When Did Professional Sports Begin?
A comprehensive look at the history of professional sports and how they’ve become the multi-billion dollar industry they are today.
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The Early Days
It is typically said that professional sports began in the late 1800s with baseball. prior to that point, athletes were not paid to play sports. But that’s not the whole story. There were professional athletes before that time.
The first professional baseball game
On May 4, 1871, the first professional baseball game was played in Trenton, New Jersey, between the Trenton Base Ball Club and the Eckford Base Ball Club of Brooklyn, New York. William H. Watkins, the Trenton club’s president, was also the president of the National Association of Base Ball Players (NABBP), which sanctioned the game. At that time, there were dozens of professional clubs in existence, including many in small towns and cities throughout the Northeast and Midwest. The NABBP did not sanction these games, however, because it disapproved of players being paid to play baseball.
The game in Trenton was organized by Watkins as a way to generate interest in his team and to make some money for the players. He charged admission to the game, and it is believed that he paid each of the visiting players a small salary for their appearance. It is not known how much he paid the Trenton players. The game was played on Saturday afternoon, in front of a crowd of about 500 people. The Trenton club won 6-5.
This game is generally considered to be the first professional baseball game ever played. However, there is some evidence that suggest that there may have been earlier games in which players were paid for their participation. In any case, this game marks the beginning of professional baseball as we know it today.
The first professional basketball game
The first professional basketball game was played on January 20, 1896, between the Brooklyn Excelsiors and a team of amateurs from Pittsburgh. The game was played in front of a small crowd at the Brooklyn Academy of Music, and the Excelsiors won by a score of 28-6.
Professional basketball began to take shape in the early 1900s, with several leagues forming and dissolving over the next few years. The first successful league was the National Basketball League (NBL), which was founded in 1898. The NBL eventually folded in 1949, but not before laying the groundwork for the modern NBA.
The first professional football game
The first professional football game was played on November 12, 1892, between the Allegheny Athletic Association and the Pittsburgh Athletic Club. William Heffelfinger, a former Yale All-American, was paid $500 to play for the Allegheny Athletic Association, becoming the first professional player.
A few weeks later, on November 26, 1892, another game was played between the Allegheny Athletic Association and the Pittsburgh Athletic Club. Albert G. Spalding, a former All-American player at Yale who went on to found the A.G. Spalding sporting goods company, played halfback for the Allegheny Athletic Association in that game and earned $250 for his efforts. This made him the first professional player to be paid for playing in a football game.
Around this same time, there were several other instances of players being paid to play football. In October 1892, John Brallier became the first known professional football player when he was paid $10 to play for Latrobe against Jacksonville. On November 23, 1892, Harry Hester became the first African American professional football player when he was paid $25 play for Shelbyville against Louisville.
The Modern Era
Professional sports, as we know them today, began in the late 19th century with the rise of organized baseball and basketball leagues. But it wasn’t until the early 20th century that professional football, hockey, and other sports began to gain popularity. The first professional baseball league was founded in 1871, and the first professional football league was founded in 1920.
The first modern professional baseball league
The first professional baseball league was founded in 1871, and was called the National Association of Professional Base Ball Players. This league only lasted five seasons, but it laid the foundation for the modern game of baseball. The National League, which is still in existence today, was founded in 1876, and other professional leagues followed suit in the next few years.
The first modern professional basketball league
The first modern professional basketball league was the National Basketball League, which was founded in 1898. The league was made up of teams from cities in the northeastern United States, and it lasted five years before folding. In the early 1900s, basketball became an increasingly popular sport in colleges and universities, and it wasn’t long before professional leagues began popping up all over the country.
The most successful of these early leagues was the American Basketball Association, which was founded in 1925. The ABA lasted for 11 years and featured some of the biggest names in basketball, including George Mikan, Bob Cousy, and Julius Erving. In 1976, the ABA merged with the NBA, creating the league as we know it today.
The first modern professional football league
The first professional football league was formed in 1892, composed of twelve teams from four different states. Known as the National Football League (NFL), this league was immediately successful, with attendance at games averaging around 10,000 fans per game.