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Sports in the United States

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Sports in the United States are an important part of the country's culture. Based on revenue, the four major professional sports leagues in the United States are Major League Baseball (MLB), the National Basketball Association (NBA), the National Football League (NFL), and the National Hockey League (NHL). All four enjoy wide-ranging domestic media coverage and are considered the preeminent leagues in their respective sports in the world, although only basketball, baseball, and ice hockey have substantial followings in other nations. Three of those leagues have teams that represent Canadian cities, and all four are among the most financially lucrative sports leagues in the world.

Professional teams in all major sports in the U.S. operate as franchises within a league, meaning that a team may move to a different city if the owners believe financial benefit, but franchise moves are usually subject to some form of league-level approval. All major sports leagues use a similar type of regular season schedule with a playoff tournament after the regular season ends. In addition to the major league-level organizations, several sports also have professional minor leagues, active in smaller cities across the country. Sports leagues in the United States are also unique in that they do not practice promotion and relegation, unlike sports leagues in Europe and almost all other parts of the world (with Australia the only other major sporting country that does not use the promotion/relegation model).

Sports are particularly associated with education in the United States, with most high schools and universities having organized sports. College sports competitions play an important role in the American sporting culture, and college football and college basketball are as popular as professional sports in some parts of the country. The major sanctioning body for college sports is the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA).



The Herb Brooks Arena in the Olympic Center at Lake Placid, New York hosted the Miracle on Ice match

The United States Olympic Committee (USOC) is the National Olympic Committee for the United States. American athletes have won a total of 2,570 medals at the Summer Olympic Games and another 253 at the Winter Olympic Games[citation needed]. American athletes have won more medals in athletics (track and field) (738, 29%) and swimming (489, 19%) than any other nations. Thomas Burke was the first athlete to represent the United States at the Olympics. He took first place in both the 100 meters and the 400 meters at the 1896 Summer Olympics in Athens, Greece[citation needed]. American swimmer Michael Phelps is the most decorated Olympic athlete of all time, with 28 Olympic medals, 23 of them gold.

The United States has sent athletes to every celebration of the modern Olympic Games, except the 1980 Summer Olympics hosted by the Soviet Union in Moscow, which it boycotted because of the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan.

Michael Phelps celebrates after winning his 8th gold medal.

American athletes have won more gold and overall medals than any other country in the Summer Games and overall. The U.S. Olympic teams have also compiled the second-most overall medals total at the Winter Olympics, trailing only Norway. Earlier United States mainly conceded to Soviet Union at summer Games and to Soviet Union, Norway, East Germany at the Winter Olympics only and now strongly contends with China at the Summer Olympics. The United States is the only country whose athletes have won at least one gold medal at every Winter Olympics, and won the total medal count at the 1932 Winter Olympics Lake Placid, New York, and in the 2010 Winter Olympics in Vancouver, British Columbia. During the 2010 Winter Olympics, the United States set a record for most total medals of any country at a single Winter Olympics.

The United States hosted both Summer and Winter Games in 1932, and has hosted more Games than any other country – eight times, four times each for the Summer and Winter Games:

Individual sports[edit]

Motor sports[edit]

Jimmie Johnson has won Driver of the Year five times.

Motor sports are widely popular in the United States but Americans generally show little interest in the major international competitions, such as the Formula One Grand Prix series and MotoGP, preferring home-grown racing series. However, some Americans have achieved great success in these international series, such as Mario Andretti and Kenny Roberts.

Americans, like the rest of the world, initially began using public streets as a host of automobile races. As time progressed it was soon discovered that these venues were often unsafe to the public as they offered relatively little crowd control. Promoters and drivers in the United States discovered that horse racing tracks could provide better conditions for drivers and spectators than public streets. The result has been a long-standing popularity of oval track racing, which is not used in the rest of the world, while road racing has generally waned. However, an extensive though illegal street racing culture still persists.[1]

Indianapolis 500[edit]

Main article: Indianapolis 500
Indianapolis Motor Speedway is among the world's premier racing facilities.[citation needed]

Historically, open wheel racing was the most popular nationwide, with the Indianapolis 500 being the most widely followed race. However, an acrimonious split in 1994 between the primary series, CART (later known as Champ Car), and the Indianapolis Motor Speedway (the site of the Indy 500) led to the formation of the Indy Racing League, which launched the rival IndyCar Series in 1996. From that point, the popularity of open wheel racing in the U.S. declined dramatically.[2] The feud was settled in 2008 with an agreement to merge the two series under the IndyCar banner, but enormous damage had already been done to the sport.[3] Post-merger, Indycar continues to remain with slight gains per year, despite a product that has become compelling.


Main article: NASCAR
The start of the 2015 Daytona 500, the biggest race in NASCAR

The CART-IRL feud coincided with an enormous expansion of stock car racing, governed by NASCAR, from its past as a mostly regional circuit mainly followed in the Southern United States to a truly national sport. NASCAR's audience peaked in the mid 2000s, and has declined a bit but it continues to have around 2-4 million viewers per race. Among NASCAR's popular drivers are Jeff Gordon, Jimmie Johnson, Tony Stewart, Dale Earnhardt Jr., and Kyle Busch. NASCAR's most popular race is the Daytona 500 held each year at Daytona Beach, Florida in February.

Other motorsports[edit]

Among the better known sports car races in the United States are the 24 Hours of Daytona, 12 Hours of Sebring, and Petit Le Mans, which have featured in the World Sportscar Championship, IMSA GT Championship, Intercontinental Le Mans Cup, FIA World Endurance Championship, American Le Mans Series, Rolex Sports Car Series and currently the United SportsCar Championship.

Another one of the most popular forms of motorsports in the United States is the indigenous sport of drag racing. The largest drag racing organization is the National Hot Rod Association.

Several other motorsports enjoy varying degrees of popularity in the United States: short track motor racing, motocross, monster truck competitions (including the popular Monster Jam circuit), demolition derby, figure 8 racing and tractor pulling.


Jack Nicklaus widely regarded as the greatest golfer of all time, winning a total of 18 career major championships, while producing 19 second-place and 9 third-place finishes in them, over a span of 25 years.

