The USA may well be the home of the brave (and Donald Trump), but it is also home to a huge number of the biggest and best sporting events on the planet. Whilst the US has a number of sports that it invented, or certainly popularised events, such as the Super Bowl – legitimately dubbed “the greatest show on Earth” – and other “American” sports, such as baseball and basketball, are now watched and indeed played all across the globe.
As well as America’s core sports of basketball, baseball, (ice) hockey and (American) football, the US hosts major events in a huge number of sports. The likes of horse racing, golf, tennis, motorsports, boxing, UFC, athletics and eSports (maybe it is our age but including that on a list of sports still feels ever so slightly wrong) are all massive in the United States.
Whilst many UK/European sports are not hugely popular in the country, the likes of snooker, rugby, cricket and, really, just about any sport you could care to think about, are played in the USA. Whilst the stereotype of an overweight American has some truth (estimates from the National Center for Health Statistics are that 70% of Americans over the age of 20 are overweight or obese), it should also be remembered that the US is by far the most successful country in the history of the Olympic Games.
America is a huge country, the third most populous in the world, and whilst Americans might not be playing sports in the numbers they once were, their love of watching sport cannot be questioned. The Forbes list of the world’s wealthiest sportspeople is dominated by US stars and for all the riches of the Premier League, and Lionel Messi and Cristiano Ronaldo (who were first and second on the 2019 list), it is basketball that enriches 35 of the top 100.
This money reflects the societal, cultural and economic importance of sport in the USA. We’ve said that sport is hugely important in almost all of the countries we’ve profiled but nowhere is it more true than in the USA. Let’s look at the sports and events that make the United States tick.
As we have already illustrated, basketball is BIG business in the US and whilst the NBA is the pinnacle of the sport, college basketball is in many ways as big, if not bigger than the pro game. This is the case with the college versions of all the major domestic sports.
The concept of college sport can be a little hard to comprehend for those in the UK. We might watch the Oxford versus Cambridge boat race at a push but few beyond friends and family of the rowers really care who wins. The notion that 90,000 people would turn up to watch the University of Leeds football (soccer) team compete is laughable, whilst it would be equally risible for the coach of such a team to be paid a seven-figure salary.
However, in America, ESPN recently reported that the highest earning state employee in 40 of the 50 states is a sports coach. The Sunday Times talked of ESPN’s research saying that, “Dabo Swinney coaches Clemson University football team in South Carolina. He earns an annual $9.3m (about £7.04m) coaching student-athletes. The South Carolina governor … earns $106,000.”
For many American sports fans, their favourite team is their local college one, be that in basketball, baseball or anything else. This may partly be down to the franchise system, which means that pro teams relocate or cease to exist with far greater frequency than club teams do in the UK. The college team offers greater continuity and therefore more chance for fans to establish a real bond.
It is also down to geography and the number of pro teams, with the size of the country in comparison to the number of teams meaning that supporters are often geographically very remote from their nearest pro side. It’s hard to truly support a team, both emotionally and in person, when the stadium is several hundred miles away.
The passion that many in the States have for college sports was ripe to be monetised and in a country where money talks (very loudly) the only real surprise was that it wasn’t until the 1970s that the TV networks took much of an interest in the various college games. Since then things have come a long way and the money that colleges have garnered from TV and sponsorship deals enabled the sports departments of many colleges to become “quasi-separate entities” according to Stanley Eitzen, author of the brilliant guide to college sports, Fair and Foul.
This created something of a virtuous circle, with money begetting money and colleges becoming ever more desperate to attract the best sports talents, leading to a higher standard of competition. Whilst the Premier League and other sports have academies that link players to pro teams from a young age, in the US, the root into professional sports is the college system and this means the quality of the players is excellent, further enhancing the desire of local fans to watch and potentially see the starts of the future.
All college sports are regulated and governed by the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA), a non-profit body based in Indiana that covers both Canada and the US. The NCAA generates huge revenue, over $1bn for the first time in 2016-17 (more than 80% came from basketball), and runs the various leagues, bowls and competitions that make up college sport.
Horse Racing in the USA
We’ll return to college sports when we look at the likes of basketball and baseball but one sport that doesn’t have any real link with the collegiate system is horse racing. However, make no mistake, many in the States love watching equine brilliance just as much as they do college football or any other sport.
