Sport is a big part of every culture. It’s a channel for like-minded people to come together and share in the success of their team or country. It offers a sense of belonging, community, and even identity.
There are also the health benefits that come from playing sport, along with the economic boost professional leagues can offer to their local areas.
Right across the world, there are many similarities in sport. From Malawi to Macedonia and from Austria to Argentina, football is by far the most popular game. Following closely behind that is cricket, though its support is patchier than that for the beautiful game.
The third most popular sport is hockey, followed by tennis, volleyball, and ping pong.
What’s peculiar about this list, though, is that the two most popular global sports struggle to gain a following in the United States, while the world’s third most popular discipline is only the fourth biggest in the USA. Instead, American football, baseball, and basketball are the favorites of US fans.
This is just one of the differences we see between sport in the world’s biggest economy and the rest of the planet.
Sports betting is big business in many parts of the world. It’s a popular part of match-day traditions and has been for decades or even centuries. However, in the US, the concept of placing bets on a basketball game is a fairly new one.
It was only in 2018 that some states began to allow their residents to place wagers on sports, though the process is taking longer in other parts of the country. For example, New Jersey sportsbooks started accepting wagers more than three years ago, while it only became possible in Arizona in April 2021.
There is now a huge scramble among the companies that run sports betting sectors to build up market share in each state, leading most in states like Arizona to offer free bets to new customers in order to encourage them to sign up with them instead of with a rival.
League formats are very different in the US compared to much of the rest of the world. In most parts of Africa, as with Europe, football teams compete in leagues that are structured within a pyramid.
There is one national league at the top of this pyramid, which is supposed to be home to the country/region’s best teams. Below that are more leagues, with the lower rungs containing multiple regional leagues that feed into the national ones.
Each year, a system of promotion and relegation moves high-performing teams up the pyramid and demotes poor-performing ones to the lower levels. This helps to create excitement at both ends of a league’s table and creates a target for teams not in the top flight.
In the US, no such format exists. The NFL, NBA, MLB, MLS, and NHL are all closed off with no new entrants (apart from during the occasional expansion). The reason for this is that US sports leagues operate under an entirely different philosophy to most of the rest of the world.
League owners in America are “profit-maximizers”, while those in Europe and Africa are “utility-maximizers”, meaning their primary focus is on sporting success. This doesn’t mean they choose one over the other, but English Premier League teams that have focused purely on being profitable have quickly fallen into decline. We’ve seen this with Alan Sugar’s ownership of Tottenham Hotspur and Mike Ashley’s time as the owner of Newcastle.
Typically, the teams that have the most success (eg. Manchester United, Liverpool, Manchester City) make the most money.
On the other hand, in the US, teams like the Dallas Cowboys can become the wealthiest team in the NFL without winning a Super Bowl since 1995.
Points are different in American sports too. When the NFL launched a European league in the 1990s, it had teams that were based in the UK, Germany, and the Netherlands. Teams would score a touchdown, with little in the way of celebration from the fans, but then the scoring team would attempt a field goal for the extra point and the crowd would go wild when they scored.
This was because of a lack of understanding of American sports and their rules. The biggest source of confusion was in the way US teams are awarded points.
In a typical NBA game, both teams will often score over 100 points, meaning a minimum of 60 successful baskets during the match. In football, teams rarely score more than three or four goals in a single game.
American sports have been designed to be higher-scoring, improving the spectacle and boosting engagement from fans. Whether this is really achieved is hard to say, but it is a culture shock for non-Americans when they watch American sports and vice-versa.