Golf is played in the United States by about 25 million people. The sport's national governing body, the United States Golf Association (USGA), is jointly responsible with The R&A for setting and administering the rules of golf. The USGA conducts three national championships open to professionals: U.S. Open, U.S. Women's Open and U.S. Senior Open, and will add a fourth, the U.S. Senior Women's Open, in 2018. The PGA of America organizes the PGA Championship, Senior PGA Championship and Women's PGA Championship.

The PGA Tour is the main professional golf tour in the United States, and the LPGA Tour is the main women's professional tour. Golf is aired on several television networks, such as Golf Channel, NBC, ESPN, CBS and Fox.

Notable golfers include Walter Hagen, Ben Hogan, Jack Nicklaus, Arnold Palmer, Tiger Woods, Patty Berg, Mickey Wright, Louise Suggs and Babe Zaharias.


Tennis is played in the United States in all five categories (Men's and Ladies' Singles; Men's, Ladies' and Mixed Doubles); however, the most popular are the singles. The pinnacle of the sport in the country is the US Open played in late August at the USTA Billie Jean King National Tennis Center in New York. The Indian Wells Masters, Miami Masters and Cincinnati Masters are part of the ATP World Tour Masters 1000 and the former WTA Tier I (currently Premier Mandatory and Premier 5).

Billie Jean King founded the Women's Tennis Association and other organizations. In 1973, at age 29, she won the Battle of the Sexes (tennis).

The United States has had considerable success in tennis for many years, with players such as Don Budge, Billie Jean King, Chris Evert, Jimmy Connors (8 major singles titles), John McEnroe (7 major singles titles), Andre Agassi (8 major singles titles) and Pete Sampras (14 major singles titles) dominating their sport in the past. More recently, the Williams sisters, Venus Williams (7 major singles titles) and Serena Williams (22 major singles titles), have been a dominant force in the women's game, and the twin brothers Bob and Mike Bryan have claimed almost all significant career records for men's doubles teams.

Track and field[edit]

There are many track and field events which involve individual athletes competing, including sprints, middle and long-distance events, and hurdling. Regular jumping events include long jump, triple jump, high jump and pole vault, while the most common throwing events are shot put, javelin, discus and hammer. There are also "combined events", such as heptathlon and decathlon, in which athletes compete in a number of the above events.

USA Track & Field is governing body for track and field. It organizes the annual USA Outdoor Track and Field Championships and USA Indoor Track and Field Championships. The IAAF Diamond League currently features one round in the United States, the Prefontaine Classic; the series formerly included the Adidas Grand Prix as well. Three of the World Marathon Majors are held in the United States: the Boston Marathon, Chicago Marathon and New York City Marathon. The Freihofer's Run for Women is also an IAAF Road Race Label Event.

The United States has frequently set world standards in various disciplines of track and field for both male and female athletes. Tyson Gay and Michael Johnson hold various sprint records for male athletes, while Florence Griffith Joyner set various world sprint records for female athletes. Alan Webb's personal record on the mile is just three seconds short of the world record, while Mary Slaney set many world records for middle-distance disciplines.

A turning point occurred in US track in the running boom of the 1970s.[4] After a series of American successes in various distances from marathoners Frank Shorter and Bill Rodgers as well as middle-distance runners Dave Wottle and Steve Prefontaine, running as an American pastime began to take shape. High school track in the United States became a unique foundation for creating the United States middle-distance running talent pool, and from 1972 to 1981 an average of 13 high school boys in the United States would run under 4:10 in the mile per year.[4] During this time, several national high school records in the United States were set and remained largely unbroken until the 2000s. The number of high school boys running the mile under 4:10 per year dropped abruptly from 1982,[4] and female participation in many distance events was forbidden by athletic authorities until the 1980s.[5] However a renaissance in high school track developed when Jack Daniels, a former Olympian, published a training manual called "Daniels' Running Formula", which became the most widely used distance training protocol among American coaches[4] along with Arthur Lydiard's high-mileage regimen. Carl Lewis is credited with "normalizing" the practice of having a lengthy track career as opposed to retiring once reaching the age when it is less realistic of gaining a personal best result. The United States is home to school-sponsored track and field, a tradition in which most schools from middle school through college feature a track and field team. Due to the amount of American athletes who satisfy Olympic norm standards, the US holds national trials to select the best of its top-tier athletes for Olympic competition.

Combat sports[edit]

Boxing in the United States became the center of professional boxing in the early 20th century.[6] The National Boxing Association was founded in 1921 and began to sanction title fights. In the 1960s and 1970s, Muhammad Ali became an iconic figure, transformed the role and image of the African American athlete in America by his embrace of racial pride, and transcended the sport by refusing to serve in the Vietnam War. In the 1980s and 1990s, major boxers such as Mike Tyson and Riddick Bowe were marked by crime and self-destruction.

Mixed martial arts developed in the 1990s, and has achieved popularity in the early 21st century. Many companies promote MMA cards, with the U.S.-based UFC the most dominant.[7]

Wrestling is not a popular sport on a national level. However, high school wrestling is one of the most popular participatory sports for young men in the United States.

Professional wrestling enjoys widespread popularity as a spectator sport, quite notably during the Monday Night Wars. This was due to the competition between WWE (then known as WWF) and WCW, which were the two biggest professional wrestling organizations in the country during the last two decades of the 20th century. It is also stated that, between the two companies, an estimated 16 million viewers tuned in every week. Following the conclusion of the Wars and the purchase of WCW by WWE, professional wrestling's audience has diminished; however, it still pulls in some of cable television's highest weekly ratings.

Judo in the United States is not very popular and is eclipsed by more popular martial arts like Karate and Taekwondo.

Swimming and water sports[edit]

Kelly Slater surfing in the Boost Mobile Pro at Trestles

Swimming is a major competitive sport at high school and college level, but receives little mainstream media attention outside of the Olympics.

Surfing in the United States and watersports are popular in the U.S. in costal areas. California and Hawaii are the most popular locations for surfing. The Association of Surfing Professionals was founded in 1983.

Other popular individual sports[edit]

Popular team sports[edit]


The most popular team sports in the United States are American football, basketball, baseball/softball, ice hockey, and soccer (association football). All five of these team sports are popular with fans, are widely watched on television, have a fully professional league, are played by millions of Americans, enjoy varsity status at many Division 1 colleges, and are played in high schools throughout the country.

Sport Favorite
TV viewing
(since 2005)1
Major professional league Participants[10] NCAA DI Teams
(Men + Women)
American football 38.8% 111.9m National Football League 8.9 million 249 (249M + 0W) 50
Basketball 15.3% 30.8m National Basketball Association 24.4 million 698 (351M + 349W) 50
Baseball/Softball 14.8% 25.4m Major League Baseball 23.3 million 589 (298M + 291W) 48
Soccer 8.2% 27.3m Major League Soccer 13.6 million 531 (205M + 332W) 50
Ice hockey 3.8% 27.6m National Hockey League 3.1 million 95 (59M + 36W) 15
  1. TV viewing record measures the game with the most TV viewers in the U.S. since 2005 for each sport: 2016 Super Bowl,[11] 2016 NBA Finals Game 7,[12] 2011 World Series Game 7,[13] 2014 FIFA World Cup Final,[14] and 2010 Winter Olympics Gold medal ice hockey game.[15]
  2. The column titled "States (HS)" represents the number of states that sponsor the sport at the high school level.[16]

American football[edit]

American football, known in the U.S. simply as football, has the most participants of any sport at both high school and college levels, the vast majority of its participants being male.[17][18]

The NFL is the preeminent professional football league in the United States. The NFL has 32 franchises divided into two conferences. After a 16-game regular season, each conference sends six teams to the NFL Playoffs, which eventually culminate in the league's championship game, the Super Bowl.

Nationwide, the NFL obtains the highest television ratings among major sports. Watching NFL games on television on Sunday afternoons has become a common routine for many Americans during the football season. Super Bowl Sunday is the biggest annual sporting event held in the United States. The Super Bowl itself is always among the highest-rated programs of all-time in the Nielsen ratings.

Millions watch college football throughout the fall months, and some communities, particularly in rural areas, place great emphasis on their local high school football teams. The popularity of college and high school football in areas such as the Southern United States (Southeastern Conference) and the Great Plains (Big 12 Conference and Big Ten Conference) stems largely from the fact that these areas historically generally did not possess markets large enough for a professional team.[19] Nonetheless, college football has a rich history in the United States, predating the NFL by decades, and fans and alumni are generally very passionate about their teams.

College football (i.e. NCAA) is popular in the southeast, where there are fewer major professional sports teams.[citation needed] In many of these areas, college football is the most avidly followed sport, with the Saturday college games being the biggest event of the week.[citation needed]

Tom Brady against the Washington Redskins on August 28, 2009.

During football season in the fall, fans have the opportunity to watch high school games on Fridays and Saturdays, college football on Saturdays, and NFL games on Sundays, the usual playing day of the professional teams. However, some colleges play games on Tuesday and Wednesday nights, while the NFL offers weekly games on Monday (since 1970) and Thursday (since 2006). As recently as 2013, one could find a nationally televised professional or college game on television any night between Labor Day and Thanksgiving weekend.

Notable NFL players include Roger Staubach, Dick Butkus, Joe Greene, Bart Starr, Johnny Unitas, Walter Payton, Joe Montana, Steve Young, Jerry Rice, Brett Favre, Emmitt Smith, and Ray Lewis. Notable current NFL players include Drew Brees, Tom Brady, Cam Newton, and J. J. Watt.

Indoor American football or arena football, a form of football played in indoor arenas, has several professional and semi-professional leagues. The Arena Football League was active from 1987 to 2008 and folded in 2009, but several teams from the AFL and its former minor league, af2, relaunched the league in 2010. Most other extant indoor leagues date to the mid-2000s (decade) and are regional in nature.

Women's American football is seldom seen. A few amateur and semi-professional leagues exist, of varying degrees of stability and competition. Football is unique among scholastic sports in the U.S. in that no women's division exists for the sport; women who wish to play football in high school or college must compete directly with men.


Fenway Park in Boston is the oldest stadium in Major League Baseball.

Baseball and a variant, softball, are popular participatory sports in the U.S. The highest level of baseball in the U.S. is Major League Baseball. The World Series of Major League Baseball is the culmination of the sport's postseason each October. It is played between the winner of each of the two leagues, the American League and the National League, and the winner is determined through a best-of-seven playoff.

Alex Rodriguez batting in 2007

Baseball is popular in certain East Asian countries—Japan, South Korea, and Taiwan—and Latin American countries or territories such as the Dominican Republic, Cuba, Puerto Rico, Mexico, and Venezuela. Among the Latin American stars of the past who became legends in the major leagues were Roberto Clemente and Fernando Valenzuela. The most successful major league player from Asia is Ichiro Suzuki.

As baseball developed over 150 years ago in the northeast, it has been played and followed in this region longer than in others. New York City is for many sports fans synonymous with the New York Yankees and their logo. The team is noted as having been the team of many of the all-time greats in the history of the game, and for having won more titles than any other US major professional sports franchise. The city was also host to two other highly popular baseball teams in the National League, the Brooklyn Dodgers and the New York Giants, before their transfer to California beginning with the 1958 season; they were replaced in New York by the New York Mets four years later. The Yankees' chief rivals, the Boston Red Sox, also enjoy a huge following in Boston and throughout New England. The fierce National League rivalry between the former Brooklyn Dodgers and New York Giants was transferred to the West Coast when the teams became the Los Angeles Dodgers and the San Francisco Giants, and California has always been among the US states which have supplied the most players in the major leagues. Chicago sports fans also avidly follow the Chicago Cubs and to a lesser extent the Chicago White Sox despite the comparative lack of success for the teams, with Chicago Cub fans being known throughout the country for their passionate loyalty to the team despite their not having won a championship since 1908. Historically, the leagues were much more competitive, and cities such as Boston, Philadelphia and St. Louis had rival teams in both leagues up until the 1950s.

Babe Ruth in 1918.

Notable American baseball players in history include Babe Ruth, Ty Cobb, Cy Young, Honus Wagner, Ted Williams, Lou Gehrig, Joe DiMaggio, Mickey Mantle, Stan Musial, Willie Mays, Sandy Koufax, Yogi Berra, Hank Aaron, Nolan Ryan, Cal Ripken, Roger Clemens, David Ortiz, Derek Jeter and Jackie Robinson, who was instrumental in dissolving the color line and allowing African-Americans into the major leagues. The more noted players of today include Miguel Cabrera, Bryce Harper, Clayton Kershaw, Mike Trout, and Albert Pujols.