As in the UK, there are hundreds, or even thousands of meetings spread across the country, far too many for us to list here. You can watch racing in the States more or less every day of the year and there are no end of huge races and wonderful courses. All of the biggest races in the USA are flat contests but national Hunt racing does exist there, albeit only in a limited number of states, mostly in the south.
Whilst such a big country has many big races, there are a number of meetings and events that really stand out and would certainly make the bucket list of many racing fans both in the States and from around the world. Perhaps number one on any such list would be the Kentucky Derby, immortalised brilliantly by Hunter S. Thompson in his inimitable style in the fantastic article “The Kentucky Derby Is Decadent and Depraved”.
The Kentucky Derby
Decadence and depravity aside, the Kentucky Derby offers racing fans a truly huge sporting occasion. Held at Churchill Downs, one of the most famous courses in the US, on the first Saturday in May, this Grade I stakes contest is part of the two-week Kentucky Derby Festival. If you thought four days of Cheltenham or a full week of action at Galway’s Summer Races was a racing, betting and drinking marathon, you ain’t seen nothing yet!
“The Most Exciting Two Minutes in Sports”, as it is dubbed, sees horses run one and a quarter miles on Churchill Downs’ dirt to try and claim the first leg of the American Triple Crown. In 2017, almost 160,000 spectators piled into the course to watch the action, whilst 10 years earlier the Queen, known for her love of the sport, attended. Millions more in the US and around the world watch the race on TV and have a bet on the outcome, and “the Derby” (as it is also known in America) really does capture the imagination of the public. It is the best attended race in the US and possibly the world.
As wild as things can sometimes get in the stands (necking bourbon all day will tend to have that effect), the action on the track is top class. The mighty Secretariat holds the speed record in the race which now offers a whopping $3m in prize money, with not too far shy of $2m going to winning connections. Moreover, according to a report by the International Federation of Horseracing Authorities, the Kentucky Derby was the joint-best Grade I race in America aside from contests held at the Breeders’ Cup.
In 1984, Breeders’ Cup Limited started an annual series of races that it called the Breeders’ Cup World Championships that were designed to crown the best horse in a range of categories and effectively become the “thoroughbred world championships”. It is essentially the end of the racing calendar in the States and takes place around the start of November each year.
Known simply as the Breeders’ Cup, or even just Breeders’, it was initially held over just one day but expanded to two days in 2007. The host track varies but Santa Anita (10 times) and Churchill Downs (nine) are by far the most frequent courses used.
The races have changed over the years but as of the 2019 edition, the 36th to date, the following were on the schedule, starting with Friday first:
- Juvenile Turf Sprint
- Juvenile Fillies Turf
- Juvenile Fillies
- Juvenile Turf
- TVG Juvenile
As you can see, Friday typically sees five races, all for the juveniles and is called Future Stars Friday. The two biggest races are the TVG Juvenile and the Juvenile Fillies, both run on dirt and each offering $2m in total. The majority of races on both days are Grade I affairs (all except the Juvenile Turf Sprint which is Grade II) and overall most are run on dirt, the turf races being the exceptions.
Saturday sees things step up a gear in terms of the number of races, the prize money and the class of the contests. In 2019 there was a cool $21m dished out to successful connections, making this one of the richest days of racing in the world. The final race of the meeting is the biggest and most prestigious, with the Breeders Cup Classic offering $6m in prize money and having been won by the likes of Zenyatta, American Pharoah and Arrogate.
Again, based on the 2019 Breeders’ Cup, you can expect the following:
- Filly & Mare Sprint
- Turf Sprint
- Big Ass Fans Dirt Mile
- Maker’s Mark Filly & Mare Turf
- TVG Mile
- Longines Distaff
- Longines Turf
The Breeders’ Cup is dominated by domestic horses, with US animals winning around 80% of races, but a number of European greats also make the journey, as well as the occasional horse from elsewhere. In 2019, 32 European horses featured and Irish-born, French-based Goldikova is the most successful foreign raider ever, having landed the Mile in 2008, 2009 and 2010 (indeed, no horse has won more than her three Breeders’ Cup contests).
