- Major professional sports leagues in the United States and Canada
The major professional sports leagues, or simply major leagues, in the United States and Canada are the highest professional competitions in team sports. Although individual sports such as golf, tennis, and auto racing are also very popular, the term is usually limited to team sports.
The term "major league" was first used in 1921 in reference to Major League Baseball (MLB), the top level of professional American baseball. Today, the major Northern American professional team sports leagues are the MLB, the National Basketball Association (NBA), the National Football League (NFL), the National Hockey League (NHL), and Major League Soccer (MLS).
The first four leagues are also commonly referred to as the Big Four. Each of these is the richest professional club competition in its sport worldwide. The best players can become cultural icons in both countries and elsewhere in the world, because the leagues enjoy a significant place in popular culture in the U.S. and Canada. All four of these leagues are more than sixty years old; the youngest, the NBA, was founded in 1946. The NFL has 32 teams, and the others have 30 each. The vast majority of major league teams are concentrated in the most populous metropolitan areas of the United States and Canada.
MLS is the youngest of the major leagues, founded in 1993 and began play in 1996 as a result of America's hosting of the 1994 FIFA World Cup. As the youngest league it does not yet have the cultural footprint of the other four leagues, but it has a very strong following amongst American youth as well as Hispanic immigrants and in 2011 surpassed the NBA and NHL in average attendance. With only 19 teams to play in the 2012 season, it is the smallest of the five leagues as well.
Major League Baseball
Major League Baseball is the highest level of play of baseball in North America. It consists of the National League (founded in 1876) and the American League (founded in 1901). Cooperation between the two leagues began in 1903, and the two are effectively merged on an organizational level; they have shared a single Commissioner since 1920. There are currently 30 member teams, with 29 located in the U.S. and 1 in Canada.
Traditionally called the "National Pastime", baseball was the first professional sport in the U.S.
National Basketball Association
The National Basketball Association is the premier basketball league. It was founded as the Basketball Association of America in 1946, and adopted its current name in 1949, when the BAA partially absorbed the rival National Basketball League. Four teams from the rival American Basketball Association joined the NBA with the ABA–NBA merger in 1976. It currently has 30 teams, 29 in the United States and 1 in Canada.
Considered the premier basketball league in the world, the NBA is watched by audiences both domestically and internationally. It has become known in recent decades for promoting a series of individual superstar players such as Julius Erving, Larry Bird, Magic Johnson, Michael Jordan, Shaquille O'Neal, Kobe Bryant, Dwyane Wade, and LeBron James who have become international marketing icons.
National Football League
The National Football League was founded in 1920 as a combination of various teams from regional leagues such as the Ohio League, the New York Pro Football League and the Chicago circuit. The NFL partially absorbed the All-America Football Conference in 1949 and merged with the American Football League in 1970. It has 32 teams, all located in the United States.
NFL games are the most attended of domestic professional leagues in the world, in terms of per-game attendance (although the maximum number of games played at any given NFL stadium per season is only 11) and the most popular in the U.S. in terms of television ratings and merchandising. Its championship game, the Super Bowl, is the most watched annual event on U.S. television, with Super Bowl XLV being the single most-watched program in U.S. television history.
The NFL is the only one of the major leagues to not include any teams from Canada. Canada does have its own professional league, the Canadian Football League, which plays by somewhat different rules from the NFL. American football is the only major team sport where there is no professional international competition (although there are a few professional players from outside the United States).
National Hockey League
The National Hockey League was founded in 1917 as a breakaway league from the Canadian National Hockey Association (founded 1909), taking all but one of the NHA's teams. The NHL partially absorbed the rival World Hockey Association in 1979. There are 30 teams, with 23 in the U.S. and 7 in Canada.
The most popular sports league in Canada, and widely followed across the northern U.S., the NHL has expanded southward in recent years to attempt to gain a more national following in the United States, in cities such as Dallas, Miami, Nashville, Phoenix, Raleigh, and Tampa, with varying success.
Major League Soccer
Major League Soccer (MLS) is the top-level men's professional soccer league in the United States and Canada. MLS has 18 teams set to play in the 2011 season, with 16 across the United States and 2 in Canada. MLS began play in 1996, its creation having been a requirement for hosting the 1994 World Cup in the United States. MLS will expand to 19 clubs in 2012 when the Montreal Impact replace the current second division team of the same name. The official 2012 Montreal announcement was made on May 7, 2010 during a press conference by the Montreal Impact and MLS Commissioner Don Garber. MLS hopes to add a 20th team by 2012 or shortly thereafter.
Unlike many previous professional soccer leagues in the United States (such as the North American Soccer League), MLS was originally designed to maintain parity between clubs and rely on mostly American talent. Many notable international players have played with MLS teams, including: Hugo Sánchez, Jorge Campos, Carlos Valderrama, Lothar Matthäus, Hristo Stoichkov, Cuauhtémoc Blanco, Carl Robinson, David Beckham, Freddie Ljungberg, Thierry Henry, Rafael Marquez, and most recently, Robbie Keane.
In 2011, MLS reported an average attendance of 17,872 per game, becoming the thrid most highly attended professional sports league in America. This was a substantial increase from the previous season. Statistical analysis of the 2010 US Census, based largely on demographic trends among Hispanic populations, in addition to a new multimillion dollar television deal with major American sports broadcaster NBC Sports has led to Major League Soccer being considered a major league.
Other notable leagues
Arena Football League
The Arena Football League is the highest level of play in the indoor/arena styles of gridiron football. As the name implies the sport is played in an indoor arena on a much smaller field than American football. The league was founded in 1987 and operated continuously until 2009, with an ongoing revival starting in 2010, overcoming the perception that it was merely a fad. From 2000 to 2009, the AFL had a developmental league, af2.
The AFL indefinitely suspended operations in 2009. The af2 conducted its full 2009 season, but came to an end when none of its franchise committed to playing the next year. Afterward some teams from both the AFL and af2 came together to organize a new league for the 2010 season, initially known as Arena Football 1. The AF1 purchased both predecessor leagues' assets in December 2009 and it adopted the Arena Football League name. Since resuming play in 2010 the Arena Football League had an average attendance of 8,154 per game and a total attendance of 970,369.
