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Yale-Princeton (Courtesy Princeton Archives)

As the national debate continues about whether to pay college athletes, it is informative to narrate the start of the first large, paying crowds attending a sporting event. In 1881, Yale and Princeton played rugby in New York City’s Polo Grounds, attracting 10,000 spectators.

That an autumnal athletic contest could draw such a sizable number of people surprised college administrators. Yale, under the leadership of Walter Camp, retained the monies from the game to be used at his discretion without returning the gate to the university, although a savvy Camp distributed funds to improve other Yale athletics.  

After the conversion to gridiron in 1882, the fall football season consisting of only east coast teams, and dominated by Yale, Princeton, Penn, and Harvard, witnessed the New York media building up to the end of year big games, most notably Yale versus Princeton in neutral New York City. Often, these final games decided the unofficial “national championship,” and were attended by alumni from both schools and the general sport-loving public. The carriage ride procession from Fifth Avenue’s swanky hotels generated city-wide newspaper coverage beyond the sports pages.

In 1893, both Yale and Princeton were undefeated, outscoring opponents by sizable margins. The game that year, played on the Friday after Thanksgiving, attracted a national record setting attendance of 40,000 people, and produced unheard of revenue for the two contestants.

Penn constructed the Franklin Field stadium in 1895 for $100,000. Harvard followed with Soldier Field in 1903 ($310,000) and, finally, the Yale Bowl built in 1913 ($750,000).  

It was clear then, that college athletics, especially football, could attract thousands of ticket buyers, generating substantial income.

College sports became big business, and profitable, too, because the business model included no pay for the participants.

And tomorrow….?