American Triple Crown
As said, the Kentucky Derby is the first leg of the American Triple Crown and if a horse wants to join the likes of Secretariat, Seattle Slew, American Pharoah and, in 2018, Justify, on the list of immortals, they must then go on to land the Preakness Stakes and Belmont Stakes in the same year.
The Preakness Stakes is the middle contest and is held at Pimlico in Baltimore, Maryland, on the third Saturday of May each year. Slightly shorter than the Derby (1900m instead of 2000m), it is, of course, a Grade I race and in terms of attendance in the stands it is only bettered by the Louisville race.
It is a huge occasion and well worthy of a visit and if a horse managed to add this to an earlier win in the Derby, their next port of call will be New York and “The Championship Track” of Belmont Park. The Belmont Stakes completes the Triple Crown and is run two weeks after the Preakness and just five weeks after the first leg.
The longest of the three races at one and a half miles, or 2.4km for comparison, the Belmont Stakes offers around $800,000 to winning connections. Hugely well attended, as the last leg of the Triple Crown it attracts a huge TV audience, sometimes of more than 20m, especially in years where a horse is bidding to make history.
Secretariat holds the speed record for all three legs of the Triple Crown, proving what a great of the sport the huge chestnut was. His remarkable 31-length demolition in the 1973 Belmont Stakes, which brought the first Triple Crown for a quarter of a century, is regarded by many as one of the greatest performances ever. The CBS commentator at the time, Chic Anderson, described the race with the now legendary piece of commentary, “Secretariat is widening now! He is moving like a tremendous machine!”
Not Quite All About the Flat
The Triple Crown and various races at the Breeders’ Cup lie some way ahead of the rest in terms of the biggest races to take place in the USA. However, there are a number of other notable races and we’re going to include one, just because we love National Hunt racing.
As said, American racing is very much dominated by action on the flat but they do host both hurdles races and chases over larger, more fixed obstacles. Somewhat confusingly for UK racing fans, their hurdles races are also called steeplechases and are most similar to UK hurdles, though some obstacles can be larger.
Stepping up from hurdles you have timber racing, which sees the horses face huge and very robustly built fences that are immoveable and less commonly used. These would probably not be permitted in the UK and no major races are held over these. These obstacles may well be similar to UK chase fences from many, many years ago and are essentially fixed timber fences up to five feet high.
The biggest race governed by the NSA (National Steeplechase Association) is the Grand National Hurdle Stakes, or the American Grand National. The latter name is, from a UK perspective, something of a misnomer, because whilst this is probably the most illustrious steeplechase in America, it is a hurdles contest and is run over around two and a half miles.
None the less, if you are looking for the biggest NH race in the States, this is probably it and the strong purse of $300,000 has meant interest for those from UK shores. Ruby Walsh landed this in 2016 on Rawnaq, whilst British and Irish jumps legends Gordon Elliot and Nicky Henderson trained the winners in 2018 and 2019 respectively.
Other Races of Note
The following contests, all run without obstacles, are also major US races and well worth paying attention to:
- Arlington Million – Grade I run in August over 1m2f at Arlington Park
- Travers Stakes – Saratoga Race Course in New York hosts this mid-summer event, a Grade I of 1m2f
- Santa Anita Handicap – Held at, would you believe it, Santa Anita, this is another 10 furlong race and another Grade I
- Arkansas Derby – This is a nine furlong race held on the dirt at Oaklawn Park, Arkansas, and previously won by American Pharoah and many other US Classic winners
- Haskell Invitational Stakes – Initially a handicap but now a stakes race, this Grade I is another nine furlong affair and is held at Monmouth Park Racetrack, NJ
- Pacific Classic Stakes – California’s Del Mar hosts this relatively new (1991) 10 furlong race which grants the winner a spot in the Breeders’ Classic
American football, or just football in the States, is about far more than the NFL to fans in the US. Internationally the race to the Super Bowl is all that really matters but for local sports fans, as we have discussed, often it is the case that college sports is where their primary allegiances lie.
The NFL & The Super Bowl
Of course, the Super Bowl is the biggest prize of them all and where all the college players ultimately want to end up. Each and every year from September, the 32 teams battle it out for a place in the big showpiece which takes place on the first Sunday in February.
