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Is basketball taking over the world?

Wandering through arenas, half lost. That's a huge part of covering sports for a living. And I was doing that, a while ago, in some arena (Orlando? Dallas? Phoenix? L.A.? 2009? 2010?) with James Harris-Hogarth. He's a British hoops journalist (and, I'm reasonably certain, the guy who shot the video of Devin Harris losing a game of one-on-one to a British streetball legend.)

Anyway, as James and I were orienting ourselves in Boston or New Orleans or wherever, I asked him about how basketball was doing in England. I knew that the British National team had sold very few tickets a couple of years ago when they toured England. I knew that if you traveled to England years ago, and tried to find a pickup game, you would be stymied.

But James came bearing news. He said that in England now, more young people played basketball than any other sport.

What?

Really?

Could it be so?

Could it be that basketball is becoming, to England, a little like soccer is to the U.S.? By that I mean, the sport that a ton of kids play when they're young even though their parents don't know much about it? Because it does not take a Harvard Business School degree to figure out that over time that plays out well for the NBA. The generation that grows up playing hoops is incredibly likely to follow the NBA one day. It's a long-term play, but a great one. And as evidence that it's working, I'd point to the uptick in the market value of soccer in the U.S., as those soccer-playing kids are getting older.

Then the other day I was reminded of my conversation with James, when I read Chris Sheridan's article quoting a FIBA executive:

"There's a lot of politics in this environment," Baumann added. "But if you look around the world and get the statistics of what's the most popular sport in the age group 14-18, it's basketball across all genders."

(Side note, by saying "all genders" this has to be the first time a basketball executive has acknowledged the transgender community in a meaningful way. Or it was just an English-as-a-second language issue.)

Basketball is the most popular sport in the world for teenagers? Holy cow. David Stern must be grinning from ear to ear.

But is it true?

It's hard to find out. Really answering that question requires massive expensive research projects, and those projects tend to be motivated by people promoting basketball, and, surprise surprise, they tend to discover that people really love basketball.

However, for what it's worth, here are some numbers I was able to find. The FIBA website says:

  • A study conducted by TGI Europe in 2006 in the four European markets UK, FRA, ESP and GER and based on 56.00 interviews, shows that the 33 million basketball fans in these four markets are mainly young (15 - 24), male and deriving from high social grade categories.

  • A global study, conducted by Roper Starch Worldwide in April '97 based on 35,000 interviews, showed that 11% of the world plays basketball. Basketball has even replaced football as the most popular sport in areas like Asia and Australia and is on the way to surpassing football worldwide

I don't know how many interviews 56.00 is, but it could be a lot. In any case, 11% of the world sounds a little inflated to me, but anything like that is a ton of people, and that was 13 years ago! Certainly, thanks to Yao Ming and a hundred other players, there has been an explosion in basketball interest in the last 13 years.

Meanwhile, the NBA cites research from Experian Simmons, which finds basketball to be the most played sport among a set of U.S. teenagers. In the 12 months prior to the survey, this is the number of 14-17 year olds who had played each of the major sports:

  • Basketball 9,182,000

  • Football 7,184,000

  • Volleyball 5,558,000

  • Soccer 5,498,000

  • Baseball 5,464,000

  • Softball 3,970,000

  • Hockey 2,477,000

I'd be interested to hear your take, particularly if you're outside the United States. Is basketball on the rise? Is it the most played sport among teenagers where you live?