By Barry Janoff
January 17, 2013: Pro football remains the most popular sport in the U.S., followed by baseball, college football, auto racing and basketball (pro and college), according to a just-released study from global market and research firm Harris.
Pro football was picked No. 1 by 34% of those surveyed, which was down from 36% last year. But even with baseball up from last year (13%), the sport is still far behind at 16%.
Pro football has gone up 10% in popularity since the first such Harris Poll in 1985 while baseball has gone down 7% over that time.
Of interest is that fact that the popularity of pro hockey was not impacted in the survey by the just-ended NHL lockout. In 2005, after the 2004-05 lockout wiped out the entire season, 5% of those surveyed listed pro hockey as their favorite sport. In the new survey, conducted between Dec. 12-18 when the lockout was still in effect, 5% listed pro hockey as their favorite sport.
When it comes to the top sports, demographics play a large role, according to Harris.
African Americans (48%), people aged 40-49 years (41%) and people who live in the western U.S. (40%) are more likely to say professional football is their favorite sport, according to Harris. Meanwhile, those aged 18-24 (23%), college graduates (27%) and Southerners (30%) are less likely to do so.
Regarding baseball, Midwesterners (20%), people aged 50-64 (19%) and Conservatives (19%) have cited it as their favorite sport; while people aged 25-29 (8%), households with income under $35,000 (11%) and Southerners (12%) are least likely to say baseball is their favorite.
The gap between pro football and baseball reached its height in 2011 (36% to 13%), and has been a double-digit lead since the 2002 Harris Poll.
The gap between pro football and baseball reached its height in 2011 (36% to 13%), and has been a double-digit lead since the 2002 Harris Poll. In 1985, the first year Harris released such figures, pro football's lead over baseball was just 25% to 24%.
In other sports, the hot rivalry in tennis among Novak Djokovic, Roger Federer, Rafael Nadal and Andy Murray — including the sport getting prime coverage during the Summer Olympics in London — did not increase popularity among sports fans surveyed by Harris. The sport has been most popular with 2% of those surveyed in the past three Harris polls, down from a high of 5% in the 1985 Harris survey.
Similarly, the presence of Michael Phelps in the Summer Games did not impact the popularity of swimming in the Harris survey, which has been at either 1% or 2% since the 2008 Harris sports fans report, which also was the year of the Summer Games in Beijing.
Looking ahead, Harris said that college football "continues to be a powerhouse, and with a hotly anticipated four-team playoff system replacing the current BCS system in 2014, fan ardor could well see an uptick. If the professional leagues aren't careful about restoring or maintaining their images, college sports could be the beneficiaries."
The Harris Poll of 2,176 adults surveyed online between December 12 and 18, 2012 by Harris Interactive.