The regular season sees each team play 17 times before a series of play-offs whittles them down to the final two. The physicality of the game may pose a serious health issue but it is truly awe-inspiring to witness first hand and the athletes of the sport can hold their own against those in any other sport.
Football is huge in America and the NFL sees huge attendances, as well as incredible viewing figures, with every game televised. Matches are played on Sundays and Monday nights, with Fridays and Saturdays usually left free for college football. Indeed, federal laws largely stop professional football leagues from competing with college or high school football.
College football has a structure that is often indecipherable to outsiders. There is a large number of lower level games between relatively local US colleges, universities and military bodies. The format and structure of the collegiate system has changed over the years and since the late 1950s many of these games have been televised, coverage increasing dramatically over the last 20 years or so.
Bowl games have increased in number since the 1980s and are post-season games between members of the highest level of college football, NCAA Division I Football Bowl Subdivision (FBS). There are 10 conferences within the FBS, comprised of 130 teams (colleges) and the quest to find the best college football team in the nation is not an easy one.
Bowl games also exist below the level of the FBS but it is the highest tier matches which, unsurprisingly, attract the most attention and media coverage. Pasadena’s Rose Bowl is perhaps the most famous and dates back to 1902, but other key contests including the Sugar Bowl and Orange Bowl.
Indeed, the Rose Bowl is the original “bowl”, taking its name from the stadium (which was in turn named due to its shape). Subsequent “bowl” games were created and the term became used for any big game in the sport. Lamar Hunt, then owner of the 2020 Super Bowl champions, the Kansas City Chiefs, coined the term “Super Bowl” to refer to the fixture we now anticipate and enjoy so much.
In a letter to the then NFL commissioner, Hunt proposed the concept of the AFL and NFL champions meeting in which he said, “I have kiddingly called it the ‘Super Bowl,’ which obviously can be improved upon.” According to a report in Florida’s St. Petersburg Times, he suggested the world “super” was in his head because his kids had been playing with a bouncy ball at the time called a Super Ball.
Golf: The Global Game with a US Stronghold
We will return to the US sports but for now let us consider golf, arguably the sport with the widest global reach. It is widely accepted that Scotland is the birthplace of golf, with the sport developing there in the 1400s, and St Andrews is considered by many to be the home of the game. However, much as golf is now very much a global sport, with huge tournaments taking place on all continents bar South America and Antarctica, it could very legitimately be argued that the US is now its modern “home”.
The case for that notion is strong, with four of the sport’s biggest five tournaments taking place in the USA, the top 20 of the world rankings regularly being dominated by Americans and the US Tour being by far the strongest and richest of the various circuits.
There is some talk of moving the USPGA Championship, possibly to Australia, Asia, or seeing it rotate but for now three of the four majors in golf are held in America. The US Masters, for many the biggest of the three, if not them all, has a permanent home at Augusta, Georgia.
The Masters is the first major of the season and takes place at one of the sport’s most iconic venues every April. First held in 1934, it is the only major championship not to change venue each year and this, along with the history and rituals, help make it a truly huge sporting occasion that transcends the sport. The Green Jacket, the par three tournament and the iconic holes such as those of Amen Corner all add to the magic and the masters really is a bucket list event for many fans.
The US Open
The oldest of the American majors is the US Open and this historic event, inaugurated way back in 1895, is played in June. Due to its history and place as America’s national championship (and the $12.5m prize money as of 2020 might help) this holds a particular place in the hearts of many US golfers.
The US Open is played at a different course each year, with Oakmont Country Club, Baltusrol and Pebble Beach among the courses to have hosted it most frequently. To greater or lesser degrees, each of the four majors have their own style and the US Open is all about providing a really tough test, with a score of one over par being enough to win it three times in the last decade alone.
The last of the US major tournaments is the USPGA and despite many attempts to rebrand it and scheduling changes to try and make it more prestigious, it remains the least-vaunted of golf’s big four. First played in 1916, it was traditionally the last major to be played each year, typically in September, but as of 2019 it was moved to May. As with the US Open, it changes venue each year, using some of the same courses, although these are often set up to play a little easier for the USPGA (sometimes called the US PGA or just the PGA Championship by Americans).
