Major professional sports leagues in the United States and Canada
The major professional sports leagues in the United States and Canada are the highest professional competitions of team sports in the United States and Canada. The four leagues universally included in the definition are Major League Baseball (MLB), the National Basketball Association (NBA), the National Football League (NFL), and the National Hockey League (NHL). Other prominent leagues include Major League Soccer (MLS) and the Canadian Football League (CFL).
The MLB, NBA, NFL and NHL are commonly referred to as the "Big 4". Each of these is the wealthiest professional club competition in its sport worldwide, and along with the English Premier League they make up the top five sports leagues by revenue in the world. In addition, the sports of these four leagues were all developed in their modern forms in North America, and all except American football have become popular internationally. Because the leagues enjoy a significant place in popular culture in the U.S. and Canada, the best players from these leagues often become cultural icons in both countries.
Currently, the NFL has 32 teams, and the others have 30 each (with the NHL expanding to 31 teams in 2017). The vast majority of major league teams are concentrated in the most populous metropolitan areas of the United States and Canada. Unlike the promotion and relegation systems used in sports leagues in various other regions around the world, those teams in the North American sports leagues remain static from season-to-season, unless they are disbanded or relocated. Each Big Four league, as well as Major League Soccer and the Canadian Football League, averages at least 15,000 fans in attendance per game as of 2013.
Baseball, football, and hockey have had professional leagues continuously for over 100 years; early leagues such as the National Association, Ohio League, and National Hockey Association formed the basis of the modern MLB, NFL, and NHL, respectively. Basketball was invented in 1891 and its first professional league formed in the 1920s. The Basketball Association of America formed the basis of the NBA. Soccer was first professionalized in 1894, but leagues suffered greatly from lack of sustainability and seldom lasted more than a decade. Soccer's greatest successes were in the form of the American Soccer League (1921–1933), the original North American Soccer League (1968–84), and, currently, Major League Soccer (1996–present).
Although individual sports such as golf, tennis, and auto racing are also very popular, the term "major league" is usually limited to team sports. For golf and auto racing, the PGA Tour and NASCAR Sprint Cup serve as the respective major competitions on par with the major leagues in other sports in terms of media coverage, level of competition, and fan following.
Big Four leagues
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 merged on an organizational level in 2000 with the elimination of separate league offices; 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 in the world. 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 has 30 teams, 29 in the United States and 1 in Canada. The NBA is watched by audiences both domestically and internationally.
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, 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 XLIX being the single most-watched program in U.S. television history.
The NFL is the only one of the major leagues not to have a presence in Canada, where the Canadian Football League (see below) is the premier professional league in the sport.
National Hockey League
The National Hockey League is the only one of the major leagues to have been founded in Canada. It was formed in 1917 as a successor to 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, with a Las Vegas expansion team planned to start for the 2017–2018 season.
The most popular sports league in Canada, and widely followed across the northern U.S., the NHL has expanded southward in recent decades 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. Hockey remains much more popular in the northern states of the U.S. closer to Canada, such as the Upper Midwest and New England, than in the rest of the United States. The NHL has more Canadian teams (seven) than MLB, the NBA, the NFL, and Major League Soccer combined (five).
Other notable professional leagues
Nate Silver of the ESPN-owned website FiveThirtyEight has argued that there is a case to be made for the inclusion of the Major League Soccer and Canadian Football League in the major professional sports leagues of North America.
Major League Soccer
Major League Soccer (MLS) is the top-level men's professional soccer league in the United States and Canada. MLS has 20 teams as of 2015–17 in the United States and 3 in Canada. The league began play in 1996, its creation a requirement by FIFA for awarding the United States the right to host the 1994 World Cup. MLS is the first Division I outdoor soccer league in the U.S. or Canada since the North American Soccer League operated from 1968 to 1984. MLS has increased in popularity following the adoption of the Designated Player rule in 2007, which allowed MLS to sign stars such as David Beckham and Thierry Henry. In 2014, MLS reported an average attendance of 19,148 per game, with total attendance exceeding 6.1 million overall, both breaking previous MLS attendance records.
Canadian Football League
The Canadian Football League is the highest level of play in Canadian football. The league was organized in 1956 as a cooperative agreement between two regional leagues, the Big Four (which dated to 1907) and the WIFU (which was founded in 1936), and became independent from Football Canada in 1958. The league now consists of 9 teams, all based in Canada. The Grey Cup is awarded annually to the champion every November and is the best attended 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 northern North American leagues, behind the NFL and MLB; in 2010 the average attendance was 26,781, with a total attendance of 1,928,225
Traits of these major leagues
Major professional sports leagues are distinguished from other sports leagues in terms of business and economic factors, popularity of the league, and quality of play. The following table compares the big four leagues, plus MLS and the CFL, on certain attributes that collectively attempt to indicate whether the league has "major league" status. The table includes the longevity and stability of the league, as measured by the year founded and the last time the league underwent contraction, the number of teams in the league, and the popularity of the league, as measured by annual revenues and average attendance.
