On many subjects, I like to let the data speak and do not have any strong priors if I do not know any data. There is, however, at least one subject where I hold strong and totally unjustified opinions: Which sport is the best and why that is the case.

(A side note: What is a sport? I propose “Any physical activity with a fixed set of rules which two or more parties perform to determine a winner.”)

There are four major attributes to judge a sport and two minor ones. Let’s dive right in and look at the major ones:

1. Is it a team sport?
Individual sports just lack so many of the interesting dynamics (both interpersonal and tactical) that they are plainly inferior. Tactics are greatly reduced when you only have one player, there is no transfer market, it doesn’t matter if you are a jerk or a nice guy, you can never play against your former team, there are no substitutions and so on.

2. Is a ball (in the widest sense) involved?
(Ball includes a football egg, a hockey puck, the thing you play badminton with, a frisbee and so on. You get the idea.) The inclusion of a ball makes brute force / athletic ability less important and puts the focus more on skill. It also adds some element of unpredictability. It’s also just plain fun to chase / catch / shoot small things. Just ask your dog.

3. Can you physically foul?
If you can’t, it’s boring. Sport is essentially ritualized combat, and fouling is a remnant of that. Apart from that, it often serves to level the playing field for lesser talented players and adds some actual, personal stakes to the game.

4. Can you play it everywhere / with anybody / without much equipment?
In short, the easier it is to play, the better.

Now the two minor attributes:

a) How important are raw physical attributes? → The less important, the better. I just hate it that you can’t be a professional basketball player when you aren’t tall.
b) Is there subjective scoring? → Hopefully not. I’ll never understood how you can cheer for figure-skating or something where the outcome is decided exclusively by (probably corrupt) judges.

Now that we have established the model, let’s look at how some sports score:

 

Sport Team? Ball? Foul? Easy? Verdict
Soccer Yes Yes Yes Easy Excellent
Tennis No (Singles) Yes No Medium Poor
Table tennis No (Singles) Yes No Medium Poor
Motorsport No No Yes (well…) Impossible Terrible
Basketball Yes Yes Yes Easy Excellent
Volleyball Yes Yes No Medium Average
Athletics No No No Easy Poor
(American) Football / Rugby Yes Yes Yes Medium / Easy Excellent
Baseball / Cricket Yes Yes No (maybe a little) Easy Good
Golf No (usually) Yes No Hard Poor
Field hockey Yes Yes Yes Medium Excellent
Dressage No No No Impossible Terrible

So, how does the real world look like? The top sports by a long list of criteria are (http://sporteology.com/top-10-popular-sports-world/), probably super dodgy numbers, but anyway:

  1. Soccer
  2. Cricket
  3. Basketball
  4. Field Hockey
  5. Tennis
  6. Volleyball
  7. Table Tennis
  8. Baseball
  9. Rugby
  10. Golf

Looks good! The only mismatches are tennis and table tennis, which are pretty bad sports according to the model, volleyball is average. The rest (including the top three) qualifies as good / excellent! The model is true! (The only outlier for my personal taste is btw Golf. Great sport. It’s the exception that proves the rule!)

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