Canadian Football League
The Canadian Football League is the highest level of play in Canadian football. Although some teams trace their existence to the 1860s, the modern league organization was not solidified into its present configuration until 1958 and now consists of eight teams, all based in Canada, with a ninth team set to be added in 2014. The Grey Cup is awarded annually to the champion every November and is the biggest sporting event in the nation. The oldest extant teams, the Hamilton Tiger-Cats and the Toronto Argonauts, trace their origins to the late 1860s and early 1870s, which ranks them amongst the oldest professional sports teams of any kind still in existence on the continent. The CFL attempted an expansion into the United States between 1993 and 1995, though the expansion teams all either folded or relocated to Canadian cities.
The CFL is the second most popular league in Canada, after the NHL. It has the third highest average attendance of the North American leagues, behind the NFL and Major League Baseball; in 2010 the average attendance was 26,781, with a total attendance of 1,928,225.
National Lacrosse League and Major League Lacrosse
The National Lacrosse League (NLL) and Major League Lacrosse (MLL) represent the top level of professional lacrosse in North America. The NLL plays box lacrosse (indoors), while MLL plays field lacrosse (outdoors). The NLL was founded in 1986, while MLL was founded in 1999; the leagues had their inaugural seasons in 1987 and 2001, respectively. In 2010 the NLL had an average attendance of 9,559 per game, with a total attendance of 841,208. MLL had an average attendance of 5,278 per game, with a total attendance of 190,033.
Women's National Basketball Association
The Women's National Basketball Association (WNBA) is the top competition in women's basketball and one of only two fully professional women's sports leagues in North America. Founded in 1996 and beginning play in the 1997 season, it is the longest-running American professional women's sport league in history.
The league's attendance has fluctuated over the last several seasons. It had an average per-game attendance of 8,039 in 2009 and 7,834 in 2010. Total attendance was 1,598,160 in 2010. In 2007, the league signed a television deal with ESPN that would run from 2009-2016. This deal is the first to ever pay rights fees to women's teams. In 2009 it had a total television viewership of 413,000 in combined cable and broadcast television.
Traits of these major leagues
The top four major leagues each have revenues that can be many times greater than the payrolls of less popular major leagues in the two nations. In terms of overall league revenue, the NFL, MLB and the NBA (in that order) rank as the three of the four most lucrative sports leagues in the world, with the Premier League of English soccer being in third or fourth place (depending on exchange rates, as well as what is counted as league revenue - calculating finances in European soccer is somewhat more complicated compared to US/Canada). The NHL is ranked in fifth place.
League Revenue (M) Ref NFL $9,000  MLB $7,000  NBA $3,800  NHL $2,900  MLS $280 
All of the top four major leagues exhibit stability in most of their franchises. No team from any of the top four major leagues has collapsed outright in decades. Although all of the top four major leagues have had at least one franchise relocate to another city in the last fifteen years, relocation of teams is generally uncommon compared to past leagues and minor leagues. All four of the top major leagues have had frequent franchise collapses and relocations in their early histories, but this has been much less common in the past several decades.
Unlike some other leagues in other countries which use a system of promotion and relegation, franchises in these leagues are stable, and do not change annually. Instead, teams with worse records may receive better draft picks for the following year's season, as to ensure a level of parity.
With the folding of franchises now a rare occurrence, the numbers of teams in these leagues only change through expansion. The most recent expansion occurred in 2004, when the NBA added the Charlotte Bobcats. The most recent expansion in the NFL was 2002; in the NHL, 2000, and in MLB, 1998. Recent expansion franchises have commanded huge entry fees, which are generally held to represent the price the new team must pay to gain its share of the existing teams' often guaranteed revenue streams. The Houston Texans paid an unprecedented $700 million to join the NFL. By comparison, the Charlotte Bobcats paid $300 million to join the NBA. The Diamondbacks and Devil Rays paid $130 million each to join MLB while the Blue Jackets and Wild paid $80 million each to join the NHL.
The CFL and MLS also have a relatively high degree of stability, although not as much as the other four leagues. MLS has only once folded a franchise, when it contracted the Miami Fusion and Tampa Bay Mutiny concurrently in 2001. MLS has had one franchise suspend operations, the San Jose Earthquakes, when the Houston Dynamo joined the league in 2005; the Earthquakes returned in 2008. The CFL has never relocated any of its core Canadian teams, and apart from a largely failed expansion into the United States, two teams in the CFL's history have folded: the original Montreal Alouettes in 1987 (said team was replaced by the Montreal Concordes franchise until the Alouettes were revived in 1996 when an American team that had originally played in Baltimore moved to Montreal), and the Ottawa Rough Riders in 1996. An attempted revival of an Ottawa franchise, the Ottawa Renegades, suspended operations in 2005 and is set to return to play in 2013.
Major leagues tend to have franchises only in the largest, most heavily-populated cities and market areas. Most teams are in metro areas having populations over two million — all but one metropolitan area (Las Vegas) of this size or larger have at least one team. This typically means at least one franchise (and often two) per league in each of the New York City, Chicago, and Los Angeles areas. There are two major exceptions: The NFL has not had a franchise in L.A. since 1995, and the Green Bay Packers survive in major league sports' smallest metropolitan area (less than 300,000) thanks to a unique community ownership, and their proximity to the larger Milwaukee area, not to mention the loyalty of their fanbase. The Packers are the last remaining link to the NFL's small-town Midwest roots. Many such teams existed in the NFL before 1934 in places like Decatur, Illinois; Dayton, Ohio; and Muncie, Indiana.
Professional sports leagues as known today evolved during the decades between the Civil War and World War II, when the railroad was the main means of intercity transportation. As a result, virtually all major league teams were concentrated in the northeastern quarter of the United States, within roughly the radius of a day-long train ride. No MLB teams existed south or west of St. Louis, the NFL was confined to the Great Lakes and the Northeast, and the NBA's 1946 launch spanned only from the Iowa-Illinois Quad Cities to Boston. The NHL remained confined to six cities in the Northeast, Great Lakes and eastern Canada until 1967, though in the 1910s and 1920s, teams from its predecessor league had contested the Stanley Cup at season's end with teams from western Canada and the Pacific Northwest. College, minor league and amateur teams existed from coast to coast in all four sports, but rarely played outside of their home region for regular season games. Early professional soccer activity was concentrated almost entirely on an East Coast corridor from Baltimore to Boston, though a series of leagues located solely within the St. Louis metropolitan area also served as de facto major leagues for periods.