|League||Sport|| Year |
|Teams|| Last |
| Revenue |
| Recent Average |
|National Football League||American football||1920||32||1952||$13.0||68,400 (2015)|
|Major League Baseball||Baseball||1903||30||1899||$9.5||30,517 (2015)|
|National Basketball Association||Basketball||1946||30||1954||$5.2||17,864 (2015)|
|National Hockey League||Ice hockey||1917||30||1978||$3.7||17,481 (2015)|
|Major League Soccer||Soccer||1994||20||2014||$0.6||21,574 (2015)|
|Canadian Football League||Canadian football||1958||9||2006||$0.2||24,737 (2015)|
- The two component leagues of Major League Baseball, the National and American Leagues, were founded in 1876 and 1901 respectively. MLB also celebrates anniversaries of the start of professional baseball in 1869.
- The NHL will expand to 31 teams with the addition of Las Vegas for the 2017–2018 season.
- MLS plans to expand to 22 teams in 2017 and at least 23 in 2018.
- This date reflects the demise of Chivas USA, which was folded by the league after the 2014 season. However, if "contraction" is defined as a reduction in the size of a league from one season to the next, the only MLS contraction came in 2001, when MLS went from 12 teams to 10 with the folding of both of its Florida teams. The 2015 season, the first after Chivas' demise, saw two new teams enter the league.
- The CFL was formed by the merger of the Interprovincial Rugby Football Union and the Western Interprovincial Football Union, founded in 1907 and 1936, respectively.
The top four major leagues each have revenues that can be many times greater than the payrolls of less popular sports leagues in the two nations. In terms of overall league revenue, the NFL, MLB and the NBA rank as the top three most lucrative sports leagues in the world, with the Premier League of English soccer and the NHL ranked at fourth and fifth place.
The major sports leagues have their games televised on the big four U.S. broadcast TV networks—ABC, CBS, NBC, and Fox—enjoy strong TV viewer ratings, and earn significant revenues from these TV contracts. All of the top four major sports leagues have had television contracts with at least one of the original "big three" U.S. broadcast television networks (ABC, CBS, and NBC) since those networks' early years, indicative of the sports' widespread appeal since their inception, continuing today additionally with Fox. In Canada, the NHL has been broadcast on the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation since 1952.
|League||Ratings / Viewers||US TV Rev|
|NFL||10 / 16.6m (aggregate)||$7.2 bn|
|NBA|| 2.3 / 3.9m (ABC, 16 games) |
1.1 / 1.7m (TNT, 52 games)
1.1 / 1.7m (ESPN, 76 games)
|MLB|| 1.4 / 2.1m (Fox, 12 games) |
0.8 / 1.1m (ESPN, 16 games)
0.3 / 0.4m (FS1, 40 games)
0.2 / 0.3m (TBS, 13 games)
|NHL|| 0.9 / 1.5m (NBC, 13 games) |
0.2 / 0.3m (NBCSN, 88 games)
|MLS|| 0.2 / 0.3m (ESPN, 34 games) |
0.2 / 0.3m (FS1, 34 games)
0.1 / 0.2m (Univ, 34 games)
The NFL has the largest TV contracts, and earns over $6 billion annually from its contracts with Fox, CBS, NBC, ESPN and DirecTV for the 2014 through 2022 seasons. MLB earns $1.5 billion annually from its contracts with ESPN, Fox, and Turner Sports (TBS) for the 2014 through 2021 seasons.
In October 2014, the NBA signed a nine-year television deal with ESPN and TNT that generates annual league TV revenues of $2.66 billion beginning with the 2016–17 season. The NHL earns $633 million annually from its media deals—$200m in the U.S. with NBC Sports, and $433m in Canada with Rogers Sportsnet.
Teams in the MLB, NBA, and NHL—which play several days per week—negotiate contracts with local broadcasters to air most of their games, both terrestrial networks and regional sports networks. 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. NFL teams, which generally play once per week, do not negotiate local broadcast contracts, but are allowed to negotiate their own television deals for preseason games with syndication and broadcast stations.
MLS matches are shown in English on ESPN and FoxSports, and in Spanish on Univision. In 2014, MLS signed eight-year contracts for U.S. rights for the 2015–2022 seasons with ESPN and FoxSports for English language, and with Univision for Spanish language, earning a combined $90 million annually.
The CFL is shown on cable TV, but is not broadcast over-the-air terrestrial television. The CFL's last over-the-air broadcasts ended in 2007 in Canada and 2009 in the United States. Its most recent television deal, an exclusive agreement with ESPN and Canadian counterpart TSN, pays at least $30 million per year for both Canadian and American rights.