An extensive minor league baseball system covers most mid-sized cities in the United States. Minor league baseball teams are organized in a six-tier hierarchy, in which the highest teams (AAA) are in major cities that do not have a major league team but often have a major team in another sport, and each level occupies progressively smaller cities. The lowest levels of professional baseball serve primarily as development systems for the sport's most inexperienced prospects, with the absolute bottom, the rookie leagues, occupying the major league squads' spring training complexes and making no effort to earn money on their own. Some limited independent professional baseball exists, the most prominent being the Atlantic League, which occupies mostly suburban locales that are not eligible for high level minor league teams of their own. Outside the minor leagues are collegiate summer baseball leagues, which occupy towns even smaller than those at the lower end of minor league baseball and typically cannot support professional sports. Summer baseball is an amateur exercise and uses players that choose not to play for payment in order to remain eligible to play college baseball for their respective universities in the spring. At the absolute lowest end of the organized baseball system is senior amateur baseball (also known as Town Team Baseball), which typically plays its games only on weekends and uses rosters composed of local residents. Further below that is beer league softball, which is primarily played for recreation.


Of those Americans citing their favorite sport, basketball is ranked second (counting amateur levels) behind American football.[citation needed] However, in regards to money the NBA is ranked third in popularity.[20] More Americans play basketball than any other team sport, according to the National Sporting Goods Association, with over 26 million Americans playing basketball. Basketball was invented in 1891 by Canadian physical education teacher James Naismith in Springfield, Massachusetts.

The National Basketball Association (NBA) is the world's premier men's professional basketball league and one of the major professional sports leagues of North America. It contains 30 teams (29 teams in the U.S. and 1 in Canada) that play an 82-game season from October to June. After the regular season, eight teams from each conference compete in the playoffs for the Larry O'Brien Championship Trophy.

Since the 1992 Summer Olympics, NBA players have represented the United States in international competition and won several important tournaments. The Dream Team was the unofficial nickname of the United States men's basketball team that won the gold medal at the 1992 Olympics.

Basketball at both the college and high school levels is popular throughout the country. Every March, a 68-team, six-round, single-elimination tournament (commonly called March Madness) determines the national champions of NCAA Division I men's college basketball.

Most U.S. states also crown state champions among their high schools. Many high school basketball teams have intense local followings, especially in the Midwest and Upper South.[citation needed] Indiana has 10 of the 12 largest high school gyms in the United States,[21] and is famous for its basketball passion, known as Hoosier Hysteria.

Notable NBA players in history include Wilt Chamberlain (4 time MVP), Bill Russell (5 time MVP), Bob Pettit (11 time all NBA team), Bob Cousy (12 time all NBA team), Walt Frazier, Jerry West, (12 time all NBA team), Julius Erving, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar (6 time MVP), Magic Johnson (3 time MVP), Larry Bird (3 time MVP), Michael Jordan (6 time finals MVP), John Stockton (#1 in career assists and steals), Karl Malone (14 time all NBA team), Kobe Bryant (NBA's third all-time leading scorer), Tim Duncan (15-time NBA all-star), Shaquille O'Neal (3 time finals MVP) and Jason Kidd (#2 in career assists and steals).

Notable players in the NBA today include LeBron James (4 MVP awards), Stephen Curry (2 time MVP, 1st unanimous MVP), Russell Westbrook (5 time all-star), Dwyane Wade (10 time all-star), and Kevin Durant (4 NBA scoring titles). Ever since the 1990s, an increasing number of players born outside the United States have signed with NBA teams, sparking league interest in different parts of the world.

Professional basketball is most followed in cities where there are no other sports teams in the four major professional leagues, such as in the case of the Oklahoma City Thunder,[22] the Sacramento Kings, the San Antonio Spurs, the Memphis Grizzlies, or the Portland Trail Blazers. New York City has also had a long historical connection with college and professional basketball, and many basketball legends initially developed their reputations playing in the many playgrounds throughout the city. Madison Square Garden, the home arena of the New York Knicks, is often referred to as the "Mecca of basketball."

The WNBA is the premier women's basketball league in the United States. Several of the 12 teams are owned by NBA teams. The women's national team has won seven Olympic gold medals and nine FIBA World Cups.

Ice hockey[edit]

Ice hockey, usually referred to in the U.S. simply as "hockey", is another popular sport in the United States. In the U.S. the game is most popular in regions of the country with a cold winter climate, namely the northeast and the upper Midwest. However, since the 1990s, hockey has become increasingly popular in the Sun Belt due in large part to the expansion of the National Hockey League to the southeast and southwest U.S., coupled with the mass relocation of many residents from northern cities with strong hockey support to these Sun Belt locations.[citation needed]

The NHL is the major professional hockey league in North America, with 23 U.S.-based teams and 7 Canadian-based teams competing for the Stanley Cup. While NHL stars are still not as readily familiar to the general American public as are stars of the NFL, MLB, and the NBA, average attendance for NHL games in the U.S. has surpassed average NBA attendance in recent seasons,[when?] buoyed in part by the NHL Winter Classic being played in large outdoor stadiums.

Minor league professional hockey leagues in the U.S. include the American Hockey League and the ECHL. Additionally, nine U.S.-based teams compete in the three member leagues of the Canadian Hockey League. USA Hockey is the official governing body for amateur hockey in the U.S. The United States Hockey Hall of Fame is located in Eveleth, Minnesota.

One of the nation's greatest ever sporting moments was the "Miracle on Ice",[citation needed] which came during the 1980 Winter Olympics when the U.S. hockey team beat the Soviet Union 4–3 in the first game of the medal round before going on to beat Finland to claim the gold medal.