As travel and settlement patterns changed, so did the geography of professional sports. With the arguable exception of the western hockey teams which competed for the Stanley Cup in the early 20th century and the independent Los Angeles Bulldogs football team of the 1930s and 1940s, there were no major league teams in the far west until after World War II. The first west coast major-league franchise was the NFL's Los Angeles Rams, who moved from Cleveland in 1946. The same year, the All-America Football Conference began play, with teams in Los Angeles and San Francisco (not to mention the Miami Seahawks, who became the only southern-based major league franchise, although Louisville, Kentucky had previously had short-lived baseball and football teams). The San Francisco franchise would be one of three AAFC teams admitted to the NFL after the AAFC's demise in 1949. Baseball would not extend west until 1958 in the controversial move of both New York-based National League franchises, the Brooklyn Dodgers and New York Giants. The NBA would follow in 1960 with the move of the Minneapolis Lakers to Los Angeles, while the NHL would not have a west coast presence until it doubled in size in 1967. With the exception of the Los Angeles Kings, the NHL's initial franchises in the Southern and Western United States were ultimately unsuccessful — teams in Oakland, Atlanta, Kansas City and Denver all relocated. From 1982 until 1991, the Kings were the only U.S.-based NHL franchise south of St. Louis and/or west of the Twin Cities.
Since then, as newer, fast-growing Sunbelt areas such as Phoenix, Tampa, and Dallas became prominent, the major sports leagues expanded or franchises relocated (usually quite controversially) to service these communities. Most major areas are well-represented, with all but seven continental U.S. metropolitan agglomerations over one million people hosting at least one major sports franchise. As of 2006, the largest metropolitan area without a major professional sports franchise is California's Inland Empire, which is located immediately due east of Los Angeles and constitutes part of the Los Angeles television market. The highest ranking teams in the area are the Ontario Reign, an ECHL team, and several baseball teams in the single-A California League.
Los Angeles, the second largest city in the United States and Canada, is the largest city which does not have a complete set of the "big four" major-league sports: it has lacked a football team since 1995. (The L.A. region has two teams each, however, in baseball, basketball and ice hockey. It is also the only city with two Major League Soccer clubs and the largest city with one or more Division I FBS college football teams.) The smallest market with a complete set of "big four" sports is Denver, which ranks #18 amongst US and Canadian cities.
The most populous independent metropolitan area outside of a major franchise's local market is Las Vegas. Despite the area's explosive growth before the economic crisis, all four leagues are wary of placing a team there due to the city's legal gambling industry, which includes sports betting. In the U.S., for a professional sports organization to have any association, real or perceived, with gambling interests has been taboo ever since the 1919 Black Sox Scandal; this taboo was recently reinforced by the Tim Donaghy scandal. All four leagues forbid their teams or personnel to have any type of contact or association with gambling interests and any connection between professional sports and gambling, no matter how benign, quickly gains the attention of law enforcement. Additionally, the city's abundance of entertainment options might make it difficult for a Las Vegas-based team to attract a large and stable fan base. The highest ranking teams in Las Vegas are the UFL's Las Vegas Locomotives, the ECHL's Las Vegas Wranglers, and the Las Vegas 51s, a AAA baseball team. Both the Arena Football League and Canadian Football League have placed franchises in the area that have failed, twice in the former league's case, while the Locomotives are on the verge of being relocated to Salt Lake City. The NBA hosted its 2007 All-Star Weekend in Las Vegas, at which point both the league and the city expressed interest in locating a team there. However, NBA Commissioner David Stern says the city will need a new arena larger and more modern than the Thomas & Mack Center before it will even host another All-Star Weekend. While the event was initially regarded as successful and incident-free, media reports of criminal incidents (including two shootings related to the event, one of them involving NFL player Adam Jones) that began to surface after the conclusion of the weekend may hurt the city's chances of gaining an NBA or any major league team. Las Vegas also hosts the NHL's annual Frozen Fury preseason game between the Los Angeles Kings and the Colorado Avalanche.
The most populous individual city without a major professional sports franchise is Austin, Texas, which sits in the middle of a conglomeration of teams in other Texas cities such as Houston, San Antonio, and the Dallas–Fort Worth Metroplex. Austin's television market is currently the 51st largest in the United States, smaller than all major league cities except for Green Bay and smaller than the market for many cities with no major league team.
Other major metro areas without a major professional franchise are Norfolk, Virginia (the "Hampton Roads" metro area) and Louisville, Kentucky. Both boast television markets larger than those for Jacksonville, Buffalo, New Orleans and Green Bay, each of which has at least one major professional franchise.
Hampton Roads is nearly 200 miles (320 km) from the nearest major sports teams in Washington, D.C. and Raleigh, North Carolina. Hampton Roads previously hosted a successful franchise in the American Basketball Association. Its highest ranking teams as of 2011 are the Virginia Destroyers of the UFL, the Norfolk Admirals of the AHL, and the Norfolk Tides of the IL. Virginia is also the most populous state without a major team playing within its borders, though its northern reaches are served by the Washington clubs—two of which, the NHL's Capitals and NFL's Redskins, have their operational headquarters and practice facilities in Virginia; the Redskins also own two radio stations—WXTG and WXTG-FM—in the Norfolk market. The Hampton Roads television market is ranked 42nd in the U.S.
Louisville hosted major league baseball and NFL teams long ago, and was home to the successful Kentucky Colonels of the ABA, a team kept out of the 1976 merger of that league with the NBA. Louisville's television market is the 48th largest in the United States. Louisville is also considerably closer to larger markets than Hampton Roads is—Louisville is about 120 miles (190 km) from Indianapolis (#28) and 90 miles (140 km) from Cincinnati (#25), and Nashville (#36) is also within 200 miles. Compared to Las Vegas and Norfolk, Louisville has much less representation in minor professional sport; only the AAA Louisville Bats and some marginally professional low-level teams reside in Louisville. While Louisville itself has economics roughly typical for moderately large U.S. metropolitan areas, and a substantial corporate sector, the same cannot be said for large portions of its state of Kentucky. More than 50 of the state's 120 counties lie within the U.S. federal definition of historically impoverished Appalachia. This makes revenue generation more difficult than in more wealthy regions of the country.