Major professional sports leagues generally have significantly higher average attendance than other sports leagues. The following table shows the average attendance of all professional sports leagues in the United States and Canada that have an average attendance of 15,000 or higher. The table also shows trends in attendance growth or decline.
|League||Teams|| Recent Average |
| 2009 Avg. |
| % Change |
| Games |
|National Football League||32||68,400 (2015)||65,043||+5%||16|
|Major League Baseball||30||30,517 (2015)||30,300||0%||162|
|Canadian Football League||9||24,737 (2015)||28,054||–12%||18|
|Major League Soccer||20||21,574 (2015)||16,037||+35%||34|
|National Basketball Association||30||17,864 (2015)||17,520||+2%||82|
|National Hockey League||30||17,481 (2015)||17,460||0%||82|
Major-league franchises are generally worth very large amounts of money, due in large part to high revenues earned by the league's teams. These franchise valuations are reflected in periodic analyses of teams' values, as well as by the expansion fees commanded by the leagues.
|League||Median value|| Expansion |
Recent expansion franchises have commanded huge entry fees, which represent the price the new team must pay to gain its share of the existing teams' often guaranteed revenue streams. The Houston Texans paid $700 million to join the NFL. By comparison, the Charlotte Bobcats (now the Hornets) paid $300 million to join the NBA. The Arizona Diamondbacks and Tampa Bay Rays (originally Devil Rays) paid $130 million each to join MLB. The upcoming Vegas Golden Knights paid $500 million to join the NHL, a dramatic increase from the $80 million paid by each of the previous two teams to enter the NHL, the Columbus Blue Jackets and Minnesota Wild. New York City FC paid $100 million to join Major League Soccer. For comparison, the Ottawa Redblacks paid C$7 million to join the Canadian Football League and the Toronto Argonauts (the most recent CFL team to have come up for sale) are believed to have sold for approximately C$10 million, down from its original asking price of C$20 million.
|Last Expansion |
All of the top four major leagues exhibit stability in most of their franchises. No team from the top four leagues has collapsed outright since the 1970s. The last team to cease operations was the NHL's Cleveland Barons in 1978, when financial pressures forced a merger with the Minnesota North Stars. MLB voted in 2001 to contract from 30 teams to 28, but ran into opposition and never executed the contraction plan. 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.
Relocation of teams is generally uncommon compared to minor leagues. However, all of the top four major leagues have had at least one franchise relocate to another city since the 1990s. Among the big four leagues, the NHL has had the highest number of recent relocations, relocating three teams during the 1990s and another in 2011; it is also the most recent to expand, having added the Las Vegas-based Vegas Golden Knights for 2017 (none of the other Big Four leagues have added expansion teams since 2004).
MLS, being the youngest of the major leagues on the continent, has expanded more rapidly than the more established Big Four, more than doubling in the number of teams since 2005. The league has contracted three teams in its history: teams in Miami and Tampa Bay folded in 2002, and the Los Angeles-based Chivas USA squad folded in 2014. MLS has had one franchise relocate, the San Jose Earthquakes, which became the Houston Dynamo in 2006; the Earthquakes returned as an expansion club in 2008, inheriting the pre-relocation history of the original Earthquakes.
All seven CFL franchises between Vancouver and Toronto have been in place since the BC Lions were founded in 1954. The league has had problems in the two markets east of Toronto; both Montreal and Ottawa have each seen two CFL teams fail since the 1980s, although both cities have active teams as of the 2014 season (the cities are now represented by the Alouettes and Redblacks, respectively). Among existing teams, none has ever formally relocated from one city to another; the Alouettes, however, inherited a management structure from the Baltimore Stallions, a team from the league's unsuccessful 1990s-era South Division; with the exception of two seasons (1994 and 1995) in which the league expanded into the United States, the CFL has had either eight or nine teams in operation since its inception.
Number and locations of franchises
Most of the big four leagues have 30 teams (the NFL, being the exception, has had 32 teams since 2002; the NHL will add its 31st team in 2017), and each has had at least 29 teams since the year 2000. Major League Soccer has 20 teams, and is scheduled to grow to 22 teams in 2017 and at least 23 in 2018. The CFL has nine franchises.
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, residual rights, or both. For example, to obtain the consent of Baltimore Orioles to place an MLB team in Washington (about 35 miles (56 km) away), a deal was struck under the terms of which television and radio broadcast rights to Nationals games are handled by the Orioles franchise. Regarding territorial rights, the main concern for many team owners is 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, some NFL owners are seen as 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.
Major leagues have franchises placed nationwide, with multiple franchises in each of the United States' four census regions—Northeast, Midwest, South, and West.
Major leagues tend to place franchises only in the largest, most populated metropolitan areas. Most major league teams are in metro areas having populations over two million. All but seven continental U.S. metropolitan areas over one million people host at least one major sports franchise. The major leagues typically place two teams per league in New York City, Los Angeles, and sometimes in Chicago and the San Francisco Bay Area.