The Detroit Red Wings won their 11th cup in 2008

Historically, the vast majority of NHL players had come from Canada, with a small number of Americans. As late as 1969–70, Canadian players made up 95 percent of the league.[23] By the 1979–80 season, more than 10 percent of NHL players were American-born.[23] The success of European teams against Canadians in the 1970s helped to change stereotypes against European players.[23] During the 1970s and 1980s, European players entered the league. Many players from the former Soviet bloc flocked to the NHL beginning in the 1990s. Today, the majority of NHL players are Canadian, more than 20% are Americans, and virtually all of the remainder are European-trained. (For a more complete discussion, see Origin of NHL players.)

Notable NHL players in history include Wayne Gretzky (leading point scorer), Mario Lemieux (3 time MVP), Guy Lafleur, Steve Yzerman, Gordie Howe (6 time MVP), Nicklas Lidstrom (7 times NHL top defenseman), Bobby Hull, and Bobby Orr (8 times NHL's best defenseman). Famous NHL players today include Sidney Crosby and Alexander Ovechkin.

College hockey has a regional following in the northeastern and upper midwestern United States. It is increasingly being used to develop players for the NHL and other professional leagues (the U.S. has junior leagues, the United States Hockey League and North American Hockey League, but they are more restricted to protect junior players' college eligibility). The Frozen Four is college hockey's national championship.

Women's ice hockey is less popular. The National Women's Hockey League, founded in 2015, is the first in the country to pay its players, and featured four teams from the Northeast.

The U.S. now has more youth hockey players than all other countries, excluding Canada, combined.[23]


Landon Donovan representing the U.S. at the 2010 World Cup.

Soccer has been increasing in popularity in the United States in recent years. Soccer is played by over 13 million people in the U.S., making it the third most played sport in the U.S., more widely played than ice hockey and American football. Most NCAA Division I colleges field both a men's and women's varsity soccer team, and those that field only one team almost invariably field a women's team.[citation needed]

The United States men's national team and women's national team, as well as a number of national youth teams, represent the United States in international soccer competitions and are governed by the United States Soccer Federation (U.S. Soccer). The U.S. men's team is one of only seven teams in the world to have qualified for every World Cup since 1990.[24] The U.S. women's team holds the record for most Women's World Cup championships, and is the only team that has never finished worse than third place in a World Cup. The U.S. women beat Japan 5–2 in the 2015 FIFA Women's World Cup final to claim their third Women's World Cup title, and first since 1999. Carli Lloyd scored three goals in 16 minutes, achieving the fastest hat-trick in World Cup history.

A parade in Manhattan celebrates the winning of the 2015 Women's World Cup

Major League Soccer is the premier soccer league in the United States. MLS has 20 clubs (17 from the U.S. and 3 from Canada). The 34-game schedule runs from mid-March to late October, with the playoffs and championship in November. Soccer-specific stadiums continue to be built for MLS teams around the country, both because American football stadiums are considered to have excessive capacity, and because teams profit from operating their stadiums. MLS has a particularly solid following in the Pacific Northwest, where there is a strong rivalry between the Portland Timbers and Seattle Sounders (see Cascadia Cup). Other professional men's soccer leagues in the U.S. include the Division II North American Soccer League and the Division III United Soccer League, the latter of which now has a formal relationship with MLS and features several affiliate teams.

Many American sports fans, as compared to decades ago, now follow international soccer competitions such as the World Cup. Soccer fans also follow foreign club competitions such as the UEFA Champions League, England's Premier League and Mexico's Liga MX on television.

Mia Hamm takes corner kick.
Hamm takes a corner kick

Younger generations of Americans are developing stronger fan appreciation for the sport, due to factors such as the U.S. hosting of the 1994 FIFA World Cup and the formation of Major League Soccer, as well as increased U.S. television coverage of soccer competitions. Many immigrants living in the United States continue to follow soccer as their favorite team sport.

Women's professional soccer in the United States has not seen sustained success. U.S. Soccer has established a new professional league, the National Women's Soccer League, which started in 2013. However, at the lower levels of the salary scale, the NWSL is effectively semi-professional.

Many notable international soccer players played in the U.S. in NASL, albeit at the end of their playing careers — including Pelé, Eusébio, George Best, Franz Beckenbauer, and Johan Cruyff — or in MLS — including Roberto Donadoni, Lothar Matthäus, David Beckham, Thierry Henry, Frank Lampard, Kaká, David Villa, and Steven Gerrard.

The best American soccer players enter the U.S. Soccer Hall of Fame. Particularly notable American male players in the Hall of Fame include Bert Patenaude, Alexi Lalas, Tabaré Ramos, Cobi Jones, Tony Meola, Eric Wynalda, and Claudio Reyna. Notable female American players in the Hall of Fame include Mia Hamm, Kristine Lilly, Brandi Chastain, Julie Foudy, and Michelle Akers.

Other team sports[edit]


The following table shows additional sports that are played by over 500,000 people in the United States.

Sport Participation NCAA teams
(Men + Women)[25]
Semi-Pro League(s) Attendance Record
(single game)
Volleyball 10.7 million[26] 1,173
(109M + 1,064W)
Premier Volleyball League 17,209 (2006)[27] Yes
Ultimate 4.9 million[28] —— Major League Ultimate;
American Ultimate Disc League
1,175 (2013)[29] No
Rugby union 1.4 million[30] 6
(1M + 5W)
PRO Rugby 61,500 (2014)[31] Yes
Lacrosse 684,730[32] 782
(339M + 443W)
National Lacrosse League;
Major League Lacrosse
48,970 (2008)[33] No


Lacrosse is a team sport that is believed to have originate with the Iroquois, a confederacy of indigenous tribes that reside in Canada and what is now upstate New York, and the Lenape to their southeast. The sport was popular among numerous tribes both within and outside the Iroquois and Lenape in the eastern United States well before the arrival of European settlers. The Iroquois field their own separate national team, the Iroquois Nationals, in recognition of the confederacy's hand in the creation of the sport.

Lacrosse is most popular in the East Coast area. The National Lacrosse League and Major League Lacrosse are the national box and outdoor lacrosse leagues, respectively, with both leagues operating on a fully professional level. The most popular Division I college lacrosse teams draw 1,000 – 4,000 fans per game, especially in the Mid-Atlantic and New England areas.[34]


U.S. Armed Forces Women's Volleyball team during the 3rd Military World Games.