Another tournament with an array of names is the Players Championship (also called The Players, The PLAYERS or The PLAYERS Championship and previously known as the Tournament Players Championship). This event is a major in all but name and ticks all of the boxes it needs to tick, bar the actual one of being officially recognised as such.
First played in 1974, it is now the richest single tournament in golf, offering up $15m to the field and in the TPC at Sawgrass it has a permanent host that is a brilliant and fair test of golf, offers unbeatable facilities for spectators (as a stadium course) and has some truly iconic holes. The Players is one of the most hotly anticipated events in the US and takes place in March, having reverted to that month following a 10-year sting being held in May.
Other Big US Golf Tournaments
America hosts many other big events on the main tour and that’s before we even consider the women’s game, seniors and lower level tours. In terms of the men’s game, there are a few that stand out above the rest and the Ryder Cup has to be considered one of those.
This team event sees US players compete every two years against the best European golfers and the USA hosts the competition once every four years. There is no prize money at stake here, just pride and honour and the atmosphere at the Ryder Cup is something to behold.
Returning to the more conventional format of the game, the WGC (World Golf Championships) events are considered to be the most prestigious tournaments aside from the majors and the Players. These tournaments are co-sanctioned by just about all major golf tours and of the four played each year, two are currently held in the States (as of 2020, Mexico and China host the other two).
The WGC Invitational (sponsorship names are typically added) is normally played in July and offers up more than $10m in prizes, with Tiger Woods, Rory McIlroy, Brookes Koepka, Dustin Johnson and Justin Thomas among the recent winners. The fact that all of those have been world number one says a lot about the quality of field for this event.
WGC Match Play
The other US-based WGC tournament, the WGC Match Play (again, sponsorship names come and go) differs from the other four events in being a match play tournament. Hosted for the time being by the Austin Country Club (in Austin, Texas), this again offers an eight-figure prize pool and past winners include Tiger, DJ, Rory, Jason Day and Bubba Watson.
Of course, beyond these big golf tournaments there are many more events that are well worth watching on TV, attending and perhaps even betting on. Some are bigger than others but ultimately none have the huge cache of the massive sporting events already mentioned.
Tennis in the USA
Sticking with a sport with huge global appeal, there are a number of top level tennis tournaments held in the USA.
The US Open
The obvious place to start is the US Open, one of the four biggest tournaments in the sport. Held each August and September, it is the last of the four Grand Slams on the calendar but doesn’t suffer for that.
The home of the tournament is the Billie Jean King National Tennis Center, often referred to as Flushing Meadows, the park in which it is situated. The prize pool is staggering, with the winner in 2019 taking home almost $4m out of an overall pot worth nearly $60m. Dating way back to 1881, the US Open has been played on all the major surface types at different times but has been a hard court event since 1978.
The tournament is the showpiece event of the second phase of the North American hard court season and there are several other massive tournaments that are held around this time. The biggest two (as of the 2020 season) are held in Toronto, Canada and in Cincinnati in the US. These are both part of the ATP Tour Masters 1000, a series of events in the men’s game second in terms of prestige, ranking points and prize money to the Grand Slams (and to a lesser extent the Tour Finals).
The Miami Open, Indian Wells & the Washington Open
The other US 1000 series events are the Miami Open and Indian Wells, both held earlier in the season in the first part of the hard court “swing”. In the women’s game these are called, rather more prosaically, WTA Premier Mandatory events but they more or less mirror the Masters 1000 events, meaning the big women’s events to look out for are also at Indian Wells and Miami, although the Cincinnati tournament is one rung lower in the women’s game, being a WTA Premier 5 event.
Whilst the women’s tour calls their second tier events WTA Premier 5 tournaments, in the men’s game they are known as ATP Tour 500 contests. The Washington Open, held in July is, for now, the only US tournament that is designated as such.
Formula 1 Racing
Sticking with globetrotting sports with international appeal, the States is home to one of Formula 1’s Grands Prix. Unsurprisingly and, dare we venture, unimaginatively, this is called the United States Grand Prix and Lewis Hamilton is the most successful driver in its history, boasting six wins ahead of the 2020 race.
The US Grand Prix
First held in 1908 it has not been a constant fixture on F1’s calendar and the 2020 edition will be just the 50th renewal of this Grand Prix. Over the years various tracks have hosted the race, with Indianapolis and Austin doing the honours in the 21st century, the latter’s Circuit of the Americas the race’s home since 2012.