Another interesting case is El Paso–Juárez. With its metro area population of well over two million, it is easily larger than several major league markets. However, over half its inhabitants live on the Mexican side of the historically contentious international border that splits it. This is not necessarily an issue on the Canadian border, as Detroit-Windsor and the Buffalo Niagara Region megalopoli have a more symbiotic cross-border relationship. This is part of the reason Buffalo, one of the smallest major league markets in the United States, still is able to support two major league teams.
The NHL has been the dominant professional sports league in Canada, and was first established in Canada in 1917. Some US-based leagues, like MLB and the NBA, have awarded franchises to Canada, though outside of franchises in Toronto (a media market comparable in size to the ten largest in the US), most have been unsuccessful.
The National Hockey League was established in 1917 in Canada with four hockey clubs in three Canadian cities (Toronto, Montreal and Ottawa). The first American club, based in Boston, joined the league in 1924, but American hockey clubs had existed before the NHL expanded into the United States. The first US-based club to compete for the Stanley Cup was the Portland Rosebuds of the Pacific Coast Hockey League, who lost the 1916 series to the Montreal Canadiens (then of the National Hockey Association). The next year, the PCHA's Seattle Metropolitans took the Cup away from the Canadiens. The Boston Bruins are the oldest US-based franchise in the NHL, having played in the league since 1924.
When the WHA and NHL merged, the NHL inherited teams in three Canadian metro areas that were under one million in population at the time, Edmonton, Winnipeg and Quebec City. The NHL later added teams in Calgary (via relocation from Atlanta) and Ottawa (via expansion), to go with pre-existing teams in Toronto, Montreal and Vancouver. The distinctive place hockey holds in Canadian culture allowed these franchises to compete with teams in larger cities for some time. However, the teams in Winnipeg and Quebec City were eventually moved to much larger media markets in the U.S., respectively Phoenix and Denver. The three remaining small-market Canadian teams (Calgary, Edmonton, and Ottawa) have survived largely because their markets are growing rapidly; all three metro areas in question are now over one million in population and are thus comparable in size to some of the smaller American metro areas with teams in other leagues such as Salt Lake City, Jacksonville, and Memphis. Calgary and Edmonton's positions were also greatly aided by the growth of the oil economy in Alberta in the mid-2000s. Still more recently, the NHL's Canadian teams have benefited greatly from the rise of the Canadian dollar to parity with its U.S. counterpart. As a result, the NHL returned to Winnipeg for the 2011–12 season, with the Atlanta Thrashers relocating to become the newest version of the Winnipeg Jets.
The first Major League Baseball team in Canada was the Montreal Expos who began play in 1969. In 2005, they moved to Washington D.C. and became the Washington Nationals. The Toronto Blue Jays, who began play in 1977, became the first team outside the United States to win the World Series in 1992 and 1993.
The Toronto Huskies were a charter member of what is now known as the NBA, but they only lasted from 1946 to 1947. The NBA returned to Toronto in 1995 when the Raptors joined the league. That same year, the Vancouver Grizzlies began play, but moved to Memphis in 2001.
The NFL has a working agreement with the Canadian Football League (CFL) which is second in popularity only to the NHL in that country. In the 1950s and 1960s, selected NFL teams would travel north to Canada to play a CFL team in pre-season "American Bowl" games. In 2008 the Buffalo Bills began playing one regular-season game each year in Toronto. Toronto is about 90 miles (145 km) from Buffalo and is considered by both the Bills and the NFL as a part of the team's market. The Bills currently draw about 15,000 Canadian fans per game, and the Bills' ownership sees Toronto's corporate market as key to securing the franchise's future, as the Bills have effectively maxed out their revenue potential in the economically struggling Buffalo area. In order to minimize any perceived conflict with the CFL, the first two regular-season games under the contract were played after that league's season-ending Grey Cup, and the 2011 game was scheduled both on a day that neither CFL team in Southern Ontario was playing and a weekend in which both teams played away games. The 2010 game was played on the last day of the CFL regular season, with the Bills playing in Toronto at 1:00 pm local time and the CFL Toronto Argonauts playing in Montreal at 4:00 pm, while the Hamilton Tiger-Cats had played their scheduled home game the previous day.
All four major leagues have strict rules regarding who may own a team, and also place some restrictions on what other sort of activities the owners may engage in. To prevent the perception of being in a conflict of interest, the major leagues generally do not allow anyone to own a stake in more than one franchise, a rule adopted after several high-profile controversies involving ownership of multiple baseball teams in the 1890s. Notably, Major League Soccer has been unable to adopt this sort of league structure — it operates as a single entity league and for the sake of stability has been forced to allow soccer enthusiasts such as the late Lamar Hunt to own multiple teams at least for now (see below). However, there have been four recent exceptions to this rule in the major leagues:
- After being blocked in their bid to eliminate or "contract" two franchises in 2001, Major League Baseball purchased the Montreal Expos from its owners. Under the league's control, the franchise was moved to Washington, D.C. and renamed the Nationals before being sold to a local group led by Theodore N. Lerner.
- The NHL purchased the Phoenix Coyotes from former owner Jerry Moyes in 2009, following a declaration of bankruptcy by the latter and a legal proceeding in the face of a competing bid by Research In Motion co-CEO Jim Balsillie, who would have attempted to relocate the franchise to Hamilton, Ontario.
- In December 2010, the NBA purchased the New Orleans Hornets from founding owner George Shinn. Shinn had announced plans to sell his majority stake in the team to minority partner and local businessman Gary Chouest in April 2010, but the deal fell through by early December. The league took the step of purchasing the team because it believed that the cash-strapped Shinn could no longer afford to operate the team but could not find a buyer. The NBA plans to remain in control until a buyer can be found.
- In Aprll 2011, MLB took over the day-to-day operations of the Los Angeles Dodgers, with Commissioner Bud Selig citing financial and governance issues stemming from the bitter divorce of owners Frank and Jamie McCourt. Although not mentioned in Selig's official statement, one unnamed source indicated that Selig was considering forcing a sale of the team. After the divorce was settled, Frank McCourt agreed in November 2011 to sell the Dodgers.
Many major professional sports leagues generally forbid religious groups, governments (usually they are some cases where government entities can own a team, usually county level), and non-profit organizations owning a team.