Volleyball is also a notable sport in the United States, especially at the college and university levels. Unlike most Olympic sports which are sponsored widely at the collegiate level for both sexes, the support for college volleyball is dramatically skewed in favor of the women's game. In the 2011–12 school year, over 300 schools in NCAA Division I alone (the highest of three NCAA tiers) sponsored women's volleyball at the varsity level,[35] while fewer than 100 schools in all three NCAA divisions combined sponsored varsity men's volleyball, with only 23 of them in Division I.[36] This is partially due to Title IX; female-oriented sports such as volleyball help balance a college's athletic opportunities for women with those for men.

The men's national team has won three gold medals at the Olympic Games, one FIVB World Championship, two FIVB Volleyball World Cup, and one FIVB World League. Meanwhile, the women's national team has won the one FIVB World Championship and six editions of the FIVB World Grand Prix.

Beach volleyball has increasingly become popular in the United States, in part due to media exposure during the Olympic Games.

Rugby union[edit]

A scrum showing the body positions of the forwards, as well as the position of both scrum-halves and the referee.

Rugby union is played professionally, recreationally and in colleges, though it is not governed by the NCAA (see college rugby). An estimated 1.2 million people in the United States play rugby.[37] The U.S. national team has competed at the Rugby World Cup. In rugby sevens, the men's national team is one of 15 "core teams" that participate in every event of the annual World Rugby Sevens Series, and the women's national team is one of 11 core teams in the Women's Sevens Series. The professional domestic club competition PRO Rugby began play in April 2016.[37]

Rugby union participation in the U.S. has grown significantly in recent years, growing by 350% between 2004 and 2011.[38] A 2010 survey by the National Sporting Goods Manufacturers Association ranked rugby union as the fastest-growing sport in the U.S.[39] The sports profile in the U.S. has received a tremendous boost from the IOC's announcement in 2009 that rugby union would return to the Olympics in 2016. Since the Olympic announcement, rugby union events such as the Collegiate Rugby Championship, the USA Sevens, and the Rugby World Cup have been broadcast on network TV. The USA Sevens, held every year in February, regularly draws more than 60,000 fans to Sam Boyd Stadium in Las Vegas.

Rugby football formed the basis of modern American football; the two sports were nearly identical in the late 19th century but diverged into distinct, incompatible codes by the start of the 20th century.

Ultimate and disc sports[edit]

Disc ultimate is the most popular game of all the disc sports

Ultimate is a team sport played with a flying disc. The object of the game is to score points by passing the disc to members of your own team until you have completed a pass to a team member in the opposing teams end zone. Over 5.1 million people play some form of organized ultimate in the US.[40]

Alternative sports, using the flying disc, began in the mid-sixties, when numbers of young people looked for alternative recreational activities, including throwing a Frisbee.[41] What started with a few players experimenting with a Frisbee later would become known as playing disc freestyle.[42] Organized disc sports in the 1970s began with a few tournaments, and professionals using Frisbee show tours to perform at universities, fairs and sporting events. Disc sports such as disc freestyle, disc dog (with a human handler throwing discs for a dog to catch), double disc court, disc guts, disc ultimate, and disc golf became this sport's first events.[43][44]

Disc guts was invented in the 1950s and developed at the International Frisbee Tournament. Ultimate, the most widely played disc sport, began in the late 1960s. In the 1970s it developed as an organized sport with the creation of the Ultimate Players Association. Double disc court was invented and introduced in the early 1970s. In 1974, disc freestyle competition was created.[45] In 1976, the game of disc golf was standardized by the Professional Disc Golf Association. Beginning in 1974, the International Frisbee Association (IFA) became the regulatory organization for all of these sports.

Disc sports includes both ultimate and disc golf. Ultimate has added two leagues: the American Ultimate Disc League (AUDL), which began play in 2012, and Major League Ultimate (MLU), which began play in 2013, however these leagues are still competing at a lower level than club teams established across the US.[46][47]

In 2015, the International Olympic Committee (IOC) granted full recognition to the World Flying Disc Federation (WFDF) for flying disc sports including Ultimate.[48][49]

Other sports[edit]

Australian rules football in the United States was first played in the country in 1996.[50] The United States Australian Football League is the governing body for the sport in the U.S, with various clubs and leagues around the country. The National Championships are held annually. The United States men's national Australian rules football team and the women's national team both regularly play international matches, and play in the Australian Football International Cup, an international tournament. The sport also benefits from an active fan based organization, the Australian Football Association of North America.

Cricket in the United States is not a popular sport, but has a niche market with limited inroads, mainly in immigrant communities.[51] The United States of America Cricket Association governs cricket in the United States. Historically, cricket used to be the most popular sport in America during the 18th and early 19th centuries,[citation needed] but declined as baseball overtook cricket. The first intercollegiate tournament in America was the first annual Canada vs. U.S. cricket match, played since 1844, when it was attended by 10,000 spectators in New York.[citation needed], and the annual match is the oldest international sporting event in the modern world.[52] The United States national cricket team plays in World Cricket League Division IV, the ICC Americas Championship and qualified for ICC Intercontinental Cup.

Curling is popular in northern states,[citation needed] possibly because of climate, proximity to Canada, or Scandinavian heritage. The national popularity of curling is growing after significant media coverage of the sport in the 2006 and 2010 Winter Olympics.[citation needed]

Gaelic football and hurling are governed by North American GAA and New York GAA. They do not have a high profile, but are developing sports, with New York fielding a representative team in the All-Ireland Senior Football Championship.

Field hockey is played in the United States predominantly by women. It is played widely at numerous NCAA colleges, where it is used as a sport to offset Title IX regulations assuring equal opportunities for men and women in sports (it thus offsets male-dominated sports such as college football).

Handball, a common sport in European countries, is seldom seen in the United States. The sport is mostly played in the country on the amateur level. Handball is played in the Summer Olympics, but is not sanctioned by the NCAA; all college and university teams play as club teams. The sport's governing body is USA Team Handball.

Inline hockey was invented by Americans as a way to play the sport in all climates. The PIHA is the league with the largest number of professional teams in the nation. Street hockey is a non-standard version of inline hockey played by amateurs in informal games.

A Rugby league player about to play the ball.

