Some events are obvious inclusions on this list like the Olympics or FIFA World Cup. Others are perhaps surprising in the viewing figures they lure.
Most Viewed Sports Events:
NCAA Final Four – 16.9 million
Super Bowl – 99 million
Champions League – 380 million
Boxing – 1 billion
Women’s FIFA World Cup – 1.12 billion
Winter Olympics – 2 billion
Cricket World Cup – 2.6 billion
Summer Olympics – 3.05 billion
Men’s FIFA World Cup – 3.3 billion
Tour de France – 3.5 billion
A sport doesn’t need to be watched in every country to reach hundreds of millions – it can be intensely followed in a handful of countries and still rack up some huge numbers.
Inevitably, many of the events listed in this article were also the focus of considerable betting.
Here are 10 of the most-viewed sporting events, from fevered college atmospheres to two-wheeled battles in the Pyrenees, courtesy of Goal.
NCAA Final Four
Known for its live betting upsets and the drama of single-elimination basketball, the climax of March Madness is the NCAA’s Final Four, which is one of the most-watched events in American sports.
Fans devout and causal across the United States fill out their brackets before the tournament begins.
Millions tune in to see how their school fares or want to get a look at the next bright NBA prospects when the pressure at its most severe.
Even if college basketball isn’t your thing, it’s worth checking out a March Madness game to get a feel for the intensity. While more highly regarded young talents are turning down college basketball, it’s still drawing millions of viewers.
The culmination of a season of NFL predictions. America comes to a standstill on Super Bowl Sunday, with parties taking place all over the country.
The host city is packed for the week leading up to the Big Game.
Super Bowl audiences are still a long way shy of the Champions League and other club/franchise tournament finales.
Roger Goodell is hoping that gap will shrink in the coming years, however, with the NFL increasing its efforts to attract fans overseas with more games in the UK and Germany.
The 2023 Super Bowl, played between the Kansas City Chiefs and Philadelphia Eagles, drew record-breaking audiences.
Of club-level team sports, the Champions League has the largest viewing figures worldwide.
There are estimates that around 700 million people watched Real Madrid defeat Liverpool in the 2022 final. The 2023 final reportedly reached 450 million people.
Many would argue the Champions League is the highest standard of football on the planet, such is the concentration of talent at the top European clubs.
Knockout ties are invariably thrilling, with the two-legged format allowing for 180 minutes of twists, turns and tactical tweaks.
Quantifying the amount of people watching boxing every year is challenging. Bouts are not as easy to access as football matches or other marquee events.
There is no tournament to suck in fans for a fixed period. The pay-per-view system inevitably means viewing figures are lower than they could be, even if there are sizeable revenues as a result.
It is without question, though, that the best boxers of all-time are some of the most famous athletes in the world.
Boxing makes headlines. The highest-profile fights are known about even if you have little interest in the sport. The viewership numbers might surprise you. It’s no coincidence there’s so much money at stake.
Women’s FIFA World Cup
North of one billion people watched the 2019 Women’s FIFA World Cup.
The USA defeated the Netherlands in the final to claim their fourth title in eight editions of the tournament, while England had to settle for fourth after losing to Sweden in the playoff.
Australia and New Zealand hosted the World Cup in the summer of 2023. Some outlets claimed over two billion people viewed at least part of the World Cup, with huge numbers tuning in in the UK despite the challenging kick-off times.
Records were unsurprisingly broken with England reaching the final – more people in the UK tuned into the 2023 World Cup final than watched the Wimbledon Men’s Singles final.
According to the IOC, the 2022 Winter Olympics in Beijing reached an audience of over two billion people.
Reporting indicates viewership for the Games is trending in the wrong direction, with the US recording the lowest ever figures for the 2022 games, breaking the record set by the 2018 edition in Pyeongchang.
Cortina d'Ampezzo and Milan are hosting the next Winter Olympics in 2026, and will hope to see an increase in worldwide audience.
Norway topped the medal table in 2022 – will they do so for a third consecutive Games in Italy?
Cricket World Cup
Cricket in the UK has been out of the mainstream since the 2005 Ashes (though some matches have returned to terrestrial in recent years). The sport is constantly fighting for eyeballs.
In other countries, the balance is different. India, Pakistan and Bangladesh, in particular, live and breathe cricket.
While these viewing figures might seem bloated for a sport played by a relatively small number of countries, those nations combine for a sizeable portion of the population, and there is a large percentage of cricket-obsessed fans. India alone has a population well over one billion.
Even in England, the 2019 50-over World Cup had some gaudy viewing figures with the final being shown on Channel 4 and Sky Sports as England won by the barest of margins.
Records tumbled during the 2023 World Cup, which is unsurprising given India’s run to the final.
The Summer Olympics in Tokyo took place in 2021 after being postponed in 2020.
Viewing figures dropped from the Games in Rio five years prior, when the figures had fallen from the London Games in 2012.
Interest in the Olympics appears to be falling, but this might also be a reflection in a vastly changed media landscape.
There is no need to commit hours to watching live sport when you can easily catch highlights and key moments through social media.
Perhaps viewership is not the best way to measure how interested the general population are in the Olympics any more.
Men’s FIFA World Cup
Close to 1.5 billion people watched the final between France and Argentina in 2022.
Spread over a month with some days containing as many as four matches, the Men’s FIFA World Cup is a festival of football.
From the fans who only show an interest when a tournament gets underway to those who follow their nation’s fortunes at every international break, the World Cup appeals to so many people.
Add in the starpower and drama of knockout football, and you have a formula for a vast television audience.
Tour de France
Okay, this is a bit of a contentious one, as the claim of 3.5 billion watchers of the Tour de France has been questioned in some quarters.
Still, there is no doubting the Tour is one of the biggest events on the sporting calendar. And, if out of curiosity rather than a deeper love of cycling, many will tune in briefly.
There is reportedly a growing American viewership of the Tour de France, which should provide a healthy boost to their figures in the coming years.
*Credit for all of the photos in this article belongs to Alamy*