Discover the 20 Most Popular Sports in the United States and How Long They Have Been Played

Written by Rob Hayek
Updated: November 12, 2023
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Sports have become part of the culture in the United States. Ultimately, people use it as an escape. People enjoy watching sports and likely playing sports. Therefore, there are some sports that have been around for generations and have continued to evolve as the world changed. Some of the prominent sports leagues in the country include the NFL, the NBA, MLB, and NHL. Ultimately, some people may refer to these leagues as the “big four” sports in America. They go to their favorite stadiums to watch some of these events and bask in the glory of their favorite teams.

But what are the popular sports in America? Furthermore, how long have they existed? This article will detail all the most popular sports in the United States and guide you through their origin stories. Moreover, it will help give a detailed chronological tale of how it evolved throughout the years.

20. Cycling

bicycle

Cycling will remain a popular activity across the country in 2023.

©Lolostock/Shutterstock.com

Cycling’s popularity has fluctuated over the years, but it remains somewhat widespread. The sport originated in Europe in 1868, and it eventually made its way to America, with the first recorded race taking place in Boston, MA, in 1878.

When the sport was still new, many of the races and events occurred on tracks. Later, in the 1890s, organizers started holding races on dirt paths. They also participated in races on wood and cement tracks throughout the entire country. Furthermore, the sport took off in the 1890s, with large races taking place throughout large cities in the U.S. Currently, there are several cycling championship events that take place in Frederick, MD, and Auburn, AL. There are also events in Ride Red Creek, NC, and Detroit, MI.

Cycling is also one of the most popular sports in the United States for recreation. Significantly, one could find cyclists riding along beach trails and near parks. There are also meetup events where cyclists can get together to ride in a group.

19. Wrestling

Two young wrestlers engage in match

Wrestling is a sport that continues to make waves across high schools throughout the country.

©VitalijSova/ via Getty Images

Wrestling does not get the coverage it might deserve. Ultimately, it usually comes up when people compare it to professional wrestling, a scripted show. Wrestling has existed for a long time in North America. Furthermore, Native Americans held mini-wrestling competitions before the Europeans explored the continent.

It exploded in popularity in the 18th century. Additionally, even George Washington, the first president of the United States, wrestled. Everyone knew him for his famous throwing arm. Hence, he would routinely wrestle in events he held throughout the colonies before his political career began.

It still holds popularity today. Also, high schools have wrestling programs throughout the United States, and there are active competitions. It is still one of the most popular sports in the United States.

18. Field Hockey

Two competitors battling over the ball during a field hockey game.

Field hockey is a revolutionary sport that is still going strong today, with numerous programs making it available.

©People Images/ via Getty Images

Field hockey originated in England. However, Constance Applebee took the game to America in 1901. Initially, she brought the game over as a sport that women could play. Applebee created the United States Field Hockey Association. Therefore, it crafted something that women could play at a time when most sports were for men.

Field hockey is still growing today. Now, youths across the country participate in field hockey camps and events. It is often a good alternative for those who cannot skate. Likewise, it is a sport that keeps younger people active.

17. Bocce Ball

Bocce is a sport no one saw coming. Yet, it is gaining steam. It is an outdoor game people play on a field. Sometimes, they can play it outside a soccer field or even a baseball field. The sport actually allegedly goes as far back as 5200 BC. However, it did not come to the United States until Italian Immigrants brought the game with them.

It is a sport that is gaining steam by the second. Hence, expect plenty of excitement as this sport continues to gain popularity.

16. Surfing

Surfing in the United States can be traced back to 1885 when three Hawaiian princes surfed in Santa Cruz. Later, it slowly grew in popularity throughout the coastal states.

Surfing would be one of the most popular sports in the country if every state had an ocean next to it. Instead, it is mainly a favorite for people in the coastal states. The states next to the Atlantic Ocean feature some surfing, especially in Florida. However, the main popularity of surfing is on the West Coast, especially in California.

Huntington Beach, CA, hosts the U.S. Open of Surfing every year for a two-week period from late July to early August. Additionally, many people flock to California for the sole purpose of watching the event or even partaking in the event. There are numerous surfing schools littered across the beaches in Southern California that teach people how to surf. Likewise, surfing is a major favorite in Hawaii. Locals on the eight islands have partaken in the sport of surfing for decades. Therefore, surfing continues to get more awareness everywhere.

15. Rugby

Rugby team standing in a huddle and rubbing their feet on ground. Rugby team celebrating victory.

Rugby is making strides in this country as it blends two sports that are beloved by Americans.