Rugby league in the United States is played by the USA Rugby League (USARL) is a 14 team semi-professional rugby league football competition based on the East Coast of the United States. The league was founded in 2011 by clubs that had broken with the established American National Rugby League (AMNRL), plus expansion franchises. The USARL began its inaugural season in 2011. In November 2014, the USARL were granted Affiliate membership of the RLIF and RLEF and are now the official governing body for the sport in the USA. The United States national rugby league team played in their first World Cup in 2013 losing to Australia in the quarter finals 62-0.[53][54]

Water polo does not have a professional competition in the U.S., so the highest level of competitive play is at the college level and in the Olympics. The NCAA sanctions water polo as a varsity sport for both men and women, but sport is not popular in the U.S. beyond the west coast, and no team outside of California has ever reached the finals of the NCAA Division I men's water polo championship.

Other team recreational activities[edit]

Angleball is a sport developed as a way to maintain physical fitness.[55] Angleball is used for conditioning and for fun by colleges, schools, camps and all-age groups. Angleball's gameplay emphasizes skill, accuracy and endurance. Angleball gameplay is simple. Two large balls are placed atop standards at opposite sides of a field. Teams pass a smaller ball back and forth, attempting to knock the other team's ball off its perch with the smaller ball.

Capture the flag is played recreationally by adults and children.

Dodgeball is played traditionally by children in school, though adult leagues in urban areas have formed within the past 10 years. A caricatured version was portrayed in the 2004 film comedy Dodgeball: A True Underdog Story.

Kickball is also played recreationally by adults and children, especially at the elementary school level. Its rules are largely identical to baseball, except that no bat is used and instead a large rubber ball is rolled along the ground for the "batter" to kick.

Roller derby is a contact sport played on roller skates that has had brief surges of popularity throughout the 20th and 21st centuries. Roller Derby was portrayed in the 2009 film Whip It. Since September 2009, there were 350 women's, men's, and junior leagues in the U.S.A.[56]

Bubbleball, a game played inside giant inflatable balls, has risen in popularity since its introduction to the US in 2014.

An adaptation of the fictional sport of quidditch held its first U.S. championship in 2015.

Organization of American sports[edit]

Professional sports[edit]

For the most part, unlike sports in Europe and other parts of the world, there is no system of promotion and relegation in American professional sports. Major sports leagues operate as associations of franchises. The same 30–32 teams play in the league each year unless they move to another city or the league chooses to expand with new franchises.

All American sports leagues use the same type of schedule. After the regular season, the 10–16 teams with the best records enter a playoff tournament leading to a championship series or game. American sports, except for soccer, have no equivalent to the cup competitions that run concurrently with leagues in European sports. Even in the case of soccer, the cup competition, the Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup, draws considerably less attention than the regular season. Also, the only top-level U.S. professional teams that play teams from other organizations in meaningful games are those in MLS. Since the 2012 season, all U.S.-based MLS teams have automatically qualified for the U.S. Open Cup, in which they compete against teams from lower-level U.S. leagues. In addition, three or four U.S.-based MLS teams (depending on the results of the U.S. Open Cup) qualify to play clubs from countries outside the U.S. and Canada in the CONCACAF Champions League.[n 1] NBA teams have played European teams in preseason exhibitions on a semi-regular basis, and recent MLS All-Star Games have pitted top players from the league against major European soccer teams, such as members of the Premier League.

International competition is not as important in American sports as it is in the sporting culture of most other countries, although Olympic ice hockey and basketball tournaments do generate attention. The first international baseball tournament with top-level players, the World Baseball Classic, also generated some positive reviews after its inaugural tournament in 2006.

The major professional sports leagues operate drafts once a year, in which each league's teams selected eligible prospects. Eligibility differs from league to league. Baseball and ice hockey operate minor league systems for players who have finished education but are not ready or good enough for the major leagues. The NBA also has a development league for players who are not ready to play at the top level.

College sports[edit]

Pre-game activities at University of Tennessee football game

The extent in the United States to which sports are associated with secondary and tertiary education is rare among nations. Millions of students participate in athletics programs operated by high schools and colleges. Student-athletes often receive scholarships to colleges in recognition of their athletic potential. Currently, the largest governing body of collegiate sports is the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA).

Especially in football and basketball, college sports are followed in numbers equaling those of professional sports.[citation needed] College football games can draw over 100,000 spectators. For upper-tier institutions, sports are a significant source of revenue.

The most practiced college sports, measured by NCAA reporting on varsity team participation,[57] are: (1) football (64,000), (2) baseball/softball (47,000), (3) track and field (46,000),[58] (4) soccer (43,000), (5) basketball (32,000), (6) cross-country running (25,000), and (7) swimming/diving (20,000). The most popular sport among female athletes is soccer, followed closely by track and field.[18]

High school sports[edit]

High school cheerleaders. Whether cheerleading constitutes an actual sport is a major source of contention in the U.S.

Among organized high school sports, the team sports and individual sports with the highest number of participants are:

Team sports[59]
  1. 1,085,182 — Football[hs 1]
  2. 970,983 — Basketball
  3. 862,915 — Baseball/Softball[hs 2]
  4. 808,250 — Soccer
  5. 486,594 — Volleyball
Individual sports[59]
  1. 1,057,358 — Track & field (outdoor)
  2. 472,597 — Cross country
  3. 340,116 — Tennis
  4. 303,925 — Swimming & diving
  5. 269,704 — Wrestling
  1. ^ 11-man football only. An additional 29,071 students played in variants with reduced team sizes (6-man, 8-man, 9-man).
  2. ^ Softball totals include fast-pitch and slow-pitch variants, with more than 97% of all softball players participating in fast-pitch.

Popular high school sports in various regions of the U.S. include the Texas High School football championships, the Indiana basketball championships, and ice hockey in Minnesota. The Minnesota State High School Hockey Tournament is the largest high school sporting event in the country, with average attendance to the top tier, or "AA", games over 18,000.[citation needed]

Amateur sports[edit]

The Amateur Athletic Union consists of more than 670,000 participants and over 100,000 volunteers. The AAU has been around since 1888, and has been influential in amateur sports for more than 125 years.

