What is the hardest sport to go pro in? Among the countless aspiring athletes across various sports, only an exceptionally talented and dedicated few make it to the professional level. The ultra-competitive path to going pro requires immense skill, commitment, financial resources, and luck. But the difficulty of turning sports into a lucrative and sustainable career differs significantly based on the level of competition, physical demands, barriers to entry, and sheer magnitude of skill involved. Here are some of the hardest sports to go pro in based on these factors.
Hardest Sports With the Most Challenging Paths to Going Pro
Many sports contested at the Olympic level represent the pinnacle of competition in their field. As a result, the odds of rising through the ranks to become a professional athlete in these sports are exceedingly low.
Arguably one of the most difficult Olympic sports to go pro in is gymnastics. The complexity and execution of routines at the elite level are immense, requiring immense natural talent. The judging is highly subjective, and opportunities to compete and gain recognition are scarce outside of major competitions. The brief career peak during the late teens means gymnasts must perfect their skills by 18. This necessitates intensive, specialized training from toddler age. The high risk of career-ending injuries also shortens the window. Even making it to the NCAA competition is an uphill battle, let alone becoming a professional.
Like gymnastics, figure skating poses major challenges to turning professional. The technical mastery and artistry required to execute elite jumps, spins, and footwork is incredibly demanding. The financial barriers are also substantial, with private coaching required from a very young age. Factor in subjective judging, high injury risk from falls, and few pathways to recognition, and very few figure skaters ever make careers out of the sport. Natural talent identified and nurtured from age 3 or 4 is virtually mandatory.
Swimming presents uniquely difficult paths to going pro among Olympic sports. The broad worldwide talent pool means competition is immense even within countries. Reaching Olympic qualifying time standards requires an incredible confluence of natural physical gifts and years upon years of daily training regiments from a very young age. Collegiate swimming provides some opportunities, but transitioning to a sustainable professional career in the sport is rare.
While it encompasses a wide range of events, track and field disciplines like sprinting, long-distance running, hurdles, shot put, discus, pole vaulting, high jump, and more all pose high difficulty going pro. Competition in most events is intense, especially for sprinters. The training required for explosive speed or superior technique is taxing. And the financial barriers can be prohibitive. Just making an Olympic team in a track and field event is a monumental feat; earning a living from the sport long-term is even more daunting.
Popular Professional Team Sports With High Barriers to Entry
Some of the most visible and lucrative professional team sports actually have among the most difficult journeys to making a pro roster.
The path to playing American football professionally is exceptionally challenging. Simply making a college football team poses long odds, with over 1 million high school football players in the U.S. but only about 73,000 roster spots across the NCAA. From there, only around 1.6% of NCAA football players ever get drafted into the NFL. Factor in late career starts, high injury risk, and that drew players still have to secure a roster spot, and the odds are astronomically low. Natural size, speed, and elite skills make up the few who reach the NFL.
When accounting for all the high school, collegiate, and international players competing, only around 0.03% of basketball players ever reach the NBA. The advantages conferred by height helps, but truly superior physical attributes and skill mastery are prerequisites. Gaining national exposure on competitive Amateur Athletic Union teams from a young age is also often required. The path is long and narrow even for the most gifted.
Ice hockey also presents uniquely challenging hurdles to playing professionally. The high costs of equipment, ice time, and geographic constraints in warmer climates limit the talent pool. Making the NHL entails not just mastering elite on-ice skills but years of financial investment and access to development pathways. Talent alone is rarely enough. Canadian major junior leagues provide the top development route, requiring family sacrifice and high-risk moves.
Given the massive participation in high school baseball, with over 485,000 active players, already incredibly slim odds of advancing to MLB competition shrink even further. Unlike basketball and football with school pathways, baseball players must gain visibility through other avenues to get drafted. With so much competition globally, true outliers in speed, hitting, and defensive skills separate from the masses. Remaining injury-free and peaking at the optimal ages adds to the crapshoot.
Niche Individual Sports With High Pro Barriers
Beyond the major team sports, some less mainstream individual sports pose immense difficulty transitioning into a viable long-term professional career as well.
Street skateboarding carries a distinct anti-establishment ethos. But the high-risk nature of daredevil tricks, lack of financial support, and scarce pathways for recognition make making a livable income through competitions extremely challenging. Even skaters with significant fan followings and sponsors often cannot fully self-support. Recovering from inevitable injuries to maintain momentum is difficult too.
Mixed Martial Arts (MMA)
MMA fighters face a slowly evolving path to becoming professionals. MMA’s contract structure means limited fight opportunities in major promotions like UFC or Bellator even once fighters get there. Gaining the diverse striking, grappling, and conditioning foundation to compete at the highest levels poses a major barrier taking years of disciplined training. Significant financial investment with little guarantee of returns makes MMA a highly risky career pursuit.
Whether road, track, or mountain bike racing, going pro in cycling entails immense training loads, financial hurdles, cutthroat competition for roster spots, and navigating the sport’s complex politics and systems. Natural physiological gifts like power, endurance, and VO2 max are prerequisites. Making a career out of cycling takes immense good fortune in finding the right teams and timing even with world-class ability.
Although bowling has a strong professional tournament structure, becoming a pro remains difficult. Exceptional bowlers maintain at least a 200 average score. Turning bowling into a full-time career is rare, given its niche status, declining young player participation, and limited financial incentives compared to more visible sports. Still, some standouts can earn a living through competitions, endorsements, and coaching.
Across nearly any sport, making it as a professional athlete is an uphill battle. But certain sports pose exceptionally daunting journeys crammed with roadblocks. Those who overcome the long odds through a perfect mix of natural gifts, rigorous training, financial backing, persistence, and luck earn their spots among the elite professionals.