MLB, more than any other major league, focuses its teams in the largest markets. MLB is the only major league that does not have any teams in markets with fewer than 1.75 million people; along with the NFL, it is one of two leagues with at least one team in every metropolitan area with over 4 million people. The NHL is the major league that least follows the general trend, due to the fact that a disproportionate number of its franchises are in cities with cold winters. The NHL lacks teams in a number of southern metropolitan areas with populations of over 3 million (Houston, Atlanta, San Diego) but has five teams in northern metropolitan areas with fewer than 1.25 million people (Winnipeg, Edmonton, Calgary, Ottawa, Buffalo). While only one MLB team, the St. Louis Cardinals, is located in a city that does not currently boast an NBA or NFL team, seven NBA teams are located in cities devoid of any additional "big four" franchises.
|Smallest MSA |
|NFL||Portland (3.0m)‡||Green Bay (0.3m)|
|MLB||Montreal (3.8m)||Milwaukee (1.8m)|
|NBA||Seattle (4.2m)||Oklahoma City (1.2m)|
|NHL||Houston (6.1m)||Winnipeg (0.8m)|
|MLS||Miami (5.6m)||Salt Lake City (1.7m)|
|CFL||Quebec City (0.7m)‡||Regina (0.2m)|
The NFL has one major exception. The Green Bay Packers survive in major league sports' smallest metropolitan area (300,000 population) thanks to a unique community ownership, proximity to the neighboring Milwaukee market (giving a combined metro area of over two million), a league business model that relies more heavily on equally-distributed television revenue that puts small-market teams at less of a disadvantage, and the loyalty of their Cheesehead fan base.
The NHL's national footprint is a relatively recent situation. Historically, the league was concentrated in the northeast, with no teams south of New York City or west of Chicago from 1935 until 1967. The league expanded its footprint westward in a 1967 expansion but, other than the unsuccessful Atlanta Flames, avoided the South until making a major expansion into the territory in the 1990s.
Both the NBA and MLS have higher concentrations of teams in the western United States than the other major leagues. Whereas the NBA's teams tend to be somewhat more evenly distributed across the United States, MLS's presence in areas the southern United States has historically been sparse; MLS had no southern-based teams from 2002 to 2014, until MLS decided to re-enter the south with teams in Orlando (2015) and Atlanta (2017).
The CFL had a total of six teams in the United States over a three-year period between 1993 and 1995, all in medium-sized markets that lacked an NFL team at the time (of the six markets, three had other major league franchises at the time), and played occasional games in the United States in the 1950s and 1960s.
The largest metropolitan area without a major professional sports franchise is California's Inland Empire, which is located east of Los Angeles and is part of the Los Angeles television market. The largest standalone metropolitan area without any major league sports is, depending on the definition of standalone, the Hampton Roads region in southeastern Virginia or the Greater Austin area of central Texas.
The NHL has been the dominant professional sports league in Canada, and was first established in Canada in 1917. The NHL was initially based entirely in eastern Canada; by 1925, Hamilton and Quebec no longer had NHL teams, while Ottawa would leave in 1934, by which point American teams were slowly being added. The first Canadian expansion team would come in 1970 with a team in Vancouver; the NHL later added teams in Edmonton, Winnipeg and Quebec City (through absorption of WHA franchises), Calgary (via relocation from Atlanta) and Ottawa (via expansion) to go with the still-extant Toronto and Montreal teams. 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 larger media markets in the U.S. 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 Canadian Football League has teams in all seven current NHL markets, in addition to Hamilton, Ontario and Regina, Saskatchewan. At least eight of these nine markets have hosted CFL teams every year since the league's officially listed inception in 1958, and no other Canadian market has ever had a CFL team of its own. In 2015, the CFL commenced Northern Kickoff, originally slated to be one preseason game and later expanded to a regular season game as well, both of which were played in Fort McMurray, an oil sands boomtown with a metro area population of less than 70,000, the smallest market to host major professional football in the modern era. Fort McMurray is in relatively close proximity to Edmonton, which was expected to boost attendance, but fewer than 5,000 fans attended the regular season game. A regular season game was played in Moncton in 2010, 2011 and 2013 to gauge expansion to the Maritime provinces in what was called Touchdown Atlantic. Hamilton played most of their 2013 season in Guelph during the construction of Tim Hortons Field.
Some U.S.-based leagues, like MLB, MLS, and the NBA, have awarded franchises to Canadian cities, though outside of Toronto most teams have been unsuccessful.
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 NFL is the only major league to have no team based in a Canadian city; the closest teams to Canada are the Buffalo Bills and Detroit Lions, both representing cities located on the U.S.–Canada border. The Bills do not play in the city of Buffalo; their stadium is located 21 kilometres (13 mi) south of the Canada–U.S. border. The Lions play in downtown Detroit, 2 kilometres (1.2 mi) from Windsor, Ontario. From 2008–13 the Bills played a few games in Toronto.
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. The major leagues generally do not allow anyone to own a stake in more than one franchise, to prevent the perception of being in a conflict of interest. This rule was adopted after several high-profile controversies involving ownership of multiple baseball teams in the 1890s. Additionally, the NHL's "Original Six" period, from 1942 to 1967, was marked by the Norris family owning a controlling stake in half of the league's teams, a factor in the league's stagnation during that period.
There have been five exceptions – six including MLS – since 2000 to this rule in the major leagues, where the league itself has taken ownership or control of a franchise:
- MLB purchased the Montreal Expos, moved the franchise to Washington, D.C. and renamed it the Nationals, before selling the team to a local group.
