Competitive Sports Have Always Been Popular in the U.S. myth

When Did Competitive Sports Become Popular in the U.S.?

Competitive sports became popular in the United States from 1850 – 1950 because of lighting technology, mass media, and developing labor and education laws.

Although games like early versions of baseball were played casually, neither spectator sports nor competitive sports were popular in the U.S. before mid-1800. Other advents of the industrial revolution, civil rights, and war also played a large role in the evolution of American sports as we know them today. To understand the history of competitive spectator sports in America, we must look at American history.

A video on how technology and the industrial revolution impacted sports.

A Quick Summary of the History of American Sports and Technology

  • Throughout the early 1800’s Americans played games like Cricket and Rugby. They also favored a new American version of a British game called rounders, or “base”.
  • Base was very popular in the big cities, especially with the Italian and Jewish immigrant children on the Streets of New York. Adults in New York took up this unique version of base, writing new rules and forming the first baseball clubs in the 1840’s.
  • Mandatory education laws (1852 -1917) ensured that most children went to school. This gave many of them time after school to join school-based teams that would compete against each other.
  • During the Civil War the New York version of baseball was shared between soldiers helping to popularize the sport.
  • The advent of new technologies of the industrial revolution, like trains, which allowed teams to travel, changed the way the game was played. The Boston Red Stockings, one of the first traveling teams, famously went on one of baseball’s longest winning streaks gathering fans around the country for the first time.
  • Flood lighting technologies (late 1870’s) allowed games to be played at night for the first time. This allowed working Americans to go to a game after work for the first time.
  • Baseball (1846), football (1869), and basketball (1891) were all invented in America between the Civil War and the Industrial Revolution.
  • Sports betting’s popularity ebbed and flowed throughout the history of competitive sports, but the business end of sports attracted team owners who helped transform sports from an unpaid hobby to a major business starting in the 1870’s.
  • Introducing Sunday games in the late 1800’s with drinking attracted more working class Americans and immigrants to baseball and other sports.
  • Worker’s rights laws (1932) freed up more time and money for working Americans to attend games and play sports.
  • The technology of the 1900’s, especially mass media like television and the Internet, helped to increasingly popularize competitive spectator sports over the years.

See a breakdown of baseball fan attendance over the years.

FACT: As late as 1855, the New York press was still devoting more space to coverage of cricket than to baseball.[7][8]

A clip of Ken Burn’s Baseball showing its evolution from the early 1800’s – 1900.

Competitive Sports in America From the Early 1800’s Until Now

Although people have enjoyed competitive spectator sports since before the first Olympics, they weren’t a big part of American life before the 1800’s.

Sports in the Early to Mid-1800’s

In the early to mid-1800’s Americans across the country would play an early version of baseball called base, or British games like rounders, Rugby, and cricket. Although base was one of the more popular sports played, it was unorganized and not attended by large audiences. Outside of the densely populated cities, Americans still tended to favor non-competitive sports.

Consider that the lawnmower wasn’t invented until the 1830’s, the rules of baseball weren’t written until the 40’s, and Outdoor lighting wasn’t invented until the late 1870’s.

A documentary on the history of lighting and Edison’s rise during the industrial revolution.

Light Technologies Change Sports in America in the Mid-to-Late 19th century


Outdoor lighting technology progressed rapidly through the mid-to-late 19th century, children began to play sports after school safely, and adults could play after work, especially in the big cities like New York and Boston, which had good lighting. Adults organized the children into teams to help keep them from getting into trouble on the streets. Baseball as we know it today was invented in New York in the mid-1840’s from adults forming similar teams called baseball clubs.

Compulsory Education Creates a Need for Organized Sports

Compulsory education (mandatory school), which was begun between 1852 – 1917, gave some of the more financially secure young people “free time” after school for the first time. It became popular to form competitive sports teams to keep children organized and supervised, similar to what happened in the city a few years earlier.

Competitive college sports gained popularity around this time as well replacing the more traditional non-competitive sports like boating as favorites. American Football originated in 1869 when colleges created a new version of Rugby.

Baseball clubs formed around the country as the Civil War and compulsory education helped to spread the word of baseball and attract even more fans to the sport as players and spectators.