All of the top four major leagues grant some sort of territorial exclusivity to their owners, precluding the addition of another team in the same area unless the current team's owners consent, which is generally obtained in exchange for compensation and/or residual rights regarding the new franchise. For example, to obtain the consent of Baltimore Orioles owner Peter Angelos to place an MLB team in Washington (which is about 35 miles (56 km) from Oriole Park at Camden Yards), a deal was struck under the terms of which television and radio broadcast rights to Nationals games are handled by the Orioles franchise, who formed a new network (the Mid-Atlantic Sports Network) to produce and distribute the games for both franchises on local affiliates and cable/satellite systems. Similarly, the primary reason that the NHL will not expand into Hamilton is because the city's arena, Copps Coliseum, is within 50 miles of First Niagara Center, the home arena and headquarters of the Buffalo Sabres and is closer still to Air Canada Centre, where the Toronto Maple Leafs play.
Some major leagues, such as the NFL, have even stronger ownership restrictions. The NFL currently forbids large ownership groups or publicly-traded corporations from purchasing NFL teams. This policy allows the league office to deal with individual owners instead of boards of directors, although the Packers' ownership group was grandfathered into the current policy. The NFL also forbids its majority owners from owning any sports teams (except for soccer teams and Arena Football League teams) in other NFL cities, and prohibits owners from investing in casinos or being otherwise involved in gambling operations. (NFL owners may freely own soccer teams without league restrictions because Lamar Hunt won a court challenge stemming from his investment in the old North American Soccer League. When he died in December 2006, he owned 2 teams in Major League Soccer, FC Dallas and the Columbus Crew, and he had only sold a third team, the Kansas City Wizards (now Sporting Kansas City), less than four months before.)
Regarding territorial rights, the main concern for many team owners has become television revenue although the possibility of reduced ticket sales remains a concern for some teams. Because the National Football League shares all of its television revenue equally, and most of its teams sell out their stadiums with little difficulty, some NFL owners are seen as being less reluctant to share their territories. For example, the return of the NFL to Baltimore in 1996 attracted no serious opposition from the Washington Redskins organization.
Weathering challenges from rival leagues
All of the majors have bested at least one rival league formed with the intention of being just as "big" as the established league, often by signing away star players and by locating franchises in cities that were already part of the existing league. In many cases, the major leagues have absorbed the most successful franchises from its failing rival, or merged outright with it.
- The National League withstood three early challenges in its first quarter century of existence. The American Association began in 1882 in response to the NL leaving several lucrative markets vacant, the NL banning the sale of beer at games and the NL's steep (at the time) spectator admittance fee of 50 cents. It was a viable competitor to the NL for most of its existence and its champion competed in an informal World Series with the NL's champion for several years. Four of the AA's teams defected to the NL in its later years and it expired in 1891. Labor problems led to the formation of the Players League for the 1890 season; it attracted a significant percentage of the existing high-caliber baseball talent and caused the NL and AA significant financial harm, but it lacked robust financial backing and folded after only one season. The minor Western League moved several franchises in NL cities and cities abandoned by the NL for the 1900 and 1901 seasons and renamed itself the American League in direct competition with the NL. The NL and AL made peace in 1903; the resulting agreement formed what today is known as Major League Baseball. MLB withstood the challenge of the Federal League in 1914 and prevented the Continental League from getting off the ground in the early 1960s by awarding franchises to some of the proposed CL cities. Before the end of World War II, the combination of a gentlemen's agreement and the restrictive policies of Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis prevented African American players from playing Major League Baseball, and various Negro Leagues sprung up to showcase black players' talents. Although no official cross-league play took place, white and black players often faced off in post-season barnstorming tours where the Negro League players showed themselves to be MLB players' competitive equals. After Jackie Robinson broke the major league color barrier in 1947, the influx of black stars into the major leagues drained the Negro Leagues of talent and eventually caused their collapse.
- The NBA withstood the challenge of the American Basketball Association in the 1960s and 70s, absorbed four of its most successful franchises (Denver Nuggets, Indiana Pacers, New York Nets and San Antonio Spurs) in a 1976 merger, and adopted several of the ABA's rule variations, most notably the three-point shot.
- The NFL has fought off the most rivals throughout the years, and to this day faces a competing startup league every few years. Four (all unrelated) were named American Football League; the last of these existed from 1960-1970, before merging with the NFL. In the AFL's last years, it achieved parity with the NFL: AFL teams won the last two of the four pre-merger Super Bowl games, and TV ratings and in-person attendance for the two leagues were about the same. Another strong rival to the NFL was the All-America Football Conference of 1946-1949; three of their seven teams merged with the NFL for the 1950 season, and two of the three still exist in the NFL. Other rival football leagues have included the World Football League of 1974-1975, the United States Football League of 1982-1985, the Canadian Football League's American franchises of 1993-1995, and the XFL of 2001. All told, 13 of the NFL's current 32 franchises were absorbed from a rival league — all 10 AFL franchises of the 1960s, the Cleveland Browns and San Francisco 49ers from the AAFC, and the St. Louis Rams (originally based in Cleveland and later relocated to Los Angeles) of the 1936 AFL (the NFL, however, does not officially recognize the link between the AFL Cleveland Rams and today's franchise). Another three NFL franchises have been added or moved to USFL cities since the USFL's demise in 1986, these being Phoenix, Jacksonville and Baltimore.
- Prior to the challenge of the World Hockey Association, the NHL prevented the old Western Hockey League from achieving parity with the NHL by doubling in size in 1967. During its existence from 1972 to 1979, the WHA was able to strongly challenge the dominance of the NHL; the WHA initially attracted star players such as Bobby Hull and Derek Sanderson to its teams by offering substantially higher salaries than did the NHL at the time. To compete for free agents, NHL teams were forced to match this salary escalation, bringing hockey players' salaries to parity with those of other American/Canadian professional athletes. Unfortunately, many WHA franchises were mired in financial difficulty, due to high player salaries, and there were frequent franchise moves even in mid-season. With the WHA faced with collapse, NHL President John Ziegler negotiated a merger of the leagues. The four strongest teams joined into the NHL: the Edmonton Oilers, the Quebec Nordiques (now the Colorado Avalanche), the New England Whalers (later renamed the Hartford Whalers and now the Carolina Hurricanes), and the Winnipeg Jets (now the Phoenix Coyotes). A few WHA players became NHL stars after the merger, including Mark Messier, Wayne Gretzky, Mark Howe and Mike Liut.
Generally, all of the top major leagues possess highly evolved and sophisticated player development systems that they utilize to develop and train personnel.