The US Grand Prix is one that drivers and fans look forward to but the sport of F1 hasn’t quite perhaps got the same grip on the States as other motorsports do. None the less, for the one weekend of the year the F1 bandwagon rolls into town, you can be sure the atmosphere and passion in Austin will be suitably Texan in size and fervour.
Boxing: Where the US Is Mecca
We’ve discussed boxing in many of our country previews but more or less all of the very biggest bouts take place in the USA. Anthony Joshua and Andy Ruiz Jr may have fought in Diriyah, Saudi Arabia, but when it comes to the sport of boxing, Mecca is the USA.
More specifically, we can perhaps say that boxing’s spiritual home is split between two places, New York, specifically “the Garden”, and Las Vegas. Big fights take place in London, Manchester and any number of US cities but these two hubs, and to a lesser degree Atlantic City, are where the majority of “super fights” take place.
Madison Square Garden likes to bill itself as “The World’s Most Famous Arena” and there is no doubt that many of the most thrilling and brutal fights in the history of boxing have been played out before its rapt crowds.
As for Vegas, it beats New York as the number one place to see a major boxing event. Beats it, probably, by KO, albeit late on with the scorecards relatively close. In the modern era, Sin City’s stranglehold on the biggest bouts has strengthened and whilst the MGM Grand is the number one venue, Vegas has plenty of other great options for housing 10,000 plus baying boxing fans.
The Fight for Tickets
Americans love to box, they love watching boxing and they love betting on the sport. When Floyd Mayweather and Manny Pacquiao fought it was dubbed the “Fight of the Century”, even though both men were past their best. It wasn’t the fight it might have been a few years earlier but even so, fans were desperate to see the action. Tickets for the fight (held at the MGM in Vegas, of course), ranged in price from $1,500 to $7,500 and sold out in seconds. Just seconds later the best of these were being offered for more than $100,000 on resale sites!
Getting a ticket for the biggest fights in Vegas and elsewhere in America might not be easy but if you get to see history and taste the unique atmosphere, it sure will be worth it (maybe not if you pay $100,000 though!).
Returning to the so-called American sports, basketball is simply huge in the States. That said, given its popularity in so many parts of the world now, from Eastern Europe to the Philippines and from China to Argentina, it is becoming less and less accurate to think of it as an American sport.
That said, whilst it is huge in countries such as Latvia and Lithuania, in terms of global appeal and the number one brand, the NBA, the National Basketball Association, has no rival. Once again, it is worth noting that whilst basketball and the NBA are almost synonymous for many overseas fans, domestic supporters may well consider their first allegiance to their college basketball team.
College Basketball: March Madness
College basketball is huge and the top tier, NCAA Division I Men’s Basketball Tournament, more commonly known as March Madness, attracts huge TV audiences and generates enormous revenues.
UCLA, beloved of so many Californians, are the most successful college basketball team around and have won the Division I title a record 11 times. March Madness dates back to the late 1930s and now features around 68 teams who go through a regional qualifying round before entering a straight knockout phase.
The tournament has been televised since the late 1960s, at least partially, but in recent years interest has ballooned. The NCAA sold the rights to broadcast March Madness for a whopping $10.8bn and whilst that was over 14 years that is still an incredible sum. This level of financial commitment is an indication of the passion fans have for college basketball and what huge events such games are.
All that said, your average fan on the streets of Buenos Aires or Vilnius probably doesn’t care all that much about UCLA or the Virginia Cavaliers (2018-19 college champions). For them, the NBA is where it’s at, with stars such as Stephen Curry, LeBron James and the recently deceased Kobe Bryant the players who have mattered to them most.
The NBA is made up of 30 teams and the regular season runs from October to mid-April, with play-offs then taking place until the finals are held in June. There are Eastern and Western Conferences, with those broken down into six divisions in total. There are five teams in each division and sides play a huge number of fixtures, giving fans lots of opportunity to see their team in action.
Despite this glut of fixtures, getting tickets to see the best teams is difficult and expensive but is an amazing experience if you can make a live game. The athleticism is astounding when witnessed up close and basketball captivates US sports fans thanks to the skill, speed and power the best players possess.
The fixture-packed regular season eventually gives way to the play-offs, where things really get interesting. Three rounds of knockout series (best of seven) lead to the NBA finals and whichever side can reach four game-wins first will be crowned the NBA champion!
Baseball: The All American Sport
Baseball is another “US” sport that is now actually played in a range of other countries. Its origins lie in England, although the development from rounders and related games into the sport we now know took place in the States. Whilst America is unquestionably the most important baseball nation, the sport is incredibly popular elsewhere too.
Countries geographically close to the USA play the sport, with baseball popular in Canada, Mexico and many countries in and around the Caribbean, especially Cuba, the Dominican Republic and the unincorporated territory (to use the technical term) of the United States, Puerto Rico. US soldiers have often helped the sport spread and baseball is also very popular in Japan, where the pro league is probably second only to the US in terms of quality, South Korea, China and Taiwan.
As with the other American sports though, whilst there are lots of international leagues, it is America’s Major League Baseball (MLB) that dominates in terms of global interest. And once again we have the same picture with fans in the US also having a huge interest in teams outside the perceived big time.
In baseball there is a slight difference in that there are minor leagues that are akin to, say, the Football League in English football (soccer). Because of this college baseball does not have quite the same role as, say, college football, but even so it remains very popular.
Battling to Play in the World Series
The biggest attendance averages are to be found in the majors. MLB consists of 30 teams and whilst we are talking about US sporting events in this piece, we should note that as of the 2020 season one of those is actually Canadian, the Toronto Blue Jays.
The sport is divided into the National and American Leagues, with three five-team divisions in each. The regular season sees a whopping 162 games per team, meaning a total of 2,430 matches and that’s before we get to the post-season. For comparison, there are 380 games in the entire Premier League campaign in English football.
The regular season runs from March to the end of September, with the post-season lasting for around three weeks in October. Two wild Card games see two teams progress into the Division Series, effectively the quarter finals, before the final four play in the League Championship Series to see which two teams will battle it out for the World Series, a best of seven contest.
Attendances have been going down in recent years but the 2019 season still saw almost 70m fans attend the regular season games. Pricing and the increasing appeal of the college game and minor leagues are part of the reason for the drop in attendances but it should still be noted that 13 teams sold more than 30,000 tickets per home game on average.
Baseball has a huge place in American popular culture and many argue it is the people’s game. No matter what issues the sport faces in the future, attending a live baseball game, drinking some weak American lager and chowing down on a huge weiner is not to be missed and with so many fixtures to choose from you should have no problems getting tickets to one of these brilliant sporting events.
Minor League Baseball
The development of players, allegiance of local fans and money from television is split between college baseball teams and the minor leagues to different extents. Minor League Baseball (MiLB), which has existed since the start of the 20th century, is fully professional and some of the teams are affiliated with sides from MLB. There are a huge number of different leagues within the MiLB hierarchy.
This structure means the development path of players is often very different in baseball and players will often go straight from high school into some form of pro action, bypassing the collegiate system. The format of the season and leagues within MiLB has changed many times over the years but essentially the games and gameplay are the same as in MLB.
Attendances are good, with more and more people flocking to the minor leagues. 2019 marked the 15th consecutive year where total attendance was over 40m, with average crowds of more than 4,000 overall. Leading the way were the Las Vegas Aviators who play in the highest tier of the minors and sold out 47 times as more than 650,000 fans came through the turnstiles.
That said, the biggest average attendance in college baseball is slightly higher (though this will vary from year to year), with LSU welcoming 361,912 to their games. They played far fewer matches though and their average of more than 10,000 was slightly higher than the Aviators’.
This once again shows just how big college sport is. In baseball, a game in which it is not as important as it is in other sports, it still generates attendances broadly on par with the second tier of the pro game. The highest ever college baseball attendance was a huge 40,106 when San Diego State hosted Houston in 2004 for the opening of Petco Park (the home of MLB side the San Diego Padres).
Completing our list of American sports (calm down Canadian readers) is ice hockey, or just hockey to those from the US. The National Hockey League (NHL) is the pinnacle of the sport and sees 31 teams battle it out for one of the biggest (physically) trophies in all of sport, the 15.5KG, 89.54cm Stanley Cup.
