Sport in America began as premodern participatory contests of strength, skill, and speed that were unorganized local competitions with simple rules. However, as the nation modernized, sport became highly organized with formalized rules and national competition. Sport became commercialized with expert athletes entertaining paying spectators.
The first sportsmen were Native Americans, who competed for religious, medicinal, and gambling purposes. They had running races, but were best known for team ball sports like lacrosse, which had over forty variations. The colonists defined sports broadly to include all diversions. Colonial amusement reflected their European backgrounds, including social class and religion, and their new surroundings in America. Puritans brought their opposition to pagan and Catholic holidays, Sabbath breaking, and time-wasting amusements. They barred brutal sports, gambling games, and amusements that promoted disorder, but advocated useful activities like wolf hunting, fishing, and training-day (military practice) contests like wrestling and marksmanship. The more heterogeneous colonies had more options. New York, with its Dutch heritage, had bowling, kolven (golf), and boat races, and also horseracing after the English took over the colony in 1664. In Philadelphia, control of the community passed from the Quakers to a secular elite who in 1732 tried to separate themselves from lesser sorts by organizing the Schuylkill Fishing Colony, the first sports club in the British Empire.
The South had the most expansive sporting culture. The Anglican Church was more tolerant than the Puritans were, and personal ethics did not prohibit gambling or blood sports. An elite planter class emerged in the late seventeenth century, which tried to emulate the English
country gentry. The great planters originally raced their own horses in impromptu quarter-mile matches and wagered enormous amounts with their peers. By the mid-eighteenth century, they were starting to import expensive Thoroughbreds that competed in long distance races at urban tracks established by elite jockey clubs. This public entertainment helped demonstrate the supposed superiority of the great planters over the masses.
Publicans throughout the colonies were the first sporting entrepreneurs, sponsoring animal baiting, gander pulling, cock fights, skittles (an early form of bowling), shuffleboard, and target shooting to attract thirsty patrons. Moral reformers, particularly evangelical ministers of the Great Awakening, opposed these sports. During the Revolution, many patriots frowned on gambling as unvirtuous and elite sports as aristocratic. The Continental Congress in 1778 recommended that the states suppress racing and "other diversions as are productive of idleness and dissipation."