8 Insanely Popular Sports That Are Rarely Played in the U.S.

Beyond soccer

Photo: Shahjehan/Shutterstock

They’re called “niche” sports in the United States — immensely popular in other countries but played by only a handful of enthusiasts in the U.S. In the past, you could have included soccer in this category, but a domestic pro league, extensive cable TV coverage and a wealth of youth programs have taken it into the American mainstream.

Some of these sports are difficult to understand and appreciate unless you grew up with them. But they all offer excitement and drama to their fans — and fuel many young athletes' daydreams.

These eight sports (including sepak takraw, pictured here) pack stadiums around the world but are relatively foreign to American fans and athletes.

Cricket

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Cricket has its roots in 16th century England. The most popular sport in the country during the British colonial era, it has a huge number of fans in the United Kingdom even today. Cricket is, by far, the most watched and played sport on the Indian subcontinent, with large followings in South Africa, Australia, the Anglophone West Indies and other former British colonies.

The game is played between teams of 11 players on a circular field. Most of the action takes place in the middle of the field on a 22-yard long pitch with a set of upright stakes called wickets at each end. Two batsmen attempt to score runs by hitting the ball out of the playing field boundaries (similar to a baseball home run) or by hitting and then running to the other side of the pitch. The defense can get the batsmen out by catching a batted ball in the air or by knocking down one of the wickets. Except in the longest forms of cricket, each batsman only gets one out per game.

Australian rules football

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Called “footie” or “Aussie rules” colloquially, this unusual game is played in front of sizable crowds in Australia. Everything about this sport is big. Each side has 18 players on the field during a game. The playing surface reaches nearly 200 yards in length and 150 yards in width in the largest stadiums. The championship of the AFL, Australia's top professional league, is the most attended club sport championship in the world. It has averaged more than 110,000 tickets sold in each of the past few years.

Aussie rules has elements of rugby, soccer, American football, volleyball and even basketball. During play, the ball cannot be passed; it has to be advanced by kicking, dribbling or hitting it with an open hand. The main method of scoring is by kicking the ball through the goal posts, with an option to take fewer points by propelling the ball through a set of wider, shorter posts.

Rugby

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The U.S has a national rugby team, and the sport is played on some college campuses. But these teams have had limited success in international competition.

Rugby dominates the sports scene in the U.K., Ireland, South Africa, Australia, New Zealand and the island nations of the South Pacific. Some think of rugby as a kind of padless football. Unlike American football, however, the ball cannot be passed forward — it must be kicked forward — and most strategies involve backward lateral-style passes meant to move the ball quickly to the weakest point in the opposing team’s defense. Teams score by kicking the ball through field-goal-post-like uprights. A team can get more points with a “try,” which occurs when any player touches the ball at any point behind the goal line.

Netball

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Netball evolved in England from an earlier version of the game that we now know as basketball. The sport is unique in that it is played primarily by women. In fact, the sport's governing body, the International Netball Federation, recognizes only women's teams in official competition, though both genders play at the recreational level.

At first glance, netball looks a lot like basketball, but without a backboard. The goal, like basketball, is 10 feet high and consists of a circular hoop. Game play is quite different from basketball, however. Each side has seven players. Each player is assigned a specific position, with rules limiting their movements around the court. After a goal is scored, play restarts from the center of the playing court, as in soccer or hockey. Netball is popular in the former British colonies. A women's tournament is held at the Commonwealth Games, and there is also an international championship.

Team handball

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Best described as a cross between basketball and soccer, team handball (also called European handball or Olympic handball) is very popular in Europe. It has its roots in France, Germany and Scandinavia, with the modern version of the game developed in Germany and Denmark. Men's handball has been an Olympic sport since 1972, and women's handball was added four years later.

During play, each team puts six field players and a goalie on the 130-by-66 foot court. Points are scored by throwing the ball into the net from outside the goalie area, which is bounded by an arc similar to basketball’s 3-point line. Players can advance the ball by dribbling or passing.

Hurling

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This traditional Gaelic sport is popular in Ireland. Some enthusiasts contend that it is one of the oldest team sports on Earth, with artifacts pointing to a similar game having been played about 3,000 years ago. In a number of ways, hurling is similar to lacrosse or field hockey. Players use a stick with a flat, circle-shaped head to hit a hard ball into a guarded net for three points or into the uprights above the net for one point. Because of the speed with which the ball is hit, some people have called hurling the “fastest sport on Earth.”

Though no professional leagues exist, the game is played widely in Ireland and around the world by members of the Irish diaspora. The annual All-Ireland Senior Hurling Championship has been held annually since 1887. Teams represent different counties in Ireland and people come from all over the country to attend the championship match.

Kabaddi

WIkimedia Commone.

At first glance, kabaddi, a nonball team sport played mainly in Bangladesh and India, looks like the type of game enjoyed by school children during gym class. Played recreationally throughout South Asia, it is considered the national sport of Bangladesh. A formalized version of kabaddi is played at an international level, with teams from across Asia and the U.K. taking part.

The game is played by two teams of seven players on a field roughly 30 by 40 feet. The teams gain points by crossing into the opposition's half of the field and tagging, tackling or “containing” as many opposing players as they can. Despite the similarities to a playground game, kadabbi has its roots in Indian wrestling and, at the competitive level, it is much rougher than a casual game of tag.

Sepak takraw

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This Southeast Asian sport has gained a following all over the world thanks to the acrobatic moves of its top players. The game, which has its roots on the Malay Peninsula, can best be described as foot-volleyball. Players primarily use their feet to move a small ball made of woven rattan over a net roughly 5 feet tall.

Sepak takraw is played recreationally all over Southeast Asia and is a part of major athletic competitions such as the Commonwealth Games and SEA Games. In the U.S., it is played recreationally by members of Southeast Asian immigrant communities.