Team and individual sports run deep in Spanish culture, from centuries-old contests created in Spain to those imported from other countries. Many of the sports popular in Spain are popular elsewhere in the Spanish-speaking world, though regional differences exist. Some sports are only gaining recent acceptance because of the success of Spanish athletes on the world stage.
Soccer, or as it is known in Spain, fútbol, is the most popular sport in the country. Four professional leagues play during a season that features weekend games, mostly played on Sundays, with European matches played midweek. The premier league La Liga, also called Primera, has 20 teams, including the two most famous Spanish teams, Real Madrid and Barcelona.
Basketball is another popular team sport. Eighteen professional teams play from September to June, participating in league and European games. Spaniards such as Los Angeles Laker center Pau Gasol have found homes with NBA teams, while some American players have headed to Spain to continue their careers.
Bullfighting dates to the eighth century, when Spanish nobles fought bulls in honor of King Alfonso VIII's coronation. In the early 18th century, it switched from an aristocratic event to the sport for commoners when King Felipe V banned the nobles from participating. During the event, the bullfighter waves a brightly colored cloth, dodging the bull's charges. He then stabs the bull with a sword between the shoulder blades. If that doesn't kill the bull, he uses a shorter sword to slit its throat. Matadors who put on a good show for the spectators are rewarded with the bull's ears, tail and a hoof, which are then thrown into the crowd as a thank you. Bulls are often handicapped before entering the bullring. Horns are dulled, petroleum jelly is smeared in its eyes and spears and clubs are used to weaken it before a fight.
Cycling has been growing in popularity since the 1940s. Spain hosts one of the most important races in the sport, the Vuelta a Espana, or Tour of Spain. Cyclist Miguel Indurain brought great attention to the sport, much as Lance Armstrong did in the United States, by winning the Tour de France five consecutive years, from 1991-1995. Tennis received a similar boost when Rafael Nadal became the No. 1 ranked player in the world and the first Spaniard to win the Australian Open. Pelota, or jai alai as it is called in the United States, is an offshoot of tennis, though no one form of the sport exists. Opponents hit a ball off a wall with a hand, racquet, bat or basket, similar to handball or racquetball. Like tennis and cycling, it can be a team sport, but is often played alone by nonprofessionals.
Spain hosts two Formula One Grand Prix races: the Spanish Grand Prix in Barcelona and the European Grand Prix, in Valencia. The country is also the site for three Grand Prix motorcycle races. In the Americas, NASCAR began racing stock cars in Mexico City in 2005.
Two sports popular in the Spanish-speaking world that have not yet caught on in Spain are baseball and boxing. Latin American ballplayers rose to prominence in Major League Baseball in the 1950s through the talents of perennial All-Stars Luis Aparicio and Roberto Clemente. Today, Hispanic players represent roughly 30 percent of all Major League players. Professional teams recruit heavily throughout Latin America. Boxing is a popular sport in Mexico, where fighters work their way through the featherweight and lightweight classes. The sport's popularity has been driven by a number of famous boxers, including Mexican-born Julio César Chávez and Mexican-American Oscar De La Hoya.