- The NHL took over the Buffalo Sabres in 2002 after owner John Rigas was arrested for embezzlement, and sold the team to Tom Golisano in 2003.
- The NHL seized the Phoenix Coyotes in 2009 to prevent its owner from selling it to a buyer who intended to relocate the team, and sold the team to a Phoenix-area group in 2013.
- The NBA purchased the New Orleans Hornets from its owner in December 2010, and sold the team to the NFL's New Orleans Saints owner Tom Benson in April 2012.
- MLB took over the operations of the Los Angeles Dodgers in 2011, citing financial and governance issues stemming from the divorce of the McCourt co-owners. Frank McCourt sold the Dodgers to an ownership group including Magic Johnson in March 2012.
- MLS purchased Chivas USA from Jorge Vergara in 2014 and folded the team after the 2014 season. A new L.A. franchise, Los Angeles FC, will begin play in 2018 as an expansion team and will not inherit Chivas USA's history.
A seventh example can be found in the CFL, when the league seized the Ottawa Renegades from owner Bernard Glieberman in 2006, suspended the franchise, then sold it to Jeff Hunt, who reactivated it in 2014 as the Ottawa Redblacks.
The NFL (nor any of its predecessors) has not taken over operations of any team since 1962, when the American Football League took over the nearly bankrupt Titans of New York in an effort to prevent the team from folding; in 1963, a new ownership group bought the franchise and it became the New York Jets.
Many major professional sports leagues generally forbid religious groups, governments (there are some exceptions), and non-profit organizations owning a team.
The NFL has stronger ownership restrictions. The NFL forbids ownership by groups of over 24 people or publicly-traded corporations, except the grandfathered Green Bay Packers. The NFL also forbids its owners from owning any other professional American football teams, except Arena Football League teams in the NFL team's home market. In addition, NFL owners are permitted to own major league baseball, basketball and hockey teams only if they are in the NFL team's home market, or are not located in other NFL cities. Soccer has been exempt from these restrictions since 1982, when the league lost a lawsuit filed by the original NASL.
Major League Soccer has adopted a different league structure and operates as a single-entity league, a structure that survived a lawsuit from the players in Fraser v. Major League Soccer. During the first few years of the league, MLS for the sake of stability allowed individuals to operate multiple teams. MLS ownership arrangements have evolved, however, with operation of the league's 20 teams now spread among 20 owners.
Most franchises in the Canadian Football League are owned by corporations; three teams are owned by public companies, and three are held by individual owners.
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.
Baseball's National League withstood three challenges in its first quarter century of existence. The American Association began in 1882 in several lucrative markets without an NL team. For several years, the AA was a viable competitor to the NL, and the NL and AA champions competed in an informal World Series. Four of the AA's teams defected to the NL in its later years, before the AA expired in 1891. Labor problems led to the formation of the Players' League for the 1890 season; it attracted a significant percentage of the baseball talent and caused the NL and AA significant financial harm, but it lacked 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. Various Negro Leagues peaked from the 1920s to the 1940s, and on barnstorming tours the Negro League players showed themselves to be MLB players' competitive equals, but after Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in 1947, the influx of black stars into the major leagues drained the Negro Leagues of talent. MLB prevented the Continental League from getting off the ground in 1961–62 by placing teams in four of that league's proposed cities by either expansion or relocation.
The NFL has fought off the most rivals throughout the years, and to this day faces a competing start-up league every few years. One 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. Four (all unrelated) rivals were named American Football League; the last American Football League existed from 1960–1970, winning the last two of the four pre-merger Super Bowl games, before merging with the NFL in 1970. The NFL has beaten back other significant rival football leagues, often placing expansion or relocation teams in those cities following that league's demise: the World Football League of 1974–1975 (the NFL added two teams in 1975), the United States Football League of 1983–1985 (the NFL relocated one team to a USFL market in 1988), and the Canadian Football League's American franchises of 1993–1995 (the NFL added three teams in the mid 1990s, including one in the CFL's most successful U.S. market). All told, 13 of the NFL's current 32 franchises were absorbed from a rival league—all 10 AFL franchises of the 1960s, two from the AAFC, and one from the 1936 AFL.
The NBA was formed in 1949 after three years of competition between the large-market Basketball Association of America (from which the NBA traces its existence) and the industrial-based National Basketball League. The NBA also had to fend off two incarnations of the American Basketball League, the first being an Eastern circuit that predated the NBA, and the second existing from 1961 to 1963, after Abe Saperstein was repeatedly denied an NBA expansion team. The NBA later fought off the challenge of the American Basketball Association from 1967–76, in part by expanding from nine to eighteen teams. The NBA then absorbed four of the ABA's most successful franchises in a 1976 merger, and adopted several of the ABA's rule variations, most notably the three-point shot.