The NHL is currently made up of 24 US teams and seven from Canada. Much as those from south of the boarder might not like to admit it, it should also be noted that Montreal is accepted as the place where it all began for the NHL, which was initially played between seven Canadian sides.
Skipping the history lesson and also returning to the USA, the modern NHL has its HQ in New York. As well as being very big, the Stanley Cup is also the oldest trophy in pro sport in the States and in order to win it sides have to battle through a regular season that runs from October to April. The top 16 sides then meet in the first round of the post-season, typically played around the second week in April. From this point on it is a knockout tournament that follows a similar structure to the NBA, with teams playing best of seven series until two progress to the Stanley Cup Finals.
TV Coverage & Popularity
Whilst ice hockey doesn’t quite have the same popularity as American football, basketball and baseball, it remains big business. Multi-billion dollar TV rights deals have been signed and the highest paid players earn in excess of $10m per year. It doesn’t get the TV viewing figures of the other core sports but remains in a healthy state and live attendances are strong. In 2019-20, more than 80% of teams had average attendances in excess of 15,000, with most playing to full or nearly full arenas.
NCAA Division & Minor Leagues
In terms of US ice hockey beyond the NHL, we have a similar picture to that seen in other sports, with the NCAA overseeing three main collegiate divisions, NCAA Division I being the highest level and seeing around 60 sides competing against each other. As one might expect given the relatively lower standing of the pro game, college ice hockey also doesn’t attract the media attention, TV rights money or live attendances of some of the other bigger domestic sports.
That said, it remains very popular with local fans, as do the minor leagues, of which there are many. The largest of them is the American Hockey League, with all teams in this fully pro league being affiliated with a side from the NHL. As in baseball, the minor leagues provide an alternative route for players into the big time. This does somewhat diminish the standing of college hockey but equally it also means that the minor leagues can be a great place to see high class sport and catch the stars of the future tasking to the ice for a very a reasonable price.
Soccer: A Coming Force
Soccer (this is about the USA, so, though it pains us to type it, we have to call it that!) is massive in the USA in a way that many outside the 50 states don’t necessarily realise. According to FIFA, the US has over four million registered players and at junior level soccer is pretty much just as popular as any sport in the States.
Growing Popularity in the US
Even in terms of overall popularity it is huge. A 2017 poll ranked it third (behind basketball and American football) in terms of the numbers watching soccer and it is estimated that over 25m play the sport. The 1994 USA World Cup gave the sport a huge boost and the 1999 Women’s World Cup did likewise in a country where the gap between the men’s and women’s game in the public’s eyes is very small.
Soccer has been relatively big in the States for a while, with stars such as Pele, George Best, Johan Cruyff, Franz Beckenbauer and Carlos Alberto appearing in the North American Soccer League in the 1960s, 70s and 80s. However, in the 21st century its popularity has really increased, buoyed by some good World Cup showings, and whilst much of the nation’s attention is focussed on the English Premier League, the domestic game is also really improving.
Major League Soccer
Major League soccer is the principle competition in the men’s game in America, albeit with a sprinkling of Canadian interest (three of 26 teams are from north of the border) as usual. The league follows a fairly similar structure to other pro US sports, with an Eastern and Western Conference, though these are not further broken down and operate on a league system.
Again, play-offs are used to determine the overall winner, with the top side from both Conferences getting a bye through the first round and into the semis. The six teams beneath them meet to provide the other three semi finalists and then the winners of those matches meet in the Conference Finals. The MLS Cup is then contested between the best side from each Conference with the kings crowned in November.
The MLS is really growing and attendances throughout the season, which usually starts in February or March, are very good. Atlanta led the way by some distance in 2019, seeing an average of more than 52,000 for their 17 home games in the regular season and a high of over 72,000. Things drop off quite dramatically behind them and the Seattle-based Sounders (average 40,247) but the overall regular season average is a still-very-respectable 21,256. For comparison the Championship in England averaged 20,075 in the 2018-19 campaign.
Soccer will probably never match the more established, traditional sports such as “football” and basketball but it continues to grow. The fans are passionate, the atmosphere is good and the match day experience is superb. The MLS offers soccer fans a great day out, a good betting option and is another string to America’s vast sporting bow.