Why is gridiron football so much more popular than other sports to watch on American TV? I think it’s because the sport excels at creating drama. In almost no other sport I can name does a game-changing score typically come about only as a result of many minutes of effort, in which a mishap at any point can mean it was all for nothing. In sports like baseball or soccer or hockey, big scores come with very little warning, and in sports like basketball or tennis or golf or volleyball, there are no really big moments because each individual score is small and only the accumulation of dozens of scoring moments can create a win.
There are certain sports which are very popular despite being poor at drama in this sense. Auto racing has even more fans than football, and winning at that involves very little drama — it’s an extremely incremental process to work one’s way forward through the field. Bicycle racing is much more dramatic than any motorsport, because the athletes can make bursts of effort at strategic moments. But on the other hand, losing at auto racing can be very dramatic indeed. Maybe it’s true that many fans watch it just for the crashes.
Soccer is the real puzzle. Why is it the most popular sport in Europe, South America, and Africa? It’s fun to play but I don’t see how it’s fun to watch. Scores can be very rare, and you may have to watch an hour or more of nothing before seeing a big moment, and that moment comes with little warning. Then if they go to penalty kicks, it’s an anticlimax that makes the entire game pointless. (They should widen the goals and make the game higher scoring.)
Actually, I can think of one other athletic endeavor which can offer the same kind of drama that gridiron football does: the fighting sports. Boxing, kickboxing, wrestling, judo, MMA… no wonder the UFC has grown so rapidly. Except sumo wrestling, which is usually over in seconds. That’s another one which is a bit inexplicable in its popularity.
One sport that might be kind of good at drama is cricket — it sure ought to be better than baseball, from what I understand of the rules. Unfortunately a cricket test is really really long.