U.S. and European leagues target growth on opposite continents, but which leagues are attracting mindshare of sports fans across the pond?
The “Big Three” professional sports leagues in the U.S. – the National Football League, Major League Baseball, and the National Basketball Association – and the “Big Three” professional soccer leagues in Europe – the Bundesliga, English Premier League, and La Liga – have all targeted international expansion as a growth objective, but has this effort paid off in generating interest among international fans?
Altman Solon’s 2020 Global Sports & News Survey, which gauged viewing and fandom among 14,000 respondents in 10 countries across North America, Europe, and Latin America, shows that the NFL, MLB, and NBA—despite stated ambitions and games played in European stadiums—fail to crack the top 25 favorite sports leagues/tournaments in any European market surveyed. Meanwhile, the survey revealed surprisingly strong interest among U.S. fans in Europe’s top soccer leagues: Germany’s Bundesliga, Spain’s La Liga, and the English Premier League (EPL). All three leagues are popular among about 20% of U.S. sports fans, a similar percentage of fans in the U.S. who say Major League Soccer (23%) and the US Women’s National Team (23%) are a “favorite” or “somewhat interested” (collectively, “interest level”). Here’s a snapshot of how U.S. and European leagues are faring with international sports fans:
NFL – The top-ranked league in the U.S., which garners the interest of 65% of U.S. sports fans, was identified by only 10% of UK sports fans as a favorite/interest, trailing, for example, several rugby leagues and two darts leagues. The NFL was slightly more popular in Germany, with 15% fan interest, but was only the 28th most popular league/tournament overall. The NFL has been very active in Europe, including creating a development pipeline for European players and scheduling several games in London annually. There has also been a lot of public speculation about relocating an NFL franchise (specifically the Jacksonville Jaguars) to London.
NBA – The NBA boasts young European stars like Luka Doncic and Nikola Jokic and the sport of basketball is arguably the most international of the U.S.-born sports but is struggling for a foothold with fans in the U.K. and Germany, with only 9% fan interest in the U.K. and 12% in Germany compared to 45% in the U.S. The NBA fares slightly higher among Italian and French fans, at 18% and 16% interest level, but ranks only 25th and 31st among leagues/tournaments tested in those countries.
MLB – While the MLB has focused more on Asia and Latin America with its international outreach, it has reportedly considered locating franchises in Europe. MLB is the second most popular league in the U.S. (with 57% fan interest), but baseball in Europe is mostly a sports afterthought, never reaching 10% fan interest in any country tested.
Despite lower than expected fan interest in Europe for the Big Three, there are still positive signs for future growth. For example, the Big Three U.S. leagues have landed contracts with European TV broadcast partners, including the NFL’s recent deal with Sky Sports, and European fans of the leagues are younger than their U.S. counterparts, which could indicate future growth. Among 18-24-year-olds, the NFL’s interest level is 21% in the U.K. and 22% in Germany, about double that of older fans. Similarly, baseball sees stronger interest from younger fans, vaulting from 7% overall to 19% (18-24) in the U.K. In contrast, the NFL and MLB’s U.S. fan demographics skew older.
The European Invasion
The survey provides evidence that efforts by European soccer leagues to grow in the U.S. seem to be paying off, especially among younger fans. In addition to having 20% interest levels among all U.S. sports fans, interest levels among three major European soccer leagues—Bundesliga, La Liga, and English Premier League—are notably higher among 18-24-year-olds, on par with MLS and the US Women’s National Team: Bundesliga (31%), EPL (28%), La Liga (25%), MLS (28%), and USWNT (30%).
Bundesliga – The top German football league generates surprising interest levels among U.S. fans. In addition to a 22% interest share overall, Bundesliga has a 31% share for 18-24-year-olds, the highest measure of any soccer league, foreign or domestic. It is the 16th ranked league/tournament in the U.S., by far the highest rank for any foreign league, and ahead of (one/two U.S. leagues). In fact, Bundesliga is faring better in the U.S. than in the U.K., where it has a 20% interest share and is the 18th ranked league/tournament. Back in Germany, the league has a massive 88% interest level, the highest rating for any sports league in any country tested.
English Premier League – The EPL overall has a 20% interest level among U.S. fans and bumps to 28% among younger fans (18-24), which is even with Major League Soccer. Fan interest in the EPL is boosted stateside by the participation of several members of the U.S. Men’s National Team, including star winger Christian Pulisic, who plays for Chelsea. The EPL also has a major deal with NBC Universal to broadcast matches in the U.S.
La Liga – The Spanish premier leagues trails its German and U.K. counterparts in the U.S. but still manages a 17% interest share overall and 25% for younger sports fans (18-24). La Liga is also the most popular of the European leagues in Central and South America (Altman Solon will release a Latin America Sports Survey report in fall 2020).
The survey, which explores sports interest and viewing habits for 40+ leagues and tournaments across 10 countries, reveals clear differences in sports interests, although soccer is the one constant popular interest in all countries tested. A look at the top-ranked favorite sports leagues across countries shows strong interest in the Olympics (particularly Summer), auto racing, and tennis. The survey also identifies more localized sports–handball in Germany, rugby in France and the U.K., and ski jumping and volleyball in Poland–that garner significant country-level interest, which reinforces the diverse interests of modern sports fans and viewers.
Altman Solon conducted the 2020 Global Sports & News Survey in August-September with more than 14,000 respondents across 10 countries. Altman Solon tapped its expertise across Europe and the Americas following this summer’s merger of the U.S.-based Altman Vilandrie and Europe-based Solon Consulting to form the world’s largest Telecommunications, Media, and Technology consulting firm. Results shown are from Altman Solon’s 2020 Global Sports & News Survey, which was completed and released in October. To see more results from the survey, please click here.
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