The first organized athletic events took place in Greece in 776 B.C., with the advent of the ancient Olympic games. The Olympics featured running races, throwing contests, and other competitive events, with the greatest athletes from the Greek empire competing. The Olympics, even then, were colorful events and people from nearby countries gathered to watch. The ancient Romans, although initially scornful of sports, also participated, largely as spectators, in athletic events such as chariot races and gladiator battles.

Different cultures and societies developed different sporting pastimes. Bowling, for example, has been around for centuries; a stone ball and nine stone pins were found in the tomb of an ancient Egyptian child. North American Indian tribes played lacrosse with webbed sticks and hard wooden balls centuries ago. Historians believe soccer, perhaps the most widely played sport, dates back to about 200 A.D. in England.

Interest in sports diminished during the Middle Ages but sports for entertainment reemerged around 1200 in various European countries. In France, for example, teams played a hockey-like game called la soule. La soule was discouraged by authorities because it was thought to be too rough, but the sport generated an interest in other games like tennis, which became popular in the 1400s. In the United States, interest in sports grew during the 1800s. The English sport of rugby led to the development of American football, and in 1869, Rutgers and Princeton played the first intercollegiate football game. Many other sports soon followed.

Baseball, which stems from the British games of cricket and rounders, was played in its earliest form in 1839 when two teams of schoolboys in Cooperstown, New York, competed in a game of town ball. Town ball, although a popular game, had many problems, among which were its lack of standardized rules and the fact that all hits were fair. Players frequently ran directly into one another. In 1845, Alexander Cartwright brought some standardization to the game, including the shape of the playing field. However, the rules of baseball went through many changes and developments before the game became widely accepted and played in later decades.

Basketball has a more easily traceable history. This sport was invented by Dr. James Naismith, a physical education instructor at the International Young Men's Christian Association Training School in Springfield, Massachusetts (today's Springfield College), in 1891. In the fall, Dr. Naismith's students played football outside, and in the spring they returned outside for baseball. But during winter, the students and staff were forced to stay in the gym to do calisthenics and march. The students were miserable during these winter activities and complained constantly, and so Dr. Naismith invented a sport for indoor play. He started with the idea of a ball large enough to eliminate the need for sticks, bats, or other equipment. To keep students from being injured indoors by balls traveling straight at them as in soccer, he raised the goals so that the ball would go in a gentle arc. He hung two peach baskets from 10-foot balconies at each end of the gym. To prevent tackling, he insisted that players not run with the ball. In all, Dr. Naismith's game had 13 rules, and the sport was designed for any number of players. The first game, in December of 1891, had nine men per side shooting at the peach baskets with a soccer ball. Thrilled with the invention, Dr. Naismith's students went home for Christmas break and taught the game to hometown friends. The new sport caught on quickly.

In 1892 Naismith took his students on an exhibition tour of New England, and in 1895 Minnesota State School of Agriculture beat Hamline College 9 to 3 in the first-ever intercollegiate basketball game. By 1915 the rules to the game had been expanded and standardized, but the game changes even today. Modern developments in basketball include the shot clock and the three-point shot.

Soon after basketball became popular, golf and tennis were organized into competitive events, and the first boxing championship was held in New Orleans in 1892. As the popularity of sports grew, so, too, did employment opportunities in sports-related occupations. The increasing number and variety of professional sports teams not only created a need for professional athletes but also introduced opportunities for coaches, managers, trainers, and scouts. High school and college athletic programs became highly organized, and many additional jobs were created.

With the birth of two professional women's basketball leagues, the Women's National Basketball Association (WNBA) and the American Basketball League (ABL) in 1997, and the gold-medal-winning U.S. Olympic 1996 softball and 1998 ice hockey teams, women's sports became increasingly appreciated. Unfortunately, in late 1998, the ABL filed for bankruptcy, leading many former ABL stars to find positions with WNBA teams. Olympic and World Cup wins by the U.S. women's soccer team, featuring players like Mia Hamm, Julie Foudy, and Brandy Chastain, helped women's soccer skyrocket in popularity. A women's soccer league, the Women's United Soccer Association, started in April 2001 with eight professional teams but, due to financial difficulties, ended operation in 2003. National Pro Fastpitch (NPF), a professional softball league for women, was founded in 2004 and continues to attract fans throughout the United States.

The 21st century has seen a rapid growth of sports in the United States, both professional, emphasizing the business of public entertainment, and amateur and recreational sports, underscoring participation. The general population is participating in sports of all kinds in unprecedented numbers. Team sports such as field hockey, lacrosse, and rugby, as well individual sports such as swimming and track and field are popular in the United States, although they offer few opportunities for professional athletes. In addition, increased use of social media has enabled athletes and other sports-related professionals and sports fans to connect in new ways, through platforms such as Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and YouTube, among others. Sports organizations and sports marketers are also able to boost sales for sports events and merchandise through social media.