The NHL began its existence competing with the Western Canada Hockey League and its predecessor, the Pacific Coast Hockey Association; both had folded by 1926, leaving the NHL as the sole major North American hockey league. The NHL fended off two challenges in the 1960s and 1970s. The NHL prevented the old Western Hockey League from achieving parity by doubling in size from six to twelve teams in 1967, including into the WHL markets of Los Angeles and San Francisco. During its existence from 1972 to 1979, the World Hockey Association challenged the dominance of the NHL. The WHA initially attracted stars by offering higher salaries than the NHL and successfully invalidating the NHL's reserve clause, forcing NHL teams to keep up. The bidding war brought financial distress to both leagues. With the WHA and several NHL teams faced with collapse, the NHL negotiated a merger of the leagues whereby the four strongest WHA teams joined the NHL.
The CFL has been historically protected from the competing leagues that the NFL faced, in part because of threats of parliamentary legislation to stop any CFL competitor from being allowed to play in Canada. The Canadian Football Act, proposed in 1974 but never passed, would have given the CFL a government-endorsed monopoly on professional gridiron football in Canada by prohibiting any other league from playing its games in the country; the mere introduction of the bill in Parliament prompted the WFL's Toronto Northmen to move to the United States before it played a game.
All of the major North American professional sports leagues use a draft system to assign prospective players to teams. Three of the top four major leagues possess sophisticated player development systems.
The vast majority of MLB players are developed through the minor league baseball system. Prospective players generally are drafted, and are then assigned to the appropriate minor league level for development. With the growth of college baseball and in the past few decades, 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 rare, and most of the few that have were quickly reassigned to the minors. MLB clubs have also recruited many players from the Japanese leagues, and also sign players from Latin American countries.
Most of the NBA's talent comes from college and high school basketball, 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. Prior to the development of the D-League, the Continental Basketball Association had served as a minor league to the NBA.
The National Football League is the only one of the four major sports leagues that does not have a formalized farm system. The source for almost all NFL players is college football. Drafted players from college immediately join the main team; if they fail to make the regular season roster, a limited number of players may be assigned to the practice squad. NFL teams rarely recruit players from other gridiron football leagues. American football also has the least global reach for prospects, with one exception being several players from other codes of football primarily as kickers and punters. The league's teams backed the World League (later known as NFL Europe) in the 1990s and 2000s, and purchased teams in the Arena Football League for a period in the 2000s.
Each NHL team has an affiliate in North America's top-tier minor hockey league, the American Hockey League, and most have an affiliation with teams in the ECHL. For decades, the traditional route to the NHL has been through junior hockey and the Canadian Hockey League (CHL). Beginning in the 1970s, NHL teams began drafting and signing prospects from Europe, and a growing number of NHL hopefuls are forgoing the CHL in favor of NCAA Division I college hockey. Additionally, the U.S. now has two Junior A hockey leagues in the USHL and NAHL that provide many NHL players (some via NCAA hockey). Almost all draft picks are initially assigned to an affiliate in their NHL team's minor league system for development.
MLS teams sign players from their youth academies, from the college draft, and from overseas. MLS teams rely on their youth academies, which are now a requirement for all MLS clubs. MLS clubs can operate youth teams as young as 13–14 years old. Even some youth academy teams participate in lower-tier leagues. MLS also holds an annual draft in which top college soccer players are selected. MLS has a formal relationship with the minor-league USL; all MLS teams are now required to field a reserve team in USL or affiliate with a separately owned USL team. This allows developing MLS players to gain playing experience.
The CFL's draft is limited to Canadian citizens, plus non-citizens who were raised in Canada. In addition to university/college football, the CFL draft also draws players from the long-established Canadian Junior Football League and its component leagues. The league also draws from the same pool of free agents as the NFL, with players who do not make the NFL often going north to seek work in the CFL. The CFL requires free agents to sign contracts, and thus stay in the league, for a minimum of two years.
High player salaries
|League||Average Salary||Team Salary Cap|
|MLB||$3.3 mil||$189 mil*|
|NFL||$1.9 mil||$155 mil|
|NBA||$5.2 mil||$94 mil|
|NHL||$2.4 mil||$73 mil|
|CFL||$0.1 mil||$5 mil|
|MLS||$0.3 mil||$4 mil*|
The average annual salary for players in the four major leagues is about US $2.9 million in 2008, although player salaries can range from $300,000 for backup players to $20 million for superstars.
NBA players have the highest average player salaries of the four leagues; however, their teams also have the smallest rosters.
The NFL has the highest average team payroll. However, NFL rosters are far larger than the other three leagues (many players on NFL rosters see little actual game play), and teams play far fewer games, making their players the lowest paid of the Big Four major leagues. After a brief lockout during the 2011 off-season, the owners and union signed a new CBA that imposed a hard salary cap of $120 million in the 2011 season, but temporarily suspended the salary floor, which returned in the 2013 season at 89% of the cap.
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. 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).
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, with the salary floor set at US $16 million under the cap. For the 2016–17 season, the cap has been set as US $73 million, with the floor at US $54 million.
