Hopefully, you can forgive the misleading nature of this title. Basketball is not, in fact, the fastest-growing sport in the world. It isn’t even a possibility for it to be so. The fastest-growing sport is hard to assess and different every year. To have a chance at being the fastest growing sport, you have to be a young sport that greatly expands its participants and fans over the course of a year.
The fastest-growing sport in 2021 probably had a few dozen people playing it in 2020 and has increased interest by at least double. In reality, the expansion is probably closer to four, five, or even ten times what it was a year ago. There simply aren’t enough people on the planet for basketball to put up numbers like that.
While basketball isn’t the fastest growing sport overall, it is the fastest-growing of the major world sports. By most metrics, basketball ranks number two on the world sports scene, with only soccer out ahead of it. The gap between the popularity of basketball and soccer is significant. However, that gap continues to shrink.
Better Abroad Than at Home
Basketball has become the most successful American-born sport on a national scale. Considering this, it is a bit surprising that the sport remains firmly locked in third place among sports in its country of birth. However, this is a common theme throughout American sports.
American football is the number one sport domestically, with baseball second and basketball third. On the international scale, though, their popularity is reversed. Basketball sits in the second spot internationally, with baseball next and American football last.
The spots of all three are different depending on how you measure a sport’s popularity. However, basketball is pretty consistently second, while baseball generally comes in ranked around the tenth spot, with American football a spot or two behind. American football has its place on the international list almost entirely because of how popular the sport is domestically.
How Basketball Is Winning
There are some important things to take into consideration when looking at how basketball has managed to grow internationally so much more easily than the top two American sports. All sports are constantly trying to expand their appeal. There are plenty of sports data feed providers who help grow the sports beyond their original markets.
While it is possible that the NBA is generally doing a better job with its international push than are American football and baseball, it is far from the main reason for the more successful growth.
One advantage that basketball has over the other two is that it doesn’t have a well-established equivalent sport in many locations. The closest game to basketball would probably be handball, which is basically water polo without the water. Handball likely does not hinder the growth of basketball much. It is a younger sport and only holds anything resembling large-scale popularity in a handful of countries.
Things are a bit different with American football and baseball, however. Rugby and cricket are both top ten sports internationally, with cricket generally slotting in the number three spot and by some measurements even outpacing basketball for number two.
With these similar sports that already hold a high level of popularity in other countries, it poses a bit of a barrier for the breakthrough of these American sports.
Fielding a Team
Another big advantage that basketball has over the others is that you can easily play a competitive game with four players. Even two players can be fun given the right circumstances.
With baseball, four people certainly aren’t enough for a competitive match, but you can at least play a fairly decent game of hitting the ball around with a couple of fielders. For American football, four people are tough for any sort of game. You really need at least six players to have any sort of quality play.
For a friendly neighborhood game, baseball is definitely at the biggest disadvantage. In order to play, you need a ball, a bat, and gloves. Basketball actually comes in at a disadvantage to football in this one with a need for hoops, as well as a ball, while a ball is enough for football.
However, when you go to any sort of league (even little league), the advantage shifts drastically to basketball. Football begins to require pads and helmets, as does baseball, while the requirements for basketball don’t really change much. Basketball also has a big space advantage, which can be huge for development in the city where field space may be scarce. The size of a basketball court is tiny in comparison to a baseball or football field.
Number One Is Out of Reach
Despite statements to the contrary, of those like NBA Commissioner Adam Silver, the likelihood of basketball taking over as the number one sport in the world is next to zero. While basketball will continue to gain on soccer for the foreseeable future, the top world sport just has too many advantages to possibly get knocked down.
All of the advantages that basketball holds over baseball and football, soccer holds over basketball, except for team size and space needed. Soccer also has centuries of history over basketball. It has such deep routes in so many communities across the world.
Another big advantage that soccer holds over basketball, which basketball will never be able to compete with, is player size. While there have been a handful of successful NBA players that weren’t monstrously large, they are by far the exception. Playing soccer is far more accessible for people of all sizes than basketball.
Basketball may never reach the same level of international popularity as soccer. However, it will be interesting to watch and see how close it gets over the next couple of decades as its brand continues to grow.