Government regulation[edit]

No American government agency is charged with overseeing sports. However, the President's Council on Physical Fitness and Sports advises the President through the Secretary of Health and Human Services about physical activity, fitness, and sports, and recommends programs to promote regular physical activity for the health of all Americans. The U.S. Congress has chartered the United States Olympic Committee to govern American participation in the Olympic Movement and promote amateur sports. Congress has also involved itself in several aspects of sports, notably gender equity in college athletics, illegal drugs in pro sports, sports broadcasting and the application of antitrust law to sports leagues.

Individual states may also have athletic commissions, which primarily govern individual sports, such as the Nevada Athletic Commission in boxing, kickboxing and mixed martial arts. Although these commissions only have jurisdiction over their own states, the Full Faith and Credit Clause of the U.S. Constitution is often interpreted as forcing all other states to recognize any state athletic commission's rulings regarding an athlete's fitness for participating in a sport.

Sports media in the United States[edit]

Sports have been a major part of American broadcasting since the early days of radio.[60] Today, television networks and radio networks pay millions (sometimes billions) of dollars for the rights to broadcast sporting events. Contracts between leagues and broadcasters stipulate how often games must be interrupted for commercials. Because of all of the advertisements, broadcasting contracts are very lucrative and account for the biggest chunk of pro teams' revenues. Broadcasters also covet the television contracts for the major sports leagues (especially in the case of the NFL) in order to amplify their ability to promote their programming to the audience, especially young and middle-aged adult males.[61]

The advent of cable and satellite television has greatly expanded sports offerings on American TV.[62] ESPN, the first all-sports cable network in the U.S., went on the air in 1979. It has been followed by several sister networks and competitors. Some sports television networks are national, such as CBS Sports Network, Fox Sports 1 and NBC Sports Network, whereas others are regional, such as Comcast SportsNet, Fox Sports Networks and Time Warner Cable SportsChannel.[63] General entertainment channels like FX, TBS, TNT, and USA Network also air sports events.

Some sports leagues have their own sports networks, such as NFL Network, MLB Network, NBA TV, NHL Network, Big Ten Network, Pac-12 Network and SEC Network. Some sports teams run their own television networks as well.[64]

Sports are also widely broadcast at the local level, ranging from college and professional sports down to (on some smaller stations) recreational and youth leagues.[62] Internet radio has allowed these broadcasts to reach a worldwide audience. A major issue at the college level is the question of paying the athletes from the television revenues.[65]

Most popular sports in the United States[edit]

In the broadest definition of sports—physical recreation of all sorts—the four most popular sports among the general population of the United States are exercise walking (90 million), exercising with equipment (53 million), swimming (52 million) and camping (47 million). The most popular competitive sport (and fifth most popular recreational sport) is bowling (43 million). Other most popular sports are fishing (35 million), bicycling (37 million), weightlifting (33 million), aerobics (30 million), and hiking (28 million).[8]

According to the 2013 Harris Poll, the six sports with most fans are American football (46%), baseball (14%), basketball (10%), auto racing (7%), ice hockey (5%) and tennis (3%).[66] In the 1985 poll, 31% of fans preferred football, 23% baseball, 12% basketball, 5% auto racing and 5% tennis.

Baseball vs. football[edit]

Though baseball has historically been called the "national pastime", American football has considerably grown in popularity with the advent of television over the last several decades. Most debates about "America's most popular sport" tend to center on the degree of Americans' identification with either of these two games; the question is a difficult one to resolve.[67]

Advocates of baseball point to the overwhelming number of baseball tickets sold annually in the United States and Canada, compared to NFL football. It is likely that the average American sports fan will attend many more major league baseball games than NFL football games in his or her lifetime, due in part to baseball's longer schedule and football's (generally) higher ticket prices.[original research?]

Advocates of football, in turn, point to football's large television audience, including the Super Bowl, though the sport is also facing some negative publicity in the world of youth sports due to media coverage of documented health and injury risks posed to players, including the potential long-term health concerns that concussions pose for children or teenagers.[68][69] Certain teams of both sports, such as the Green Bay Packers, Boston Red Sox, New York Yankees, St. Louis Cardinals,[70] New England Patriots, Washington Redskins, Oakland Raiders and Pittsburgh Steelers,[71] have cultivated famously loyal fan bases across the country.

In many cases, identification with a certain football or baseball team is a matter of family inheritance going back many generations and local identity. Furthermore, the popularity of each, as well as of other major team sports, may vary depending on region, ethnicity and age.

Sports leagues in the United States[edit]

The five major sports leagues[edit]

The following table shows the major professional sports leagues, which average over 15,000 fans per game and that have a national TV contract that pays rights fees.

League Sport Teams National TV contract Average
National Football League (NFL) American football 32 CBS, Fox, NBC, ESPN, NFLN 68,400 [72]
Major League Baseball (MLB) Baseball 30 Fox, FS1, ESPN, TBS, MLBN 30,517 [73]
Major League Soccer (MLS) Soccer 20 Fox, FS1, ESPN, Univision 21,574 [74]
National Basketball Association (NBA) Basketball 30 ABC, ESPN, TNT, NBATV 17,864 [75]
National Hockey League (NHL) Ice hockey 30 NBC, NBCSN, NHLN 17,481 [76]

Other team sports leagues[edit]

Other individual sports leagues[edit]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ The U.S. is guaranteed four places in the CONCACAF Champions League. Three places are automatically reserved for MLS teams: the MLS Cup winner (league champion), the Supporters' Shield winner (best regular-season record), and the team with the best regular-season record in the opposite conference from the Shield winner. The fourth place goes to the U.S. Open Cup winner, which is not necessarily an MLS team. Note that Canada-based MLS teams are not eligible to fill Champions League places reserved for MLS; those teams compete in the Canadian Championship, the winner of which receives that country's sole Champions League place. If a team qualifies for the Champions League by more than one method, or if a Canada-based team fills an automatic qualifying spot, the Champions League place passes to the U.S.-based MLS team with the best regular-season record among those not already qualified.


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Further reading[edit]

  • Gerdy, John R. Sports: The All-American Addiction (2002) online
  • Gorn, Elliott J. A Brief History of American Sports (2004)
  • Jackson III, Harvey H. ed. The New Encyclopedia of Southern Culture: Sports & Recreation (2011) online
  • Jay, Kathryn. More Than Just a Game: Sports in American Life since 1945 (2004). online