©jacoblund/ via Getty Images

Rugby is an Australian sport. However, it is starting to become popular in the United States. But its origins in the USA go back to the 19th century. Subsequently, people in the United States knew about the sport after British expatriates took the game with them to San Francisco. They would then form the Rugby union in the United States.

There is a Major League Rugby affiliation that tracks all rugby information in the U.S. Furthermore, it provides numerous details about the events of the league, as well as feature articles for players within the association.

14. Badminton

Badminton players engaging in a match.

Badminton has been in the U.S. since 1878 and continues to grow today.

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Badminton is a sport that is a smaller, indoor version of tennis. Hence, it is something that takes plenty of patience. There is also a USA Badminton (formerly the American Badminton Association) website that showcases all of the activities occurring throughout the United States relating to the sport. Therefore, people who are interested in the sport can understand what the sport is and learn more about it.

The first traces of badminton in the United States occurred in 1878 when some organizers formed the Badminton Club of New York. Then, the sports started spreading to schools across the country in the 1930s. The ABA hosted its first national championship event in 1937. Since then, the sport has continued to grow in popularity.

13. Bowling

Pins lined up in a bowling alley

Bowling has become a popular recreational and competitive game over the years.

©Mindscape studio/Shutterstock.com

Bowling is a sport people play with their friends on a Friday night, with over 67 million in the country playing it recreationally. Regardless, it also has its origins and has featured some competitive play. People were playing the sport across Europe as early as the 1700s. However, the first reference to bowling in America came in 1818.

The American Bowling Congress began in 1895. Since then, it has helped track all the competitive bowlers in the United States as well as any tournaments that were happening. It also has established a precedent for bowling rules and keeps track of everything related to competitive bowling. Therefore, it remains one of the most popular sports in the United States for people across the board.

12. Lacrosse

Lacrosse match, players, gear on the field, american sports.

Lacrosse has been part of American sports lore since the late 1800s and continues to thrive today.

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Lacrosse is a cross between hockey, basketball, and soccer. Thus, there are plenty of exciting things to look for when playing or watching it. Lacrosse allegedly started as far back as the 12th century, with Native Americans playing the sport with sticks and deerskin balls with fur. Centuries later, it gained steam in the United States in the late 1800s and early 1900s.

Lacrosse is a sport played at the national and international levels today. It is also an excellent sport for high school kids who compete against rival schools across county lines.

11. Volleyball

Hands reach over a net to hit a volleyball

Volleyball can be played on grass or sand and continues to be one of the most popular sports in America.

©mezzotint/Shutterstock.com

Volleyball is a sport that people can play on sand or grass. Likewise, the sport has a vast history.

William G. Morgan was an instructor who worked at the Young Men’s Christian Association (YMCA) in 1895. During his tenure, he realized that many of the existing sports were too physical for the boys he taught. Morgan decided to combine baseball, basketball, handball, and tennis to create a new sport he called Mintonette. Additionally, he created elements that could allow people to play the game indoors or out. It did not earn the term “Volleyball” until students noticed the ball would “volley” back and forth across the net. Thus, Morgan renamed the sport volleyball.

Approximately 46 million people play volleyball. It has become a popular sport with sports meetup groups, who find sandboxes or grass fields to set up a net and play. It remains strong today and is still one of the most popular sports in the United States.

10. Mixed Martial Arts

Mixed martial arts player preparing to enter the cage.

Mixed martial arts are popular both recreationally and competitively. Anyone can take a class to learn unique fighting styles.

©maria zheleznova/ via Getty Images

Mixed Martial Arts is a sport that emerged in the 1960s. Specifically, Bruce Lee made the sport popular in the country. He competed in the sport before it was a sport. Moreover, he wanted to create an alternative to karate. Lee’s goal was to create a fighting competition that accurately represented a real-life fight. Therefore, he began giving gear to competitors at karate tournaments. Lee’s ideas would turn into MMA decades after he passed away.

MMA is one of the most popular sports in the United States because it pits two competitors against one another and declares an undisputed winner. Ultimately, people have enjoyed numerous bouts from promotions like UFC and Strikeforce.

9. Motorsports

Racecar driver gets ready for the race to begin.

Motorsports continues to succeed today, with millions watching competitions throughout the year.

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Motorsports is one of the most popular sports in the United States. Particularly, it is a beloved favorite among people in the southeast. It traces its origins back to 1895, which came about just after the invention of motor fuel. Additionally, the origins of the Indy 500 go back to 1909, when the originators built a paved road track. The first Indy 500 took place in 1911. Since then, it has become the biggest motorsport competition in the country.

