What are the Big Four sports? Depending on your age, your residence and which metrics are used to define “Big”, ten different people could provide ten different responses.
Certainly Americans will answer the question differently than Australians, Brazilians or Norwegians. Soccer, for example, is the most popular sport in the most countries worldwide, though it isn’t the most popular sport in all non-American countries as many soccerphiles would contest. Here’s a list of most popular sports in a dozen countries where soccer is not number one:
Australia: Australian rules football
Canada: Ice hockey
China: Table Tennis
Cuba: Baseball and boxing
India: Field hockey and Cricket
Japan: Sumo and Baseball
New Zealand: Rugby Union
Philippines: Basketball and boxing
Thailand: Muay Thai kickboxing
United States: Football
In most western European and Latin American countries, soccer is the most popular sport, but dozens of other sports fill the next three slots of each country’s respective “Big Four”. Sixteenth and 17th century Spanish Conquistadores introduced many non-team sports to the new world that proliferated for centuries and continue to be popular in many Latin American nations. These sports include dominoes, the PETA unfriendly animal sports of cock fighting and bull fighting and a game similar to bowling called boliche. Bowling, by the way, is one sport that has cycled up and down both as a participant and spectator sport in the United States. While never a Big Four spectator sport, pro bowling did have a regular ABC time slot from 1961 to 1997 and was huge as a participant sport for much of the latter part of the 20th century.
In the United States, determining the Big Four isn’t easy. For the lion’s share of my life the answer seemed pretty simple: professional baseball, football, basketball and hockey were the Big Four sports – at least in metropolitan Chicago where I grew up. I’m pretty certain that the first three would be true throughout the country at that time. The fourth slot however was up for grabs depending on geography and decade. Hockey’s popularity may have been limited to the four American cities that had NHL teams until 1967 when the league expanded to six more US cities. The fourth big sport in non-NHL cities during my formative years may have been different throughout the country. Maybe it was college football in major college cities, rodeo in western cities and rural areas, dog sled in Alaska, surfing in Hawaii and NASCAR in the south.
NASCAR broke into the Big Four in the 1990s as it expanded its demographics from gear heads in the south to a national footprint that crossed into most traditional sports demographics. Its growth peaked a few years ago and is now struggling to retain both its new and old fan bases. Many of the new fans enjoyed the novelty of NASCAR, but then moved on to the next big thing or simply stopped following after a few years.
Some of NASCAR’s old guard felt betrayed that their native sport had been sold out to a wealthier and less committed audience and don’t follow as passionately as they once did. High level NASCAR insiders have told me that one of their biggest challenges is replacing their aging audience. The generation that carried NASCAR in the latter part of the 20th century is not physically as mobile as it once was. Many of the southern baby boomers who once filled the seats at Talladega, Daytona and Bristol religiously now prefer to stay home. There they can watch races using new technologies that get the viewer inside the cars from the comfort of their living room. Sitting in their recliners they can have a better experience than dealing with mile-long hikes from their parking spaces to their trackside seats. NASCAR – and open wheel racing as well - is facing its own economic challenges as team expenses skyrocket while sponsorship dollars dry up due to the global financial crisis and changes in corporate sponsorship strategies.
The latest “Luker on Trends — Powered by the ESPN Sports Poll” on this subject indicates that pro soccer has overtaken “racing” as America’s fourth most popular sport. This poll of 7,510 Americans asked them to name the one sport they consider to be their favorite. Pro football, pro basketball and pro baseball dominated with 38.8%, 15.3% and 14.8% respectively. Pro soccer climbed into the Big Four with 8.2% and racing dropped to fifth with only 4.0% (just ahead of pro hockey (3.8%). These results represent a significant improvement for soccer, which only two years earlier was on the very bottom of 21 sports in a poll by the same group using a different metric (“interest level”). Major League Soccer is poised to make its leap into the American Big Four long term with trends such as globalization and soccer hating baby boomers aging out in the sport’s favor. MLS finally passed both the NBA and NHL last year with an average attendance of 17,844. MLS’ gross attendance and revenue still lag well behind those traditional leagues, but interest in European and Latin American soccer by Americans is significant and when added to MLS interest often surpasses American interest in traditional American sports. In fact, more Americans watched soccer’s World Cup Final in 2010 than all but one of the last 35 World Series games.
