Right, so we all know the round ball football has the biggest global footprint and can lay claim to the definitive World Cup… no questions asked. But with the cricket World Cup underway and the rugby World Cup looming later in the year, now is a good time to ask; which sport stages the second most important competition?
By important I mean touches the most people, with a global footprint that extends over multiple continents, and is the most sought after and important tournament for that particularly sport.
This, in my opinion, rules out tennis’ Davis Cup, which comes second to the individual players’ careers and Grand Slams.
And I’m not talking about multi-disciplined Olympics either, but strictly national team competitions played with one ultimate prize/title at stake. Plus, as part of the purpose is to find which sport has the second biggest global footprint, let’s ignore the women’s football World Cup – also on the horizon in 2011.
I’m aware there’s a fair bit of personal preference when discussing such matters; obviously there will be an alliance to your preferred sport. But taking bias out of the equation, there must be some way to determine a runner-up. Is there?
Clearly important traits should include: multiple representatives from the six continents (one day, Antarctica), competitive representatives from those continents who do more than just make up the numbers, and a World Cup/championship that is considered the ultimate prize within that sport, i.e. not diminished by other competitions.
There are four contenders: cricket’s World Cup, rugby’s World Cup, hockey’s World Cup and basketball’s world championship. (Rugby league fans, your game doesn’t have the global footprint of rugby union. Don’t shoot the messenger.)
Cricket, in my opinion, is the first World Cup that’s cut from the race, with only five continents represented at the current World Cup (no South American teams); minimal continental European representation (just Holland); the smallest global footprint of the four contenders; and dominated by Commonwealth countries.
Its global reach just doesn’t cut it.
And with the ICC set to cut spots at the World Cup, lowering the amount of minnows represented in the tournament, that footprint will be further diminished.
Also, as the World Cup only represents one of three formats, it’s not exactly indicative of the greatest performing team in the sport as a whole – after all, the World Cup is played with the format that has come under the heaviest criticism and examination in recent time.
Some would even argue the Ashes is more important to England and Australia than the World Cup, diminishing the latter’s status.
That leaves rugby union, basketball and hockey. The latter is the next to be cut. Hockey has a strong global footprint, with powerhouse countries across Europe and Asia, not to mention Australia. But the lack of real representatives from the Americas and Africa hurts hockey’s reach.
No representative from those continents have ever challenged at a hockey World Cup.
And its appeal and popularity is severely lacking compared to rugby and basketball, let alone the eliminated cricket. Even in Australia, where our national team is one of the powerhouse countries and have tasted success, players are relative strangers. A hockey World Cup hardly galvanizes Australia.
So it comes down to basketball and rugby union, and this is where things get interesting…
Basketball’s world championship had a significant head start on the rugby World Cup, and enjoys a much greater presence in Asia, continental Europe, South America (Argentina defeated the USA in the first ever world basketball championship’s in 1950, while Brazil is the fourth most successful) and, obviously, North America.
With the growth of the NBA as a globalised product that has embraced international players, the competitiveness of Spain, Greece, Argentina, Turkey and Lithuania, for example, cannot be questioned as they’ve all medaled at the last three world championships.
While rugby has a strong South American representative in Argentina, continental Europe in France and to a lesser extent Italy, South Africa, New Zealand and Australia, and Japan representing Asia, its reach is still limited compared to rugby’s.
It has the reach over rugby, but does basketball’s world championship resonate like the rugby World Cup? Basketball, despite its increasing global presence, hasn’t totally shaken its “American sport” tag, unlike rugby which has successfully spread and ingrained across a number of continents and countries – think South Africa and New Zealand.
There is still the perception that the USA could wipe the floor with the rest of the world if it fielded its best talent from the NBA, if those egos could be molded into a better cohesive team unit.
Also, with an Olympic presence that includes the pros, some of the shine taken off the world championships, not to mention from the immensely popular NBA, which overshadows the national team basketball scene. At least in rugby the World Cup is the sole and definitive world title, which sits at the top of the sport.
Perhaps there’s an inherent Australian bias at play here that I can’t shake, as basketball remains a fringe sport while the rugby World Cup matters so much more to us Aussies, but it seems the rugby World Cup just edges the basketball world championship for those reasons outlined.
Is the rugby World Cup the most important international team tournament outside of football’s World Cup? It’s debatable.
Follow Adrian on twitter @AdrianMusolino