Team Owners, Marketing, and Merchandise

Not only were the youth organized into teams, the baseball clubs were organized into teams as well. With the rise of sports betting, owners stepped in and changed the game from a hobby to the business partly to clean up the game and kept it honest and partly to make money. Until this time players weren’t paid and most games didn’t charge an admission. By mid-1870′ the new teams and money behind them helped to popularize sports further. Around this time, Spalding started creating some of the first sportswear, which also helped to popularize competitive sports.

Electric Light and Mass Media in the Early 1900’s

In the early 1900’s attendance to games started to rise as floodlights, the radio, trains, and other advents of the Industrial Revolution made it easier for Americans to enjoy sporting events.

Whiskey Games and Sunday Games

Having games on Sunday with drinking opened up a new audience to competitive spectator sports, the working class, and immigrants who had not been able to attend games in the past.

The Dead-ball Era and WWI

Competitive spectator sports didn’t gain popularity on a steady incline, there were a few low points including 1900 to 1920 when the dirty tricks of players and owners alike presented America with a less wholesome and enjoyable version of baseball. During WWI (and WWII) there were simply not as many players for any game, during this time some of the popular sports was carried out by female players.

The Fair Labor Standards Act: Child Labor Rights and Worker’s Rights

The Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 eliminated child labor in America and limited worker hours helping to free up more time for American families to enjoy competitive spectator sports.

WWII and the Rise of Televised Sports

WWII also helped to emphasize cooperation. Pride in American sports offered a type of escapism from the war. Although it was really after the war when everyone had came back home that baseball became the national pass-time it is today and the other sports, especially American football, started to dominate the playing fields. During this time, the growth of mass media and lighting helped to create the competitive spectator sports we know today.

Mass Media and the Modern Age

The continual rise of modern media outlets like radio, TV, the internet, and a strong middle class have drastically changed the popularity of sports in America since the 50’s.

How Artificial Lighting Changed Sports Attendance and Popularity

Gas and electric light made large outdoor sports in the evening possible for the first time. This was one of the most important elements in the popularization of competitive spectator sports in America.

Before artificial light sports generally had to be played outside during the day. The implications of this were that working class people who worked during the day didn’t have much time to play sports, and didn’t have much time to go to sporting events. This naturally led to sports and sporting events being less popular than they are today in the 21st Century.

A video on the history of baseball from 1942 until now.

Gas Lighting and New York Baseball

Gas lighting of the early and mid-1800’s didn’t do much for lighting fields at night, but it did affect sports in a few ways. Cities could stay lit longer, workers worked longer hours (ensuring they would miss day games), and young immigrant children could stay out on the street later playing unorganized competitive sports.[7]

In cities like New York and Boston, which had gas lighting, low-income children favored games like baseball. The American baseball we know now (then called “New York” baseball) grew out of this as adults formed teams themselves. By the 1950s, competitive sports started becoming popular with school-age children all over America.[2][7]

Electric Flood Lights and the Rise of Spectator Sports

Electric flood lighting in the late 1870’s made a significant impact of the popularity of spectator sports. Flood lights allowed working class adults to watch competitive sports. The baseball games that had grown in popularity indirectly due to gas lighting reached new levels of popularity as electric lighting and flood lighting technology improved.

Today sports, especially competitive sports, are more popular than ever due to the impact that lighting technology continues to have on our ability to watch a large arena game at any time of day or night.

FACT: The first sport to play under floodlights was polo, on 18 July 1878. Ranelagh Club hosted a match in Fulham, London, England against the Hurlingham Club.[2]

A short video on the history of compulsory education.

How Mandatory Schooling Changed Sports Attendance

Before 1852, when Massachusetts implemented compulsory education, competitive sports were mostly played by unorganized and unsupervised groups of lower class children in cities where the population was dense and lights lit up the streets even at night. Upper and middle-class children did mostly non-competitive actives like dancing and music lessons.[2]

College students focused on sports like boating, and some older Americans played unorganized games of baseball or cricket. Although the first baseball game was played as early as 1846, neither competitive sports nor spectator sports were common in America during this time.

