super Bowl
The Super Bowl is the annual champion for American television viewership.
Nearly half of viewers with television sets and mobile devices are generally watching to see who will be crowned the best in the NFL. It’s almost like a national holiday.
The top-rated game was the matchup between the Seattle Seahawks and New England Patriots that drew an audience of 114.4 million worldwide with a stunning finish Seahawks fans will never forget.
9. Rugby World Cup
TV viewership: 857 million for 2019 event
Greatest Rugby World Cup Moment: South Africa Becomes Symbol of Hope
South Africa's rugby team became a symbol of hope for the post-apartheid era in its country and the rest of the world with a 15-12 upset win over New Zealand in Johannesburg, South Africa, in 1995.
South Africa captain Francois Pienaar — a notably average player the rest of his career — somehow was the best player on the field that day against the All Blacks. When South African president Nelson Mandela, wearing a Pienaar jersey, handed him the championship trophy, it was a moment for the ages.
Bottom Line: Rugby World Cup
The best international rugby teams gather for the Rugby World Cup every four years. South Africa and New Zealand lead the way with three titles. That doesn’t sit well with New Zealand's rival, Australia.
In fact, there are a number of rivalries. Leading the way is England against anybody, especially Wales and France.
The 2019 event broke the record for the most-watched rugby tournament with over 850 million people tuning in around the world.
8. Asian Games
TV viewership: 986 million on average every four years
Greatest Asian Games Moment: Rikako Ikee Steals the Show in 2018
Japanese swimmer Rikako Ikee put up the greatest individual performance in Asian Games history in 2018, becoming the first swimmer to win six gold medals in a single games.
Ikee added two silver medals in 2018 and walked away with the Asian Games MVP honor.
Bottom Line: Asian Games
Here’s an event that you wouldn’t think would be so popular, but it’s also held in the most densely populated place on Earth.
It’s a multisports event that’s held every four years among Asian athletes. The first Asian Games (also known as Asiad) were held in New Delhi, India, in 1951.
The 2018 Asian Games were held in Jakarta-Palembang, Indonesia, and close to 1 billion people watched.
TV viewership: 1.1 billion broadcast reach
Greatest UFC Moment: Bloody Brawl at the MGM Grand
The UFC welterweight championship fight between Rory MacDonald and Robbie Lawler on July 11, 2015, at the MGM Grand Arena in Las Vegas should come with a warning label: "Not for the faint of heart."
You won't find a better fight in any medium — most famous for its dripping, bloody staredown between the two fighters after round four. Lawler finished on top via a TKO in the fifth round.
Bottom Line: UFC
The mixed martial arts organization was launched in 1993 and has been a steady hit worldwide thanks to the likes of Conor McGregor, Randy Couture, Chuck Liddell, Ronda Rousey, Holly Holm, and many others.
UFC chief operating officer Ike Lawrence Epstein also helped the UFC become one of the fastest-growing sports brands behind the scenes, drawing 1.1 billion viewers across 160 countries worldwide.
That’s a big reason why ESPN purchased the rights to UFC matches for $1.5 billion in 2018.
TV viewership: 2 billion for Muhammad Ali vs. Leon Spinks II in 1978
Greatest Boxing Moment: The Rumble in the Jungle
There is no more famous fight between two boxers than The Rumble in the Jungle in 1974. This heavyweight bout featured undefeated and undisputed champion George Foreman squaring off against former champion Muhammad Ali.
Held at the 20th of May Stadium in Kinshasa, Zaire (now the Democratic Republic of Congo), Ali won by knockout in the eighth round in front of a raucous crowd of 60,000 people. Ali used the famous "rope-a-dope" strategy to beat Foreman, essentially letting him punch himself out before coming alive.
Bottom Line: Boxing
Another sport that thrives with the popularity of one athlete. In the 1960s and 70s, that was Muhammad Ali.
Ali was the last great fighter to perform on national TV before pay-per-view took over. Leon Spinks had beaten Ali, and then ultimately, the two met again in New Orleans. It was estimated that nearly 47 percent of all TV sets in the U.S. were tuned in to the fight. And a record 2 billion viewers worldwide watched in 80 nations.
Ali took a unanimous decision for the final victory of his career.
5. Winter Olympics
TV viewership: 2.1 billion for 2006 event
Greatest Winter Olympics Moment: Miracle on Ice
So many legends were made on Feb. 22, 1980 in Lake Placid, New York. Not the least of which was broadcaster Al Michaels' legendary call of "Do you believe in miracles? YES!" as the United States men's hockey team, stocked full of college players, pulled off the biggest upset in sports history with a win over the mighty Soviet Union.
The U.S. rallied from a 3-2 deficit with two goals in the third period for the 4-3 win over the Soviets in the semifinals, then capped things off two days later with a win over Finland for the gold medal.