MLS has lower average salaries and smaller payrolls than the other leagues. MLS kept a strict rein on player salaries until 2007, when MLS introduced the Designated Player Rule, which allows MLS teams to pay higher wages for star players. David Beckham was the first player signed under this rule. The highest MLS payroll in 2015 was Toronto FC, with $22.8 million. The league's average salary is about $283,000 per year. MLS' minimum player salary will increase in 2016 from $60,000 to $62,500 for most players.
The CFL has a relatively smaller player salary and salary cap compared to the other leagues. The average salary in 2014 is CAD $89,285 and the salary cap in 2014 is CAD $5 million. As recently as the 1990s, loopholes in the salary cap allowed CFL teams to pay select marquee players a salary comparable to their NFL counterparts, but financial problems forced the league to close those loopholes.
Dominance of the sport
Each of the top four major leagues 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, Australia and China.
All four leagues are 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 in parts of the world, and the NBA is unquestionably the top basketball 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.
The NHL is the top professional hockey league in the world, as NHL teams routinely defeat teams from European leagues, and the NHL attracts top players from European leagues. The NHL has been playing exhibition games against European teams since 2007 in the "NHL Premiere" series, the NHL Challenge, and the Victoria Cup, and NHL teams have won 24 games to the European teams' four. During the height of the Cold War the Soviet League had comparable talent to the NHL, but since the decline of Communism in Eastern Europe in the late 1980s, NHL teams have enticed away most of the elite players from Europe due to higher salaries.
Major League Soccer is not the premier soccer competition in the world, or even in the Americas, in terms of competition success, revenues, and players. MLS teams compete with top teams from North America, Central America and the Caribbean in the CONCACAF Champions League, with Mexican clubs winning the title each year since the current format was introduced in the 2008–09 season. MLS has annual revenues of about $300 million, whereas five European soccer leagues (England, Germany, Spain, Italy, and France) have annual revenues in excess of $1 billion. The top players from MLS often move to Europe in search of tougher competition and higher salaries. However, MLS has steadily improved in international stature in recent years. The league implemented the Designated Player Rule in 2007, allowing MLS to attract and retain international stars such as David Beckham. MLS attendance has increased to the point where MLS average attendance is among the top ten soccer leagues worldwide. The introduction of soccer-specific stadiums had improved revenue growth.
In the late 1940s and 1950s, the Canadian Football League (CFL) and the U.S. National Football League (NFL) operated on roughly equal footing financially, with even some U.S.-born star players joining CFL teams. The situation changed along with the rise of the American Football League (AFL) founded in 1959. By the end of the 1960s, revenue from the U.S. television market and absorption of the AFL helped the NFL become much more successful than its Canadian counterpart. By the 1980s, the CFL became virtually unknown outside of Canada. Attempts to promote the CFL included the failed CFL USA experiment in the 1990s. The CFL's television coverage outside of Canada is primarily broadcast by ESPN America, Fox Sports International and the U.S. government's American Forces Network. In 2009, a record number of 6.1 million viewers watched the CFL's annual Grey Cup championship game, while 151.6 million viewers watched the NFL's annual Super Bowl championship game that same year.
Use of the phrase "world champions"
The perceived lack of competition from the rest of the world has contributed to the long-standing but controversial practice of the North American media referring to the major sports league champions as world champions. Today, the phrase is more popular in the United States but it retains some acceptance in Canada. However, this practice is usually mocked by non-Americans.
Usage of the phrase in baseball started with organization of championship series between the National League and the earlier American Association in the 1880s, later to be known as the World Series. Major League Baseball later set up the World Baseball Classic, a quadrennial international competition, in an effort to crown a true world champion. By the 1950s, the phrase World Champions was also being used by the newly formed NBA. The Super Bowl, the interleague championship between the NFL and American Football League, was explicitly named a "World Championship Game" for its first iteration.
In hockey, the Stanley Cup was initially open only to Canadian teams, but in 1914, the Cup's trustees allowed American teams to compete, with the provision that the Stanley Cup winners were to be recognized as World's Champions. The phrase was repeatedly engraved on the Cup, and continued to be used, when the NHL began admitting American franchises. When the NHL assumed formal control of the Cup in 1947, the resulting agreement required "that the winners of this trophy shall be the acknowledged World's Professional Hockey Champions" (in contrast to the IIHF's Ice Hockey World Championships, at the time contested only by amateurs). When the World Hockey Association commenced play in the 1970s, they sought to challenge for the Stanley Cup, referring to the 1947 agreement. Both the NHL and the Cup trustees rejected the WHA's challenges; nevertheless, the NHL quietly stopped calling its champions the World Champions, as by this time, the Soviet Championship League was regularly beating the NHL in interleague competitions and the IIHF World Championship was opened up to professionals by 1976. Since then, the NHL has preferred to call their champions the Stanley Cup Champions. The NHL has never resumed using the phrase World Champions to honor Stanley Cup winners.
History and expansion of major leagues
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, within the Great Lakes and the Northeast regions. Early professional soccer activity was concentrated almost entirely on an East Coast corridor from Baltimore to Boston, except for the St. Louis metropolitan area.