The National Association for Stock Car Auto Racing (NASCAR) originated in 1948 and is currently the largest motorsport competition in the country. Therefore, it is not surprising when people gather at racetracks to watch a NASCAR event. It also has gained plenty of fans through viewers from their televised events. Furthermore, NASCAR has gotten big enough to have sponsors on all their vehicles.

8. Pickleball

Woman serving the ball while playing mixed doubles in Pickleball.

Pickleball is becoming one of the fastest-evolving sports in the United States.

©Drazen Zigic/ via Getty Images

Pickleball was a sport not many people knew about a decade ago. To clarify, it is a sport that has been around since the 1960s. But it did not explode as a recreational sport among all demographics until the pandemic happened. Originally, it was a sport where people in their 60s and 70s spent time playing. They were often retired athletes, especially tennis players or gymnasts. Former Olympic gymnast Roxanne Pierce is among the many former athletes who now play pickleball. However, she is not the only one.

Many younger people are taking up pickleball, which is quickly gaining momentum in the US. Thus, players will often compete with tennis players for courts for recreational play.

7. Golf

A man swings a golf course on a sunny day.

There are thousands of golf courses across the country, so finding one near you would not be difficult.

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Golf did not come to America until the late 19th century. Curiously, the United States Golf Association originated in 1894. The first U.S. Open started soon after. Currently, the U.S. Open serves as the National Championship for professional golf across the United States. Legends like Tiger Woods and Phil Mickelson helped increase the popularity of the game over the past two decades.

But golf is also one of the most popular sports in the United States for people who want a fun recreational activity. Moreover, golf courses will often host large groups or even birthday parties. Florida has over 1,100 golf courses that host almost 48 million people year-round, even with alligators, snakes, and numerous other animals roaming the green.

6. Tennis

Young couple on tennis court. Handsome man and attractive woman are playing tennis.

Tennis is a sport where you can play singles or doubles, and it offers lots of variety.

©nd3000/ via Getty Images

Tennis did not start in the United States until 1874. Since that year, it has slowly evolved from its origins into one of the most popular sports in the United States. The United States Tennis Association started in 1881. Thus, it represented the start of competitive tennis.

One of the most popular tennis events of the last century was the “Battle of the Sexes between 55-year-old Bobby Riggs and 29-year-old Billie Jean King in 1973. Amazingly, King won the match in just three sets. That match set the precedent for tennis and what was a possibility. Later down the line, tennis spurned out some legends like Andre Agassi and Pete Sampras, along with Venus and Serena Williams.

People play tennis recreationally across the country. According to the United States Tennis Association, there has been an approximate increase of 33 percent in tennis recreational play since 2020. It is often difficult to find an available court during the week at parks across the U.S., as people flock there to compete with friends in a sport that brings the best of exercise and skills.

5. Ice Hockey

Ice hockey is still finding its way. However, it is still one of the most popular sports in the United States. Ice hockey originally started in Canada in 1875. Then, it came to the United States in 1893. It was originally a sport that took place in colder climates. However, it has picked up favor within other states across the Eastern seaboard, as well as the Midwest.

Close up of ice hockey stick on ice rink in position to hit hockey puck.

Ice hockey is evolving as the NHL continues to make headway as one of the top sports in the country.

©Eugene Onischenko/Shutterstock.com

The National Hockey Association (NHL) originated in 1917 and first had six teams from 1942 until its expansion in 1967. Then, it slowly expanded to cities across the United States. The list of American teams in the “Original Six” include the Boston Bruins, Chicago Blackhawks, Detroit Red Wings, and the New York Rangers. Since then, there have been expansions to cities like Dallas, Los Angeles, and even Las Vegas.

The NHL is among the most popular sports in the United States today. Additionally, teams like the Bruins, Rangers, Philadelphia Flyers, Pittsburgh Penguins, and Washington Capitals have put the game on the map, especially with their numerous superstar players.

Ice hockey is now gaining popularity across the United States. Moreover, even states like California have begun to host ice hockey programs for youth.

4. Soccer

Intense soccer game going on.

Soccer continues to grow in America, especially with the emergence of MLS and the rise of World Cup popularity.

©PeopleImages/ via Getty Images

Soccer is very famous across the world. However, its origins can go as far back as 1620, when Native Americans allegedly played the sport. Americans allegedly played soccer in 1820 without any established rules. Moreover, the first set of rules and regulations came about after the Civil War. The American Football Association began in 1884 to create a unified rulebook for the game of soccer.

Soccer has become a popular sport to watch in the United States thanks to the women’s World Cup teams. Moreover, their elite-level play has elevated the game beyond belief. There is also a growing demand for Major League Soccer (MLS), which is slowly rising through the ranks. Furthermore, the MLS recently grew even more popular with the signing of Lionel Messi to Inter Miami.

Soccer is also one of the most popular recreational sports across the country. Moreover, it is not difficult to see packed fields with active competitors as young as five years old. There are also active meetup groups that host friendly soccer matches on a weekly basis.

3. Baseball

A player hitting a baseball.

Baseball has evolved from its early days but remains “America’s Pastime.” More little league programs are emerging than ever before.

©PeopleImages/ via Getty Images

Baseball allegedly started back in 1786 or 1791. Curiously, there are multiple conflicting reports on when the sport originated, as some potentially played it in 1823. But the game caught on in the 1800s and has become “America’s Pastime.” Eventually, it grew in popularity, and professional baseball began. Two large entities formed, starting with the National League, which started in 1876. Then, the American League began in 1901. The two leagues operated as separate entities from 1901 until 2000, when they finally merged into Major League Baseball (MLB)

MLB boasts some of the top megastars in the world, such as Aaron Judge, Mike Trout, Shohei Ohtani, and Mookie Betts. Moreover, it has such nationwide popularity that millions watch their televised games throughout the long six-month stretch and then into the postseason.

People across the country enlist their children into little-league programs to play baseball at each level. Moreover, there are now traveling youth baseball teams that move from city to city to compete with other teams. It remains one of the most popular sports in the United States.

2. Basketball

Scoring the winning points at a basketball game

From street court battles to March Madness, basketball remains as popular as ever.

©Brocreative/Shutterstock.com

Basketball has seen numerous moments of greatness since its inception in 1891 by James Naismith. Originally, he came up with the concept of a ball and a basket, with the goal being to toss the ball into it. Naismith would later craft the first basketball hoop out of chicken wire. Eventually, it evolved into the threading that the game uses today.

Basketball soared in popularity during the 1980s when Magic Johnson and Larry Bird entered the league and ignited a rivalry between their respective teams, the Los Angeles Lakers and Boston Celtics. Then, Michael Jordan came onto the scene and took the NBA and the game of basketball to the next level by delivering the Bulls to six championships over eight years. Other stars emerged throughout the 90s, such as Kobe Bryant, Shaquille O’Neal, Hakeem Olajuwon, and Karl Malone, to create the NBA we know today.

Basketball is still one of the most popular sports in the United States to play recreationally. Ultimately, you would find a basketball court at almost every park and often find people waiting for a chance to play.

1. American Football

Running back moving down the field with the football.

American football is the most popular sport in the country, and games are on almost every day of the week across high school, college, and the NFL.

©petesaloutos/ via Getty Images

American football is the most popular sport in the United States. Substantially, it has the highest ratings in the country, as millions of people watch the Super Bowl every year. It started in 1869, combining elements of rugby and soccer. Thus, the object was to take a ball from one side of the field to the other to score a touchdown. The NFL and AFL were two separate entities from 1920 until the leagues merged in 1967.

The NFL has numerous stars come and go throughout the year. Moreover, many have made an impact. Some of the elite players from the past include Jerry Rice, Barry Sanders, and Emmitt Smith. Likewise, there are newer stars in the game that are making an impact, such as Patrick Mahomes, Joe Burrow, and Josh Allen. The NFL has the most-watched event in sports and also has numerous deals with multiple sponsors that bring in billions.

American Football is still very popular across the board. Significantly, “Friday Night Lights” is a popular term, especially in Texas, to describe Friday night high school football games. The NFL and NCAA have become so large that they do not even compete directly with each other, choosing to play on certain days of the week. Ultimately, American Football is the most popular sport in the United States and will remain so for years to come.

RankSport
1American Football
2Basketball
3Baseball
4Soccer
5Ice Hockey
6Tennis
7Golf
8Pickleball
9Motorsports
10Mixed Martial Arts
11Volleyball
12Lacrosse
13Bowling
14Badminton
15Rugby
16Surfing
17Bocce Ball
18Field Hockey
19Wrestling
20Cycling

The photo featured at the top of this post is © AndreyPopov/ via Getty Images


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About the Author

Rob Hayek is a writer at A-Z Animals where his primary focus is on animals, sports, places, and events. Rob has been writing and researching about animals, sports, places, and events for over 10 years and holds a Bachelor’s Degree in Communications from Cal State University Fullerton, which he earned in 2009. A resident of California, Rob enjoys surfing and also owns a sports group which allows people from the local community to come together to play sports recreationally.

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