Sponsorship, Soccer, Global

How popular is soccer? How can sponsors get value? And does the Europa League deserve respect?

Here CSM head of insight Robin Meakin uses data from its annual survey of 18,000 sports fans from 18 different countries to provide the answer to this question and delve a little deeper into the soccer fandom phenomenon.

by Guest Contributor
How popular is soccer? How can sponsors get value? And does the Europa League deserve respect?

It’s no secret that soccer is the world’s most popular sport and any soccer fan knows that it has the power to excite, inspire and frustrate in equal measure. But just how popular is it?

Across all 18 countries in the CSM survey, soccer is the clear number one sport with just under 60 per cent of the adult population saying they are interested in it. It is the number one sport in 12 countries and in the top five sports in a further four.

There are only two countries in the CSM survey where soccer is currently less popular. The first is India where soccer is the seventh most popular sport and is well behind the number one which is cricket, in which 57 per cent of the adult population say they are ‘very interested’.

The second country is the USA where soccer ranks some way behind the well-established ‘big three’ of football, baseball and basketball. Yet, whilst soccer is currently only the ninth most popular sport in the US, it’s a close-run thing. An increase of a couple of percentage points and soccer would be fourth on the list.

With the momentum behind Major League Soccer (MLS) continuing to build, alongside youth participation within US soccer and add in the fact that the USA will co-host the Fifa World Cup in 2026, and the likelihood of a spike in the popularity of soccer in the US becomes clear. It is a trend that prospective brands and sponsors would do well to monitor.

Whilst soccer is currently only the ninth most popular sport in the US, it’s a close-run thing. An increase of a couple of percentage points and soccer would be fourth on the list

Which international tournaments are most popular?

Going down to the next level of detail, across all 18 countries in the CSM survey, five of the ten most popular sporting competitions are international soccer tournaments, as highlighted in the table below.

According to the CSM data, the World Cup is the most popular sporting event in the world, even more popular than the Summer Olympics. Whilst this is not a huge revelation, it is interesting to note that the research was conducted in late 2017,  before the build up to Russia 2018 really gathered pace, confirming that the World Cup retains an enduring appeal among sports fans.

It will be interesting to see if there has been an increase in the popularity of the World Cup in the CSM survey of this year.

The other four soccer events in the top ten list are the Uefa European Championship, Uefa Champions League, Fifa Confederations Cup and the Uefa Europa League.

The Europa League is potentially undervalued by sponsors

The Europa League is sometimes characterised as being a second-tier tournament, certainly compared to the Champions League.

Although it may not have quite the cachet of the Champions League, it is worth pointing out that from a fan perspective, the Europa League is still a very big deal. It is, after all, a top ten global sporting competition with 22 per cent of adults saying they are ‘very interested’ in it compared to 27 per cent for the Uefa Champions League.

Add in more casual fans and the gap narrows, with 43 per cent of adults interested in the Europa League compared to 46 per cent for the Champions League. Brands that are looking for reach into a large audience could consider the Uefa Europa League as it may represent a strong value proposition given its huge and passionate fan base, and the cheaper cost of sponsorship rights packages.

Which national leagues are most popular? 

The most popular national soccer league across the 18 countries surveyed is the Premier League. England’s top flight is the 15th most popular sporting competition globally with 20 per cent of the adult population saying they are ‘very interested’ in it.

The Premier League is closely followed by the Spain’s La Liga at 18 per cent. Italy’s Serie A and Germany’s Bundesliga are further down the list with both enjoying an interest level of around 15 per cent, while around 11 per cent of adults say they are very interested in the French Ligue 1.

A key reason for the Premier League’s high ranking is that it transcends national borders in a way that other national leagues can’t quite match. For example, it is a top five sporting competition in six of the 18 countries surveyed. In Indonesia, it is number four while in Singapore and Thailand the CSM data shows that the Premier League is the second most popular sporting competition in both countries after the Fifa World Cup.

The Premier League isn’t strong everywhere of course. In Brazil and Mexico, for instance, it is trumped by La Liga, which is much more popular for cultural and linguistic reasons.

What is clear is that the European national soccer leagues are increasingly global properties. Brands with ambitions to expand internationally could therefore consider investing in one of Europe’s top five national leagues, or a team in that league, which is popular in the markets that they have targeted for growth.

Which countries are the most soccer-mad?

Trying to answer this question by comparing interest levels by country can be misleading. As an alternative way of finding an answer, CSM looked at two things: firstly, what proportion of people say that soccer is their favourite sport rather than just being one of many in which they are interested; and secondly how many soccer-related events and competitions figure in the top 20 for each country. The chart below shows how each of the 18 countries plots against these metrics.

In terms of depth of interest (the vertical axis), Saudi Arabia is the country where soccer is most popular as all its top ten sporting events are soccer-related. On the other hand, Brazil tops the list in terms of having the highest proportion of people saying that soccer is their favourite sport (the horizontal axis).

The results throw up some surprises, perhaps the most obviously the UK. There are only four soccer-related competitions in the UK top ten and just 36 per cent of the population say that soccer is their favourite sport.

Statistically, Saudi Arabia is the country where soccer is most popular

Is this surprising for a reputedly soccer-crazy country with the most globally popular national league? There is no denying that soccer is hugely popular in the UK, but the answer is perhaps more that the UK is sport-mad not just soccer-mad.

There are five different types of sport in the UK’s top ten (soccer, rugby, motor racing, tennis and athletics). This compares to two in Brazil for example. The UK (in various guises) is competitive in a higher proportion of sports on a global level than many countries, which could explain why people in the UK spread their interest over more sports than in some other countries.

Another surprise is France, where only 35 per cent said soccer was their favourite sport with loyalties again divided over many different sports. Like the UK, France has five different sports in its top ten – soccer, tennis, Olympics, motor racing and athletics. The proportion of French people saying soccer is their favourite sport could well increase following the euphoria of their World Cup victory.

So, has soccer maxed out in terms of popularity?

Chart courtesy of CSM

The answer perhaps lies in the chart above. Broadly speaking, countries divide into two groups - those where soccer completely dominates (like Brazil or Saudi Arabia) and those where soccer is one of many sports competing for attention. This suggests that while soccer may be nearing peak popularity in some countries, there is still lots of room for growth in countries like China, India and the USA if the sport continues to develop and is perceived as relevant and exciting.

The CSM research confirms that soccer has an unmatched ability to appeal to people regardless of gender, age, location, culture or religion. While the World Cup and the Champions League grab many of the headlines, the sheer variety of global soccer competition means there are multiple opportunities for brands to get involved both nationally and internationally and associate themselves with this incredible sport.

If you want to know more about CSM’s data on sports fans and how we can help you learn more about using sport as a way of engaging with consumers, please click here