- The vast majority of MLB players are developed through the minor league baseball system. Prospective players traditionally were drafted or (before the first MLB draft in 1965) signed to a contract with an MLB team directly after high school and then assigned to the appropriate minor league level for development. With the growth of college baseball in the past few decades, more and more players opt to play at the collegiate level and delay entry into the MLB draft. Individual teams' large scouting staffs have given way to smaller staffs and subscriptions to commercial player scouting services. Entering the majors directly from high school or college is almost unknown; most of the few that have were quickly reassigned to the minors. MLB clubs have also recruited many players from the Japanese leagues, with which MLB has a formal relationship; Japanese players under contract in the Japanese leagues must be posted. MLB teams also sign Latin American players from countries with strong baseball cultures, such as the Dominican Republic. Often these players are still in high school. A notable exception is Cuba; although there are several Cuban baseball players in MLB they have had to defect.
- College and high school basketball produce most of the NBA's talent, although minimum age rules have ended the NBA's practice of drafting players directly from high school beginning in 2006. The D-League was implemented in 2001 by the NBA to perform the role of a farm system in helping with player development and market reach, but NBA teams more frequently recruit talent from overseas professional leagues, mostly in Europe with a few players being recruited from leagues in Latin America, China, and Australia.
- Semi-pro football and minor leagues such as the Continental Football League once flourished up to the 1970s, but today the source for almost all NFL players is college football. From 1995 to 2007, the NFL maintained its own six-team minor league, NFL Europe, which also served to introduce the game of American football in European markets; NFL Europe, however, was rarely used and produced few NFL-caliber players. NFL teams also recruit players from indoor leagues, and occasionally signs players from the Canadian Football League. The independent United Football League, whose season ends a month before the NFL season does (and will end even sooner in 2011), makes its players available to NFL teams at the end of the UFL season for a fee. Amateur and semi-pro football still exists, with several national and regional leagues, but professional leagues almost never recruit players from them. American football also has the least global reach for prospects, with the exceptions of American Samoa, which has deep connections to the game, and the acquisition of several retired players from other codes of football primarily as kickers and punters. As of 2010, professional football is the only one of the four major sports that does not have a formalized farm system, due primarily to injury concerns.
- Each NHL team has an affiliate in North America's top-tier minor hockey league, the American Hockey League, and in lower leagues such as the Central Hockey League or ECHL. For decades, the traditional route to the NHL has been through junior hockey and the Canadian Hockey League (CHL), generally regarded as the world's premier competition for 15- through 20-year-olds. In recent decades, NHL teams have drafted and/or signed prospects from top European amateur and professional organizations, and a growing number of NHL hopefuls are forgoing the quasi-professional CHL in favor of NCAA Division I college hockey. Additionally, the US now has two Junior A hockey leagues that provide many NHL players (some via NCAA hockey) in the USHL and NAHL. Regardless of which route hockey players take to sign an NHL contract, almost all are initially assigned to an affiliate in their NHL team's minor league system for development.
- Unlike its respective compatriot leagues, MLS does not run a minor league system. Instead, it relies on the development of talent through youth academies, which is now a requirement for all MLS clubs. These academies are commonplace for soccer clubs throughout the World, and MLS clubs can operate youth teams as young as 13–14 years old. Even some youth academy teams participate in lower-tier leagues, a majority participate in MLS Reserve Division matches. Minor professional leagues, such as the modern North American Soccer League and USL Pro, also exist.
In the United States and Canada, where there is no tradition of promotion and relegation in team sports, the top league in a sport generally commands the loyalties of that sport's followers. Even if a city is home to a minor league team, a sport's fan in that city will typically call a major league team their "favorite team" and follow it more closely. This contrasts with European soccer, for example, where clubs in lower-level leagues have passionate supporters that root for the club to be promoted to higher levels of competition.
Such loyalty has been noticed primarily within the NFL, MLB, NBA and NHL. Contrastingly, it has been noticed that there are numerous passionate supporters rooting for not only MLS sides, but local NASL and USL teams as well.
All of the top four major leagues have had television contracts with at least one of the original "big three" U.S. broadcast television networks (CBS, NBC, and ABC) since those networks' early years, indicative of the sports' widespread appeal since their inception, continuing today additionally with FOX. Regular season games, as well as important contests such as championship and all-star games are often televised in prime time. In the last generation, fast-growing cable and satellite networks have taken a larger chunk of the major sports' pie. All four major sports have a network of their own. NBA TV launched in 1999, followed by NFL Network in 2003 and NHL Network in 2007. Major League Baseball introduced MLB Network in 2009, and though it was the last to launch, it launched in more television households than the other networks presently have due to partnerships with cable and satellite operators.
Comparing the sizes of annual television contracts, the NFL is by far the largest, at over $3.8 billion, with the NBA and MLB both in distant second and third ($500 million and $479 million respectively). The NHL is in fourth place, at $200 million in the latest U.S. contract, not counting the Canadian share. Of the four, the NFL is most dependent on television revenues, drawing over 40% of its revenue from television contracts; this is mostly due to the much shorter seasons and reduced ticket sales opportunities compared to other professional leagues.
The NHL began airing games on NBC starting in January 2006 and the NHL Network, launched in Canada in 2001, has been available to U.S. cable and satellite subscribers since 2007. In addition, the NHL broadcasts games nationally in the U.S. on Versus, generally on Monday and Tuesday nights. Since 1952 the NHL has been broadcast on the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation's Hockey Night in Canada. The 2006 Stanley Cup Finals attracted 2.63 million viewers on the CBC.
Although the NFL's revenues from contracts benefiting and shared equally amongst all teams in the league is several times greater than any of the other three major leagues, teams in the other leagues (MLB, NBA, NHL) negotiate contracts with local broadcasters to air most of their games (because of the much larger supply of regular-season games in the other leagues as opposed to the NFL, major U.S. networks have no interest in showing those sports every day, except during postseason play); some teams (such as the New York Yankees) may even partially or fully own the cable network upon which their games are broadcast, and often receive more revenue from local broadcasts than any other source.
All four leagues are universally considered to be the top league in their respective sports, not only in revenue, but also in quality of talent, player salaries, and worldwide interest. However, of the four major leagues, the NFL has the least presence outside both countries; it is mainly an American and Canadian interest. Basketball is a strong spectator and participation sport all over the world, and the NBA is unquestionably its top league. Hockey (Europe) and baseball (East Asia, Latin America) have loyal followings in some of the world's other regions as well. Selling league broadcasting rights to foreign markets is another way for the leagues to generate revenue, and all the leagues have tried to exploit revenue streams outside of their home market.
