College athletics refers primarily to sports and athletic competition organized and funded by institutions of tertiary education (colleges or universities in American English). In the United States, college athletics is a two-tiered system. The first tier includes the sports that are sanctioned by one of the collegiate sport governing bodies. The major sanctioning organizations include the National Collegiate Athletic Association (NCAA), the National Association of Intercollegiate Athletics (NAIA) and the National Junior College Athletic Association (NJCAA). Additionally, the first tier is characterized by selective participation, since only the elite athletes in their sport are able to participate. The second tier includes all intramural and recreational sports clubs, which are available to a larger portion of the student body.
Competition between student clubs from different colleges, not organized by and therefore not representing the institutions or their faculties, may also be called “intercollegiate” athletics or simply college sports. College sports originated as student activities.
In the United States today, many college sports are extremely popular on both regional and national scales, in many cases competing with professional championships for prime broadcast and print coverage. The average university will play at least 20 different sports and offer a wide variety of intramural sports as well. In total, there are approximately 400,000 men and women student-athletes that participate in sanctioned athletics each year.
The first organized college sports club was formed in 1843 when Yale University created a boat club. Harvard University then followed in their footsteps, creating a similar boat club a year later. The creation of these organizations set the stage for the first intercollegiate sporting event in the U.S. This event took place in 1852, when the rowing team from Yale competed against the rowing team from Harvard at Lake Winnipesaukee, New Hampshire. This marked the beginning of intercollegiate competition and triggered the creation of numerous college athletic organizations.
In the late 1850s, bat and ball games had started to become widely known and the sport of baseball was starting to become an establishment at U.S. universities. The first intercollegiate baseball game took place in 1859 between Amherst College and Williams College. The popularity of collegiate baseball increased from this point, and by 1870, college teams were playing extensive schedules. In 1879, the first official intercollegiate baseball league was formed. Track and field also grew in popularity during this time, and the first intercollegiate track and field event occurred in 1873. This competition featured a two-mile race between athletes from Amherst College, Cornell University, and McGill University of Montreal, Canada. The intercollegiate soccer in the U.S. took place on November 6, 1869, in New Brunswick, N.J., when clubs from Princeton and Rutgers played under rules modified from those of Association Football. The first intercollegiate rugby game took place on May 15, 1874, at Cambridge, Massachusetts when Harvard played rugby against McGill University. The first intercollegiate football games seems to have been the Harvard versus Yale game in 1875.