Between 1852, and until Mississippi became the last state to pass a compulsory education law in 1917, sports were becoming more popular with children of all classes, and correspondingly more popular with colleges and older Americans as well.[2]

“Free time” for Children and the Rise of Organized Competitive Sports

One important result of mandatory education in regards to sports is that it gave many children “free time” for the first time. In other words by denoting that some time was “school-time,” it implied that some portion of time after school was “free time” if children did not need to work. This left children of all classes (not just the low-income immigrants from the cities) needing to be organized and supervised while their parents worked.

By giving children organized competitive activities to do schools could encourage children to build school spirit and participate in productive activities rather than to simply go off and get in trouble. This was especially true with immigrants in the large cities where adults organized young boys into teams, as they didn’t trust them to play unsupervised without getting in trouble.

Out of mandatory education, and a need to supervise young boys during “free time”, the rise of organized competitive school sports was largely born, not just for children, but for adults as well.

FACT: Sports were seen as important in teaching the “American” values of cooperation, hard work, and respect for authority; preparing children for the “new industrial society that was emerging,” which would require them to be physical laborers.[2]

FACT: Young low-income people weren’t the only ones embracing sports. The college elite began focusing on competitive sports starting with rowing at Yale in 1843. The intercollegiate rugby game took place on May 15, 1874, at Cambridge, Massachusetts when Harvard played against McGill University.[4]

A video discussing child labor conditions of the early 20’s and the un-ratified child labor Amendment that were “shelved” in place of the Fair Labor Standards Act.

The Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 and the Rise of Competitive Sports

In 1938, The Fair Labor Standards Act decreased the amount of child labor in America, created the 40 hour work week, established a minimum wage, and established overtime wages. This helped to free up time and money for working class American families.[5]

Due to the Fair Labor Standards Act children and adults had more “free time” and adults and more money with which to enjoy things like competitive spectator sports.

America Sports, Born From New Technology and Workers Rights

Now that America had flood lighting, free time, money, and a taste for games the newly invented basketball (1891), football (1869), and baseball (1846) the big arena competitive spectator sports of today could take root.

WWII and the Rise of Mass Media

The last major factors to impact sports popularity were probably WWII and the rise of mass media. Not only did the war bring America together and gave it’s people a need for escapism, it also marked an important moment in the way that mass media changed. After WWII, it was common to have a TV in every home.

a clip from Touchdown with Bob Hall from 1948.

By 1961, CBS was airing “Pro Football Kickoff” (what would become The NFL Today) a pre-game show that helped to ensure America would stay tuned in for Sunday football.[6]

Today Sunday football is an American tradition that has only grown in popularity with the help of shows like NFL today and their classic mid-seventies to mid-eighties lineup.

A clip of NFL Today from 1978.

The Internet, Sports Betting, and Modern Day

The popularity of America’s sports have ebbed and flowed, but generally attendance for American favorites like baseball and football continue to grow. More Americans now than ever enjoy sports since the emergence of widespread sports betting and the ease with which people can use internet and technology to experience sports in new ways.


Technology and worker rights are largely responsible for the popularity of sports in America today. Before the advent of outdoor lighting and mandatory education competitive sports weren’t played nearly as often. Arena sports stadiums and attendance in early U.S. history pales in comparison to the highly televised and attended games of today.


  1. A Brief History of the Light Bulb“. Retrieved Nov 15, 2015.
  2. When Did Competitive Sports Take Over American Childhood?“. Retrieved Nov 15, 2015.
  3. Inglis, Simon (2014). Played in London. Swindon: English Heritage. p. 22. ISBN 978-1-84802-057-3.
  4. College athletics in the United States“. Retrieved Nov 15, 2015.
  5. Fair Labor Standards Act“. Retrieved Nov 15, 2015.
  6. History of American football“. Retrieved Nov 15, 2015.
  7. History of Baseball in the United States“. Retrieved Nov 15, 2015.
  8. Markovits, Andrei S.; Steven L. Hellerman (2001). Offside: soccer and American exceptionalism. Princeton University Press. p. 56. ISBN 0-691-07447-X.

Author: Thomas DeMichele

Thomas DeMichele is the content creator behind,,, and other and Massive Dog properties. He also contributes to MakerDAO and other cryptocurrency-based projects. Tom's focus in all...

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