High player salaries
- NBA players have the highest average player salaries of the four leagues at $4.9 million; however, their teams also have the smallest rosters.
- The NFL has the highest average team payroll. The league had a hard salary cap that reached $128 million in 2009, but NFL owners opted out of their collective bargaining agreement (CBA) with the NFL players union after that season, resulting in no cap for the 2010 season. This also resulted in the temporary end of the league's hard salary floor, which was over $110 million per team in 2009 under the same agreement. After a brief lockout during the 2011 offseason, the owners and union signed a new CBA which imposes a hard salary cap of $120 million and floor of $108 million in the 2011 season. However, NFL payrolls are distributed among rosters that are far larger than the other three leagues (many players on rosters see little to no actual game play), and teams play far fewer games (a fifth of the NHL and NBA, and a tenth of MLB), making their players among the lowest paid on the average at $1.3 million.
- Following the settlement of the NHL lockout, NHL players were also due to be paid about US$1.3 million on average, although this quickly increased because the lockout did not have the adverse effect on league revenues that was expected. For the 2010–11 NHL season, the average player salary was slightly above the pre-lockout level of US$1.8 million. In the same season, the league's salary cap was US$59.4 million per team (the league's CBA requires that all salaries be paid in U.S. dollars, even by Canadian teams), with the salary floor set at US$16 million under the cap. Since the end of the lockout, the league's revenue situation has been helped considerably by substantial increases in revenue by its Canadian teams, combined with the rise of the Canadian dollar to essential parity with its U.S. counterpart.
- MLB is in the middle at about $2.5 million per player. MLB is now alone among the major leagues in that it lacks any form of a salary cap and has enacted only modest forms of revenue sharing and luxury taxes, and compared to the other leagues there is a far greater disparity between MLB payrolls. The New York Yankees had the highest payroll of any American sports team in 2006 when they paid $194 million in players' salaries - nearly twice the NFL salary cap and nearly thirteen times the payroll of the Florida Marlins who spent about $15 million (significantly less than the mandatory minimum team payrolls in the NFL and NHL).
Dominance of the respective sport
One other trait that each of the top four major leagues share is that they are the premier competitions of their respective sport on the world stage. Major League Baseball is increasingly luring away the stars from the Japanese leagues, the European hockey leagues have become a major source of star talent for National Hockey League clubs, and the National Basketball Association frequently recruits talent from professional leagues in Europe, Latin America and China.
Baseball, basketball, and hockey
The perceived lack of competition from the rest of the world has contributed to the long-standing but controversial practice of the American media dubbing the champions of MLB, the NBA and the NFL the world champions. The early Stanley Cup champions from both the NHL and the early leagues the NHL eventually displaced were also called world champions in the early decades of professional hockey by Americans and Canadians alike - in fact the phrase can be found on past engravings on the Cup. However, that term fell out of favor in the latter half of the 20th century. The International Ice Hockey Federation has proposed a world championship playoff between the Stanley Cup winners and the champions of the European Hockey League (see below).
If the popularity of baseball and basketball keeps growing in various countries outside of the United States and Canada, some think that the NBA and MLB may begin to place franchises in foreign markets. The popularity of baseball in Southeast Asia, Mexico and Central America is growing, along with the talent of prospective players from the regions. Meanwhile, the popularity of basketball has grown to be the second highest in the world in terms of national associations. (after soccer) though it also trails cricket (which is popular in many countries with large populations e.g. India) in terms of total fans.
However, one major detractor against foreign expansion by MLB or the NBA is that the sports in question enjoy much of their popularity in relatively poor countries that would probably be unable to financially support a sports franchise using the American model. The only clear exception to this would be the popularity of baseball in Japan, where well-established baseball leagues already exist.
Due to the popularity of hockey in some of the most prosperous parts of Europe, many believe that the major league with the best chance of success outside North America would be the NHL. This has led to the possibility of European NHL franchises being discussed in the past, although NHL officials have repeatedly said they have no current plans to create a European division. The most that has come out of this has been the "Super Series" tour in the 1970s and 80s where the Soviet club teams played NHL teams in exhibition games. During the first and most famous of these tours Red Army Moscow played the Montreal Canadiens in what the media called an unofficial world championship. However, this was during the height of the Cold War when the Soviet League had comparable talent to the NHL - since the decline of Communism in Eastern Europe in the late 1980s, better financed NHL teams have enticed away most the elite players from the former Soviet Union and Czechoslovakia. Professional leagues in Sweden, Finland and Switzerland also have a high level of talent, but the higher salaries and elite level of play offered in the NHL has also lured away many of their best players. Significantly, ice hockey is either popular in countries with a relatively low average income (e.g. Russia, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Belarus, Kazakhstan), a very small population (e.g. Sweden, Switzerland, Finland), or both (e.g. Latvia). In the largest and most populous nations of Europe, such as France, Italy and the UK, hockey is not a major sport. Germany is a partial exception, although hockey is clearly not the most popular sport in that country.
The IIHF has proposed that instead of a direct NHL presence in Europe a world championship playoff between the Stanley Cup winners and the champions of the European Hockey League should be held each year. The NHL's position on this proposal is not entirely clear, but many believe that the players union would be unlikely to support it. Beginning in the 2007–08 NHL season, the NHL began playing exhibition games against European teams in the "NHL Premiere" series, the NHL Challenge, and the Victoria Cup. Since the debut of the series, NHL teams have won 24 games to the European teams' four.
Recently talks about NBA franchises being located in Europe have intensified. For logistical reasons it would be necessary to have a minimum of two and probably four or more teams in Europe, so that visiting Canadian/American teams could play multiple opponents during a single trip. Possible cities for such expansion include London, Paris, Barcelona, Madrid, Cologne, Berlin, Rome, and Moscow. Although current NBA commissioner David Stern and former NBA star Michael Jordan are among those who have endorsed the concept of NBA teams in Europe, increasing cooperation between the NBA and ULEB, the body that organizes the Euroleague, may make a permanent NBA presence in Europe less likely, at least for the foreseeable future. In 2005, the two bodies agreed to organize a summer competition known as the NBA Europe Live Tour featuring four NBA teams and four Euroleague clubs, with the first competition taking place in 2006.