Tastes change in everything and Americans’ taste in sports now is different than it was in the last half of the 20th century, which was different than it was in the first half of the 20th century. The Big Four for most of our fathers included the NFL, NBA, MLB and perhaps the NHL. Our grandfathers however had three different sports in their Big Four.
In Field of Dreams, Terrance Mann, played by James Earl Jones, eloquently stated:
The one constant through all the years, Ray, has been baseball. America has rolled by like an army of steamrollers. It has been erased like a blackboard, rebuilt and erased again. But baseball has marked the time. This field, this game: it's a part of our past, Ray. It reminds us of all that once was good and that could be again. Oh... people will come Ray. People will most definitely come.
Other major sports, however, have always been in flux. The NFL was an outlaw sport for much of the first half of the 20th century. It was viewed as a second tier sport beset with corruption and instability. The NBA didn’t even form until the 1950s and as recently as the 1970s and 1980s regularly had crowds below 5,000. The NBA did not average 10,000 per game until the 1975-76 season and the Cleveland Cavaliers averaged under 4,000 per game as recently as 1982-83.
The NHL, as mentioned above was only in four American cities and with limited television, had its exposure restricted to those cities. The NHL has always had a limited base to draw fan support in this country. A friend of mine who served as the NHL’s Vice-President of Broadcast Operations throughout the 1990s told me they viewed soccer in America as a Christmas tree without a star on top and the NHL as the star without the tree.
The predecessors of the NBA, NFL and NHL as Big Four sports in the first half of the 20th century were an individual sport, an animal sport and a school version of its Big Four professional successor – boxing, horse racing and college football.
Boxing – pugilism – has always been the sport for the newest immigrants at the bottom of the American socio-economic ladder. African-Americans and Jewish immigrants as well as Irish, Italian and Mexican working class immigrants embraced and dominated boxing at various stages of the sport’s late 19th century and 20th century reign as a major American sport.
When America was truly a nation of immigrants, it paid attention to the sweet science. On September 23, 1926 a record 120,757 rain-soaked Philadelphians paid to see Gene Tunney defend his title against Jack Dempsey. 364 days later, 104,943 boxing fans packed Chicago’s Soldier Field to see the famous rematch as Gene Tunney was credited with a controversial decision after the infamous 14 second long count.
Late in the 20th century interest in boxing waned as a greater percentage of the country no longer related to its combatants and mixed martial arts emerged as a competitor for participants and spectators alike.
Horse racing is the sport of kings, but through the first half of the 20th century it trailed only baseball in attendance in the United States. The proliferation of race tracks and the limited outlets for legal gambling contributed significantly to its popularity. World War II, a national anti-gambling sentiment and competition from new casinos, lotteries and other gambling alternatives drove attendance at tracks down and put the industry at risk in many parts of the country. 56 million people attended horse races in America in 1989.
College football was king among American sports in the first half of the 20th century. While still huge, it is no longer in the Big Four and isn’t even the most popular version of its own sport having fallen behind its professional cousin once television married the NFL in the 1960s.
We now live in a fractionalized world that allows a hundred people to have a hundred different favorite pastimes. There will always be a few sports that will rank among America’s most popular, but the options competing for Americans’ attention are increasing. The world is becoming smaller as the internet, satellite television, social media and ease of international travel bring people closer together.
The Big Four sports….however they are defined, will certainly change, because as President John F. Kennedy said, “The one unchangeable certainty is that nothing is certain or unchangeable.”