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
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
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
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
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
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
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 Playoff National Championship
TV viewership: 35.6 million for the 2006 game
Bottom Line: College Football Playoff 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
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.)
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
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
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
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
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 were held in New Delhi, India, in 1951.
The most recent Asian Games was held in 2018 in Jakarta-Palembang, Indonesia, and close to 1 billion people watched.
TV viewership: 1.1 billion broadcast reach
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
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
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
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
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. FIFA World Cup
TV viewership: 3.57 billion for the 2018 event
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 2018 in Russia, which went all-out by spending $14.2 billion, the most in World Cup history.
Previous World Cups held in Brazil, France, Germany, and South Africa 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.
1. Summer Olympics
TV viewership: 3.6 billion for the 2012 London and 2016 Rio Games
Bottom Line: Summer Olympics
The Summer Olympics are the most-watched international event. It’s a spectacle that captures everyone’s imagination, and it contains the most popular sports worldwide, including the US. 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.