A major obstacle for anyone trying to establish either an NBA or NHL presence in Europe is that with soccer being in the dominant position that it enjoys on that continent, building state of the art indoor arenas suitable for ice hockey and/or basketball has not become a priority in European cities until very recently. No arena likely to meet the standards of either league existed anywhere in Europe until the Manchester Evening News Arena opened in 1995, followed by Cologne's Kölnarena and Lisbon's Atlantic Pavilion in 1998. The next NBA/NHL-caliber arena in Europe opened in 2003, when Sinan Erdem Dome opened in Istanbul. The following year saw two more such arenas open—the Olympic Indoor Hall in Athens and Sazka Arena, now O2 Arena, in Prague. Belgrade Arena and the Madrid Sports Palace followed in 2005, although the capacity of the latter is marginal by today's NBA standards. The O2 opened in London in 2007, O2 World in Berlin (another arena of NBA/NHL standards but marginal capacity) followed in 2008, and plans are in the works for an NBA/NHL-caliber venue in Moscow.
Despite being the member of the top four major league sports with the least international exposure, American football is the most popular professional league in the United States. The NFL has also attempted to promote its game worldwide by scheduling selected pre-season games since 1976 in Mexico, Europe, Australia, and Japan and through NFL Europe (which, although it began with teams throughout Western Europe, had relocated several teams to the point where almost all of its teams were in Germany by the time of the league's demise); the latter venture was never profitable and ultimately ceased operations in 2007. Starting in 2005, the NFL has begun holding one regular season game outside the United States. The 2005 matchup in Mexico City between the San Francisco 49ers and Arizona Cardinals drew a crowd of over 103,000 to Azteca Stadium (a 1994 crowd of over 112,000 at Azteca Stadium is the largest to attend a pre-season game). This was followed by a regular-season game at the New Wembley Stadium in London in 2007, becoming the NFL's first venture in the UK since the collapse of two NFL Europe teams based there; the league has played an annual game in Wembley each year since. Preliminary talks had been ongoing to expand the NFL season to 18 regular season games, with each team playing one game overseas, although such talk has been curtailed because the expansion was not approved in labor negotiations. There has been talk of expanding the International Series to Ireland.
For a time after World War II and into the 1950s, the Canadian Football League and the NFL operated on roughly equal footing financially, with many US-born star players heading north for more money. That all changed in the sixties with the rise of the American Football League; by 1970, massive US television revenues available to the NFL made the American-based league much more successful. Due to this change to the pecking order, the CFL became virtually unknown beyond North America. Efforts have been made to turn the situation around, including the failed CFL USA experiment in the 1990s. Today, the CFL's international coverage is led by NASN, Fox Sports International, and the U.S. Armed Forces Network. CFL coverage is now available in 172 countries.
The Canadian Football League’s annual Grey Cup championship game has a worldwide audience reaching over 100 million television viewers across the U.S., Mexico, Europe, the Middle East and many other countries. In the United States, the 2008 Grey Cup was available to 62 million homes in standard definition television and to DISH Network’s 12 million customers in High Definition on VOOM HD Networks’ World Sport HD channel (available in the New York City metropolitan area on Cablevision). CFL and Grey Cup coverage in Mexico is provided by TVC Deportes, the cable sports channels owned and operated by cable television groups across the country. Regular-season games on TVC Deportes has delivered the league a growing fan base in the important Mexican market. Also, the Grey Cup is also available to nearly 8 million subscribers on Sirius XM satellite radio.
Although it remains the smallest "major" sport in Canada and the United States, soccer does have the benefit of having the biggest following in the world. MLS teams have turned a profit for the first time in their history and attendances are better than the league predicted a decade ago. The introduction of soccer specific stadiums and greater revenue control is believed to be crucial to growth. Major League Soccer teams compete with top teams from Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean in the new CONCACAF Champions League, the winners of which compete in the annual FIFA Club World Cup each December.
Relations between leagues
Although they are competitors, the "big four" leagues also cooperate. Some owners have teams in multiple leagues; as mentioned above, the NFL restricts cross-league ownership but the other leagues do not. There are common business and legal interests; the leagues will often support one another in legal matters since the courts' decisions might establish precedents that affect them all. One recent example was the Supreme Court decision in 2010 in American Needle, Inc. v. National Football League, in which the NFL (which ultimately lost the case) received amicus curiae briefs from the NBA, NHL, and MLS. The leagues' commissioners occasionally meet in person, most recently in 2009.
In the early years of the NFL and to a lesser extent the NHL, it was not uncommon for teams to share nicknames with their MLB counterparts. For example, until 1957 New York City played host to baseball and football Giants. MLB's Pittsburgh Pirates shared its nickname with an NFL team (which ultimately became the Pittsburgh Steelers) as well as a now-defunct early NHL team. Furthermore, the Steelers, Pirates, and Penguins all utilize similar team colors. The most recent example of two major teams sharing a franchise name was between 1960 and 1987; when the NFL's Chicago Cardinals relocated to Saint Louis, Missouri, it was allowed to keep the Cardinals name despite the established existence of a baseball team of the same name.
The leagues also cooperate in the construction and use of facilities. Many NBA and NHL teams share arenas, and, in years past such sharing was very common for MLB and NFL teams, though only one such situation currently exists. (Another such situation ended when the Florida Marlins completed their 2011 season. The team, which previously shared Sun Life Stadium with the Miami Dolphins, will become the Miami Marlins and move into a new, baseball-only stadium for the 2012 season.) More recently, MLS teams have used NFL stadiums as either full time home fields or for special event games. Also notable in recent years has been the NHL's Winter Classic and Heritage Classic which have been held in NFL, CFL and MLB stadiums.
- List of major professional sports teams of the United States and Canada
- List of U.S. and Canadian cities by professional sports teams
- Sports in the United States
- Sports in Canada
- Sports in Mexico
- List of professional sports leagues
- List of attendance figures at domestic professional sports leagues - a summary of total and average attendances for the major sports leagues from around the world.
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- North American Pro Sports Teams - Lists every league that has operated in Canada and / or the United States. Grouped by city.
- USA Today Salary Database - Lists and sorts team payroll by year for all teams in MLB, NFL, NBA, NHL, and Major League Soccer.
Major professional sports leagues in the United States and Canada
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