Bottom Line: Winter Olympics
The Winter Olympics puts many sports in the limelight that would not be widely seen otherwise.
The Olympics in Torino, Italy, were the most popular on the international stage, but not so much in North America.
That's because some events were seen more than 18 hours later in the Western United States, and the Canadian hockey team made an early exit.
4. Cricket World Cup
TV viewership: 2.2 billion for 2019 event
Greatest Cricket World Cup Moment: England Wins as 1.6 Billion Watch
The worldwide television audience for the 2019 Cricket World Cup final between New Zealand and England at Lord's in London clocked in at a record 1.6 billion people — a staggering number.
It also became known quickly as the greatest, most controversial Cricket World Cup of all time. Tied 241-241 at the end of regulation time, the two teams battled to a tie through the Super Over, and England was declared the champion on the boundary count-back.
It was the first Cricket World Cup championship in England's history.
Bottom Line: Cricket World Cup
Fan interest for this event is astounding. In 2019, the event was the most-watched Cricket World Cup in history, shattering every TV and digital record.
The event was televised into over 220 territories on 46 separate TV channels, and video content had over 4.6 billion views, with 3.5 billion minutes watched across Facebook and YouTube.
England beat New Zealand to take home the title.
3. Tour de France
TV viewership: 3.5 billion
Greatest Tour de France Moment: Greg LeMond Turns Tragedy Into Triumph
American Greg LeMond won the Tour de France in 1986 and seemed poised to take over the sport, but a near-tragedy almost ended his career and his life.
LeMond was hunting for turkey on his father's California ranch in 1987 when he was accidentally shot by his brother-in-law through the back and shoulder.
LeMond's lengthy recovery from the shooting came to a climax at the 1989 Tour de France, where he won for the second time by holding off two-time winner Laurent Fignon.
Bottom Line: Tour de France
The Tour de France is not only the most prestigious cycling race in the world, but it draws an impressive audience.
According to race organizers, 3.5 billion people in 190 countries watch the Tour de France each year, with 12 million roadside spectators, Time reports.
Of course, it’s also the longest major sporting event covering three weeks in some of the most beautiful settings France has to offer, and since it takes many days to cover, that pushes the overall attendance numbers.
2. Summer Olympics
TV viewership: 3.6 billion for the 2012 London and 2016 Rio Games
Greatest Summer Olympics Moment: Jesse Owens Defies Nazis in 1936
No athlete in any sport, ever, has seen their athletic accomplishments take on a greater meaning than Jesse Owens did when he won four gold medals at the 1936 Olympics in Berlin.
Owens' victories in the 100-meter dash, 200-meter dash, long jump and 400 relay incensed German dictator Adolf Hitler, who was trying to promote his "superior race" theory at the Olympics and showcase the domination of German athletes.
No Olympic track and field athlete would win four gold medals again at a single Olympic Games until American sprinter Carl Lewis in 1984.
Bottom Line: Summer Olympics
The Summer Olympics are the second-most watched international event. It’s a spectacle that captures everyone’s imagination, and it contains the most popular sports worldwide, including the U.S.
As for the most watched Summer Games, the London Games were best known for Queen Elizabeth II’s participation in the Opening Ceremony, The Who’s performance in the Closing Ceremony and Michael Phelps becoming the most decorated Olympic athlete in history.
Or people wanted to see a potential train wreck and glued into the Rio Games, with a lead-up of controversies ranging from an unstable government to health and safety concerns with the Zika virus, and significant pollution in Guanabara Bay. Yet everything went off without a hitch.
1. FIFA World Cup
TV viewership: 5.4 billion for the 2022 event
Greatest FIFA World Cup Moment: Diego Maradona's 'Hand of God' Goal
The most famous play in soccer history occurred at the 1986 World Cup in Mexico City, when Argentina superstar Diego Maradona leaped into the air and punched the ball into the net with his left hand in a quarterfinal win over England. He scored another, just as famous a goal in the same game — often called "The Goal of the Century."
Maradona acted like he was scoring on a header, later telling the press that the goal was "a little with the head of Maradona and a little with the hand of God." Argentina went on to win the World Cup, capping things off with a 3-2 win over West Germany in front of 115,000 fans in the final.
Bottom Line: FIFA World Cup
When it comes to international soccer, most of the planet is tuning in. The most-watched in history came in 2022 in Qatar, which went all-out by spending over $200 billion, the most in World Cup history. The previous spending record was $14.2 by Russia for the 2018 World Cup.
Previous World Cups held in Russia, Brazil, France, Germany, and South Africa also have surpassed 3 billion in viewers. Soccer brings out more passion to international fans than any other sport, and it’s also making some good headway in the U.S.