Recreational Sports and University Unions

IMSB-1928. Courtesy of Bentley Historical Library

Recreational sports as a formal collegiate program originated in the United States at two Big Ten universities. In 1913 the Ohio State University and the University of Michigan created new departments dedicated solely to intramural sports. At Michigan this evolved from humble beginnings in the 1860s when students set up exercise equipment on the campus grounds and began organizing club sports.

Throughout the 19 century, athletic sports activities grew and evolved from these informal beginnings to diverge towards varsity sports, club sports, and physical education programs.  Gymnasium buildings for both men and women were constructed in the 1890s for physical education and club sports as well as some varsity sport activities. Outdoor playing fields were provided in the early 1900s.

As the student body grew, so too did the need for more control over club sports. The University sought new ways to improve the facilities and management of all sports, exercise, and physical education activities, and to provide general student exercise and well-being. This was part of the “athletics for all” philosophy adopted at Michigan and elsewhere across the country. The Department of Intramural Sports was founded in 1913 to oversee all student sports activities, except varsity sports and physical education courses. Floyd Rowe was appointed the first director of Intramural Sports. The program was put on hold in 1914 due to World War I.  It was revived in 1919 when our Elmer Mitchell, a grad student at the time, was named the director of Intramural Sports.  Considered the “father of intramural sports”, Dr. Mitchell led the U-M’s Intramural Sports program for more than 20 years and authored one of the first books on the topic. In 1928, the first intramural sports facility in the country opened: the Intramural Sports Building at the University of Michigan.

Over time, “recreational sports” grew to encompass intramural sports, club sports, drop in activities, as well as opportunities for general exercise. It was geared not only to students, but also to faculty and staff. In the late 1960s, with increased enrollment and pressure on existing facilities, U-M began planning for a major upgrade in facilities. The Central Campus Recreation Building (CCRB) and the North Campus Recreation Building (NCRB) were built in 1976 to meet the increased demand. The change in the Physical Education classes as an academic requirement and the passing of Title IX were also major contributing factors to the expansion of Recreational Sports.

Since 1976, no major recreational sports renovations have been completed on the Ann Arbor campus. However campus demand for recreational services and the University's commitment to improving health has grown significantly. In 2005, the University launched the Michigan Healthy Community (M-Healthy) program to encourage healthy living among faculty and staff.  The program focuses on increased physical activity, attention to workplace health and safety, and lifestyle choices that positively improve health and wellness. Beginning in 2009, a five year M-Healthy plan was initiated to guide additional efforts and chart the implementation of new programs aimed at improving the health of the University community.

View a timeline of 100 years of Recreational Sports at U-M

To learn more about what Recreational Sports is doing today, visit: