The most popular sports leagues

In part two of this blog series, we outline some of the major UK, European, US and Canadian sports leagues in the most popular sports worldwide.


Football is one of the most popular sports globally, both played and watched. It is known as association football (to differentiate it from other forms of football such as Australian rules football, rugby football (rugby union or league), American football and Gaelic football). There are hundreds of major, minor and non-professional football leagues. The English Premier League (EPL) is probably the best known and is the highest level of football played in England, although two Welsh clubs, Swansea and Cardiff, have also participated in the EPL at one time or another. The league operates a promotion and relegation system with the English Football League (EFL).

The International Football Association Board (IFAB) sets the international rules for the game, while FIFA (Fédération Internationale de Football Association) is football’s international governing body, which also oversees beach soccer, futsal and eFootball. Held every four years, FIFA also holds the World Cup and Women’s World Cup.

Rugby Union

First originating in the town Rugby in England, rugby union or often known just as rugby is a very popular international sport. Its governing body is World Rugby which was established in 1886. Like FIFA, its football equivalent, it organises the major rugby competitions such as World Rugby Sevens Series, Rugby World Cup Series and the World Under 20 Championship.

There are many rugby union leagues, but the Premiership Rugby league sits at the top of the English rugby union system and has 12 clubs that compete. It has a system of promotion and regulation. On the next level down is the second tier of the rugby union system: The RFU Championship.


Cricket is played mainly in India, Pakistan, Australia, British Isles, West Indies and Southern Africa. Its governing body was created in 1903 and is called the International Cricket Council (ICC).

Test cricket is the highest standard of cricket in the cricketing world. The most prominent cricket leagues around the world are the World Cricket League, Indian Premier League, Big Bash League, Pakistan Super League, Bangladesh Premier League, T20 Blast League and the Caribbean Premier League.

The premier international event of the cricket sporting calendar, held every 4 years, is the ICC Cricket World Cup. A large number of countries take part and compete for the chance to play in the tournament. It culminates in a series of one-day international (ODI) matches held by the International Cricket Council (ICC). A precursor to the ICC Cricket World Cup is the World Cricket League. This consists of a series of one-day international (ODI) matches for national teams that want a chance to compete in the ICC Cricket World Cup.


Basketball is another very popular sport across the world with many leagues, both professional and non-professional. The ruling body of basketball worldwide is the International Basketball Federation. It defines the rules, hosts competitions and organises the transfer of athletes and referees. It’s best known tournament for men’s national teams is the FIBA Basketball World Cup held every four years.

The highest basketball league in Europe is the EuroLeague and has 16 teams that compete. It is one of the most popular indoor sports leagues in the world with an average attendance of 8,780 people. Its regular season usually starts in October and ends in April. The most successful basketball team in the EuroLeague is Real Madrid, winning the most championship titles.


Handball is massive around the world with 27 million registered players. It’s governed by the International Handball Federation (IHF). As with most sports it has many leagues and competitions. Established in 2012, the Premier Handball League has become the highest level league in England, and currently has eight teams participating. This league has a promotion and relegation system. A team who isn’t performing adequately at the end of the season goes ‘down’ to the Championship North or Championship South Leagues. Handball teams can compete in the domestic competition called the England Handball Association (EHA) National Cup, while the EHF Challenge Cup is the major international competition.

The Big Four

We can’t talk about sports leagues unless we mention the four major professional sports leagues in the US and Canada, known as the ‘Big Four’:

Major League Baseball (MLB)

The MLB is the American professional baseball organisation and the oldest of the major professional sports leagues in the United States.

National Basketball Association (NBA)

Established in 1946, the NBA is the highest men’s professional basketball league in North America. It is composed of 30 basketball teams: 29 teams from US and 1 team from Canada.

National Football League (NFL)

NFL is the highest professional level of American football in the world. It was formed in 1920 and eventually completely merged with American Football League (AFL) in 1970. It is made up of 32 teams with 16 teams under the National Football Conference (NFC) and 16 teams under the American Football Conference (AFC). Six teams from the two conferences advance to the playoffs where a single-elimination tournament is held. The two teams who remain will be the ones competing against each other at the Super Bowl. It’s the most popular league in the US with a high average attendance of 67,591.

National Hockey League (NHL)

The National Hockey League is a professional ice hockey league in North America, currently comprising 31 teams: 24 in the United States and 7 in Canada. It has a 17-week regular season usually held in September to December.

Read part 1 of the blog: What is a sports league?

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