Exactly half of sports fans ranked either pro-football (34%) or Major League Baseball (16%) as their favorite to follow. These percentages have remained relatively stable since Harris began their annual polling in 1985. The major shift is not in the total number of combined football and baseball fans but in the enthusiasm gap between the two. The two sports were virtually even in terms of those ranking one or the other as their favorite in 1985, but the popularity margin has been widening ever since. By 1989 pro-football opened up a seven-point lead on baseball. A figured that remained relatively consistent until the late-90s when the NFL began to outdistance the MLB be double-digit margins. Last year pro-football's advantage reached a record margin of 36-13% but baseball has managed to close the gap some in 2012 and now trails be eighteen-percentage points.
There have been few dramatic shifts in the levels of popularity for any individual sporting leagues in recent years. College football continues to rank a solid third behind pro-football and baseball with 11% of sports fans naming it as their favorite. That's two-points down from 2011 polling, but NCAA football has polled between eleven and thirteen-percent every year since 2004. Auto racing which currently ranks fourth has seen a modest decline in popularity over the past few years according to Harris. Since 2008 it has polled at an average of 8%, but that's down from it's peak three-year period (2005-07) when one in ten Americans called it their favorite sport.
Pro-basketball (7%) rebounded in popularity in 2012, but it's gain appears to be NCAA basketball's loss. Only three-percent list the college ranks as being their favorite. The popularity of basketball in general has remained extremely consistent in recent years. An average of ten-percent of sports fans have rated it as their favorite since 2004. Still that's significantly lower than in the era between 1989-2003 when an average of more than 17% placed basketball at the top of their list.
No other sport in the United States breaks the five-percent threshold. Hockey has been between four and five-percent support every year since 2004. One in fifty Americans rate men's tennis, golf and soccer and swimming as their favorite, and Harris measures no fewer than nine other sports receiving one-percent support, or less.
In terms of demographics pro-football draws most of its popularity from African-Americans (48%) in their 40s (41%) and living in the "western" United States (40%). Baseball is most popular with midwesterners (20%) who are aged 50-64 (19%) and are politically conservative (19%). College football is rated highest by those aged 18-24 (23%), living in the American south (18%) and holding a post-graduate degree (18%). Lastly auto racing is tops with those living in rural areas (16%), over the age of 65 (12%) and having obtained a high school degree or less (11%).