The National Football League (NFL) is by far the most popular spectator sport in the United States. It’s not even close—in early 2018, a Gallup poll asked Americans their favorite sport to watch and 37% said it was football. Baseball was far off the pace in second place with only 9% indicating it was their favorite sport. It won’t be long before baseball drops to third place since soccer has grown significantly in popularity. 7% of poll responses said that soccer was their favorite sport. In fact, 2018 was only the second time since Gallup began this annual survey that any sport other than football, baseball or basketball was named as a favorite by 7% of fans. Auto racing hit a plateau of 7% in 1997 but has witnessed a dramatic drop to only 2% today. Outside of the United States, ‘American football’ remains a niche sport but the league has worked to attract new fans in Europe, Asia and Mexico.
Given the massive popularity of football ‘American style’ it’s no surprise that it is also the biggest betting sport in North America and particularly the United States. The dominance of football among bettors is even more lopsided than among fans. A 2017 survey of US sports bettors revealed that 78% considered football as their favorite wagering sport. Internationally, NFL football barely cracks the top ten coming in at #9 on the ‘most popular betting sport’ hit parade well behind soccer, cricket, tennis and even volleyball.
Even with a relatively small following in Europe, Asia and elsewhere the amount of money bet on NFL football is mind boggling. The NFL Super Bowl attracted $158.6 million in betting action in the state of Nevada alone. The total amount of money wagered on the Super Bowl worldwide is in the billions of dollars. In the state of Nevada official gaming regulator numbers indicate that since 1992 bettors have wagered $30.1 billion on football. NFL football and betting are so inextricably linked that it’s very common to hear people who have never placed a wager in their life discussing point spreads.
The Super Bowl is such a huge event that it deserves special discussion. It began as a mere formality that no one cared about in 1961 when it was called simply the ‘AFL–NFL Championship Game’. It has grown exponentially over the years to the point that it is a de facto national holiday in the United States. It is usually the most watched TV program in the United States every year attracting more than 100 million viewers. Typically, it’s the second most watched annual event in the world behind the UEFA Champions League soccer final. The 2015 Super Bowl halftime show attracted 118.5 million viewers and the game itself became the most watched television program in American history..
Obviously, the Super Bowl is a huge event for the sports world and NFL fans. What’s amazing is its significance in so many other tangentially related industries. It’s the biggest day of the year for sales of pizzas and chicken wings. Sales of beer and television sets are through the roof. It’s also a very important event for the advertising industry as brands pay millions for a thirty second commercial and try to outdo each other with elaborate commercials. It’s reached the point where nearly half of the viewers tune in just to see the advertisements.
It’s also a huge day for sports betting. The Super Bowl is not only the second most watched sporting event in the world, it’s the second biggest single day betting event—once again coming in behind the UEFA Champions League final. Interestingly, it’s no longer the overall biggest betting event of the year as it’s been surpassed by the NCAA basketball tournament and particularly the first four days of ‘March Madness’ where 64 teams get cut down to 16.