Popularity of North American Sports in the UK

The Popularity of North American Major League Sports in the UK

The United Kingdom has strong cultural ties to sports, a tradition dating back centuries. Football, rugby, golf and cricket dominate the sporting landscape, media coverage and TV networks, with millions of Brits keeping up with their favourite leagues and teams every season. 

Across the pond in the United States and Canada, you can find the same love of sporting events at every level, from the Super Bowl to college sports, recreational teams and everything in between. The four traditional major leagues made up of Major League Baseball (MLB), National Hockey League (NHL), National Football League (NFL) and National Basketball Association (NBA), which all have a long-standing place of prominence in the North American sporting landscape. However, Major League Soccer continues to grow in popularity, and attendance at MLS games has been steadily increasing for eight consecutive years.

So if a traditionally European sport, one which is beloved in Britain above all other sports, has taken hold in North America, can this work both ways? Can the traditional North American major league sports of baseball, ice hockey, American football and basketball garner the same attention on this side of the pond?

Major League Baseball

The MLB is the oldest major professional sports league in the world, with the United States being closely associated to baseball. However, viewership rates have declined in more recent years, and the 2023 World Series games had an average rating of just 4.7, the lowest since records began. 9.1million viewers tuned in to watch the World Series in 2023, a decrease from 2022.

While baseball certainly remains a niche sport within the UK, the MLB London Series has had a significant impact on increasing the number of baseball fans within the country. The arrangement sees regular season games played in London every year since 2019. Usually a sell-out, the games are also broadcasted on BBC Sport and TNT Sport, providing an easy option for people to watch. 

Baseball has a long season, with 162 games in the regular season alone. Many of these are afternoon games in North America, meaning it’s far easier for British fans to watch their team play without losing sleep. It is estimated that interest in baseball among British sports fans has increased from 4% in 2019 to 5.9% last year, with MLB Europe’s social media platforms tripling their followers since the London Series games began in 2019.

This steady increase in viewership is encouraging for the sport of baseball, and the MLB has so far been successful in gaining the attention and love of people in the UK.

National Hockey League 

With the current professional ice hockey league established in the UK more than 20 years ago, it’s no surprise that NHL fans exist on this side of the Atlantic. Dedicated and passionate fanbases cheer on Elite Ice Hockey League teams from across all four nations of the UK, consequently introducing people to the world of ice hockey – of which the NHL is the biggest and best league in the world. 

Despite time differences making watching the games more challenging, the recent Global Series games held by the NHL in Sweden in November 2023 showcased the number of Europeans who have fallen in love with the game, with a large number of British people making the journey to watch the games. 

A quick glance around hockey arenas in the UK during a game will highlight the number of various NHL team jerseys worn by fans. Fanbases may still be small, but they’re certainly passionate about their hockey team!

National Football League

The NFL arguably has the highest level of integration into UK sports, hosting games in London every year, enticing people to tune in to Sunday Night Football and gaining excitement from UK fans about the eagerly anticipated Super Bowl.

According to the NFL’s official research, the league now has around 13 million fans in the UK, with around 4 million being described as ‘avid’ fans. There have even been calls for an NFL team to be based in London due to the popularity of the sport. 

No other major league sport has found this level of success in the British sporting landscape. Another impressive statistic is that of the 28 NFL London games since 2007, 25 of them have had an attendance of at least 83,000. Now that is a lot of NFL lovers!

A short season with a lot of games airing at a UK-friendly time on a Sunday certainly makes the NFL easier to watch, especially combined with the effective broadcasting of games on Sky Sports and TNT Sports, providing easy access to the games.

At this point, the NFL is arguably not a minority sport in any form, and undeniably has found a higher degree of success among UK sports fans than any other major league North American sport. 

National Basketball Association

Thanks to Sky Sports broadcasting games, the NBA has become beloved by basketball fans in the UK. A popular choice of sports for recreational participation, basketball is enjoyed by many across the country. 

Viewership of the NBA has increased in the UK throughout the years, and the sport continues to gain traction among British fans. In 2022, the NBA registered a 10% increase in League Pass subscribers in the UK from the beginning of playoffs. The NBA Europe social media pages also generated 226 million views during the regular season, a 23% increase on the previous year. 

The NBA continues to gain new UK fans, with popular high street stores such as Primark offering a variety of official NBA team merch. The impact of representing a team can create curiosity among potential fans, meaning this could be a great marketing tactic by the league.

While it’s possible no sport will every overtake the popularity of long-standing popular sports in the UK, the high levels of sports fandom that exists across the country means North American major league sports have a place on this side of the pond too.

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