There were very few major league teams in the far west until after World War II. As travel and settlement patterns changed, so did the geography of professional sports. 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, and the Miami Seahawks. Baseball extended west in 1958 in the move of the Brooklyn Dodgers and New York Giants. The NBA followed in 1960 with the move of the Minneapolis Lakers to Los Angeles, while the NHL would not have a west coast presence until it expanded in 1967. Almost all of the NHL's initial franchises in the Southern and Western United States were unsuccessful and 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 have expanded or franchises have relocated to service these communities.
The National Hockey League was established in 1917 in Canada. When the WHA and NHL merged, the NHL inherited teams in three Canadian cities, Edmonton, Winnipeg and Quebec City. MLB's first Canadian team was the Montreal Expos, a team that was added in 1967; it later added the Toronto Blue Jays a decade later. MLS's first was Toronto FC, which was added in 2005; it was soon followed by the Montreal Impact and Vancouver Whitecaps. The Toronto Huskies were a charter member of the Basketball Association of America in 1946, but that team only lasted one season; the NBA would then make a permanent expansion into Canada in 1995 when the Toronto Raptors and now-departed Vancouver Grizzlies were established.
Some of the Big Four sports leagues have looked to expand their revenues by playing overseas games in attempt to develop a wider international fan base. There has been increasing cooperation between the NBA and the Euroleague. 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.
The NFL has attempted to promote its game worldwide by scheduling selected pre-season games abroad since 1976. The NFL had promoted the game abroad through NFL Europe, but NFL Europe was unprofitable and ceased operations in 2007. The NFL began its International Series, holding at least one regular-season game at Wembley Stadium in London every year since 2007. The NFL held three games at Wembley in the 2014 season. Since then, Twickenham Stadium, the home of English rugby union, has been added as a second London venue, and the primary venue for NFL games in London will switch to the new stadium being built by Tottenham Hotspur upon its completion in 2018.
Some of the major professional sports leagues possess other attributes, although these attributes do not distinguish major professional leagues from other leagues.
Lack of promotion and relegation
In general, sports leagues in the United States and Canada never developed any system of promotion and relegation like those in Europe. A major factor was the greater distances between cities, with some teams separated by at least half the continent, which in turn resulted in higher traveling costs. When the National League of Professional Base Ball Clubs was established in 1876, its founders judged that in order to prosper, they must make baseball's highest level of competition a "closed shop", with a strict limit on the number of teams, and with each member having exclusive local rights. This guarantee of a place in the league year after year would permit each club owner to monopolize fan bases in their respective exclusive territories and give them the confidence to invest in infrastructure, such as improved ballparks. This in turn would guarantee the revenues needed to support traveling across the continent. With the introduction of TV exposure and other sources of increased revenue during the 20th century, team owners have no incentive to risk giving up this annual income in favor of establishing an "open shop system" where they could be relegated to a lower league that does not generate that kind of lucrative money. There has been discussion on Major League Soccer trying to adopt promotion and relegation, but MLS is currently not pursuing the option, based on team control on TV rights.
Several major sports leagues are showcased on a major U.S. holiday. The NFL has always played on Thanksgiving Day since its inception in 1920. The NBA has played on Christmas Day since 1947. And since 2008, the NHL has had the Winter Classic on New Year's Day. Furthermore, the CFL has two longstanding holiday events: the Labour Day Classic and Thanksgiving Day Classic.
Baseball and soccer are not particularly associated with any holidays; however, in baseball's case, teams generally play on the major summer holidays since MLB teams play almost every day during their season.
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. In the early years of professional basketball, the American Basketball League, the de facto major league of the 1920s, was backed primarily by NFL owners. 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.
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 (the Oakland Coliseum, home to both the Raiders and Athletics) still exists as of 2016. Multi-purpose stadiums were built to accommodate multiple sports in the later half of the 20th century. Even in situations where separate stadiums have been constructed for each team (as is generally the norm in the 21st century), the individual stadiums may be constructed adjacent to each other and share parking space and other infrastructure. More recently, MLS teams have used NFL and CFL stadiums as either full-time home fields (much less so now, due to the league's insistence on soccer-specific stadiums) or for special event games. Also notable in recent years have been the NHL's Winter Classic and Heritage Classic, which have been held in NFL, CFL, and MLB, as well as college football, stadiums. A unique situation is the TD Place Complex in Ottawa; the same structure serves as the indoor Ottawa Civic Centre (which hosted the NHL's Senators in the 1990s), while on the roof of that arena was seating for Frank Clair Stadium (at that time home of the CFL's Ottawa Rough Riders; by 2014 the stadium was renovated into TD Place Stadium and is now home to the CFL's Ottawa Redblacks).
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, while the Canadian football team Hamilton Tigers shared a team name with an NHL team. 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 St. Louis, Missouri, it was allowed to keep the Cardinals name despite the established existence of a baseball team of the same name.
- Major professional sports teams of the United States and Canada
- Sports in the United States
- Sports in Canada
- Sports in Mexico
- List of American and Canadian cities by number of major professional sports franchises
- 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.
- List of professional sports leagues by revenue
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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.