Today, college football is the king of spectator sports in Gainesville. It is not uncommon for University of Florida home football games to average over 80,000 in attendance. In addition, high school and youth football games are well attended by their supporters. But this was not always the case.

Baseball was the original king of sports in Gainesville before being replaced at the top by football. The popularity of baseball in Gainesville can traced back to 1883. In that year, a baseball field was constructed in the area of town now known as Porters Quarters.

The “Ballpark,” as it was known then, served as the home for Gainesville’s outdoor sporting events from 1883 to 1910. The Oak Halls and the Central City Giants teams both represented the city in games against outside competition, with the Oak Halls serving as Gainesville’s white team and the Central City Giants as the African-American team.

The first football team in Gainesville was fielded by the East Florida Seminary (EFS), which fielded a team from 1902 to 1904 and also played at the Ballpark. EFS compiled a 7-6-1 record during that time period. About half of the games played by EFS were against college competition, with Stetson being its biggest rival. Although attendance figures are not known, EFS seemed to enjoy a certain level of local support. With the passage of the Buckman Act, however, EFS and its football program came to an end.

The next school to field a football team was Gainesville High School in 1905. There is very little information available on this team. We know that 22 boys got together and formed two teams for the purpose of providing football for the city. The school helped raise enough money to purchase 11 uniforms, which probably consisted of nothing more than jerseys and pants.

The football team promised to play a real game for the city’s enjoyment, but the game was canceled due to bad weather and never rescheduled. By 1906, the team was established and played two games against the University of Florida’s second team, known as the “Scrubs.”

The third school to field a team in Gainesville was the University of Florida. Like the other teams, UF played its home games at the Ballpark for five years, 1906-1910. During this time period, UF compiled an overall record of 24-8-3 and a home record of 14-0-1. UF’s one blemish on its home record was a tie with Stetson, its biggest rival.

Football at UF struggled to pay for itself in these early years. This led to many future home games being moved to Tampa and Jacksonville. At the conclusion of the 1910 football season, the University Athletic Association purchased the wooden fence that surrounded the old Ballpark and moved it on campus to an area now known as Fleming Field. Fleming Field was located just north of the present-day UF football stadium.

Additional teams such as Union Academy and Lincoln High School were formed later. Lincoln fielded a team from 1923 to 1969, when the high school was closed during desegregation. P. K. Yonge started its football program in 1946 and continues to the present day. P. K. Yonge played six-man football its first two years.

The football program at UF struggled financially until Florida Field was constructed in 1930. Likewise, GHS football struggled financially until Citizens Field was constructed in 1948.

Today, UF football is king in Gainesville. Its popularity has far surpassed any other sport. It is not uncommon for almost half a million patrons to witness a UF home football game during the season. The sport of football has come a long way since 1902.

Alfred Awbrey is a local sports historian and volunteer at the Matheson History Museum. He will discuss the origins of football in Gainesville on Thursday, Oct. 18, at 6 p.m. at the Matheson. His research contributed to the Matheson’s new exhibition, “Gators and Beyond: A Sports History of Alachua County.” More information is available at www.mathesonmuseum.org/events.