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Major leagues in North America
National Football League (NFL) Sport football.svg
Major League Baseball (MLB) Baseball.svg
National Basketball Association (NBA) Basketball Clipart.svg
National Hockey League (NHL) Ice hockey puck.svg

Major professional sports league, or simply major league, is a term used in the United States and Canada for the highest professional competitions in team sports. The term "major league" was first used in 1921 in reference to Major League Baseball, the top level of professional American baseball.

The term is most commonly applied to the National Football League, Major League Baseball, the National Basketball Association, and the National Hockey League. Each of these is the richest professional club competition in its sport worldwide. The best players can become cultural icons in North America and the rest of the world, because the leagues enjoy a significant place in U.S. and Canadian popular culture.

The world's most popular sport, association football, is known as soccer in Canada and the United States and is also popular there; however, the premier American soccer league, Major League Soccer, while a major North American league, is not presently considered as prestigious as major European leagues. Most top American, Canadian, and international players from around the globe play for European clubs.

In the United States and Canada, the term "major league" is usually limited to team sports, although individual sports such as golf, tennis, and auto racing are also very popular.




The Major Leagues

Major League Baseball

Major League Baseball consists of the National League (founded in 1876) and the American League (founded in 1901). Cooperation between the two leagues began in 1903. The two are effectively merged on an organizational level and have shared a single Commissioner since 1920. There are 29 member teams located in the U.S. and one located in Canada.

Traditionally called the "National Pastime", baseball was the first professional sport in the U.S., and retains a sizable following. It has by far the highest annual attendance—mostly because each team plays 162 regular-season games, far more than teams in any of the other major sports. Some of the more popular Major League clubs, such as the New York Yankees, Boston Red Sox, Chicago Cubs, and Los Angeles Dodgers, have national and international followings.

National Basketball Association

The National Basketball Association was founded as the Basketball Association of America in 1946. The NBA 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 29 teams in the United States and one 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 Michael Jordan, Shaquille O'Neal, Kobe Bryant, and LeBron James who have become international marketing icons.

National Football League

The National Football League was founded in 1920. The NFL partially absorbed the All-America Football Conference in 1949 and merged with the American Football League in 1970. It has 32 teams around the United States.

The NFL is the most popular professional league in the world in terms of per-game attendance, and the most popular in the U.S. in terms of TV ratings and merchandising. Its championship game, the Super Bowl, is the most watched annual event on U.S. television.

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 than 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), of all but one of the NHA's teams. The NHL partially absorbed the rival World Hockey Association in 1979. There are 30 member teams, located across Canada and the U.S.

The most popular sport in Canada, and widely followed across the northern U.S., the NHL has expanded southward in recent years to gain a more national following in the United States.

Other notable leagues

Major League Soccer

Major League Soccer (MLS) is the top-level men's professional soccer league in the United States and Canada. MLS is a 16-team league, with 15 teams across the United States and one team in Canada. The league added a U.S. team for 2010, and will add another American team and one Canadian team in 2011. MLS emerged in 1996 to build on the success of the 1994 World Cup in the United States.

Unlike many previous professional soccer leagues in the United States (such as the North American Soccer League), MLS has been designed to maintain parity between clubs and rely on mostly American talent. Many notable international players have played with MLS teams, including Cuauhtémoc Blanco, Lothar Matthäus, Carlos Valderrama, Hugo Sánchez, Jorge Campos, Hristo Stoichkov, Freddie Ljungberg, and most notably David Beckham.

Canadian Football League

Founded in 1958, the Canadian Football League is the highest level of play in Canadian football and the second most popular sports league in Canada after the NHL.[1] The Grey Cup is awarded annually to the champion every November and is the biggest sporting event in the nation. The oldest extant teams (Hamilton and Toronto) trace their origins to the late 1860s and early 1870s, which ranks them amongst the oldest sports teams of any kind still in existence on the continent.

Women's National Basketball Association

The Women's National Basketball Association (WNBA) is the longest-running American professional women's sport league in history. Since beginning play in 1997, the WNBA has mostly attracted attention as a niche league. In recent years, however, the WNBA has made steps forward. In 2007, the league signed a television deal with ESPN that would run from 2009-2016. This deal would be the first to ever pay rights fees to women's teams.

As of 2009, the WNBA gets more viewers on U.S. national television broadcasts (413,000, combined cable and broadcast)[2] than MLS does for its English-language coverage (253,000 on its main cable partner, ESPN2)[3] or the NHL gets for its cable broadcasts (310,732).[4] However, the cited numbers for MLS and the NHL do not paint a complete picture of those leagues' North American coverage. MLS also broadcasts games in the U.S. on Spanish-language television, and those broadcasts have viewer numbers essentially identical to those of ESPN2,[3] bringing that league's total U.S. viewership noticeably above that of the WNBA. As for the NHL, the cited numbers do not include network broadcasts, whereas the WNBA numbers do. The NHL also has a much larger Canadian viewership, and these factors bring its total North American viewership well above that of the WNBA or MLS. The WNBA, however, has one edge over the NHL in that its U.S. cable contract is with the almost universally available ESPN2, whereas the NHL is on the less widely available Versus.

The WNBA also has significantly lower per-game attendance than the NHL, Arena Football League, and even the National Lacrosse League, averaging about 8,000 fans per game, though the AFL and NLL play only once a week, thus drawing more fans at once.

Arena Football League

The original Arena Football League was the highest level of play in indoor/arena styles of gridiron football. Since commencing play in 1987, the league had stabilized and overcome the perception that it was merely a fad. Typically, a team would play in hockey or basketball arenas. The AFL indefinitely suspended operations in 2009.[5] Its minor league, af2, conducted its full 2009 season, but was scrapped when none of its teams committed to playing beyond that season. Some teams from both the AFL and af2 committed to a new league set to launch in 2010 and initially known as Arena Football 1. After AF1 purchased both predecessor leagues' assets in December 2009, it adopted the Arena Football League name.

Major League Lacrosse and National Lacrosse League

Major League Lacrosse is the top level of professional field lacrosse in North America, while the National Lacrosse League is the top level of box lacrosse. As previously mentioned, the NLL has a higher per-game attendance than the WNBA. In certain regions of North America, generally those where ice hockey also happens to be popular, lacrosse's popularity is nearly on par with other major leagues. However, there has been a reluctance among national sports news outlets to recognize lacrosse as a major league sport, and the sport has failed spectacularly in major markets such as New York City (see, for instance, the Orlando Titans). As such, even the top players in lacrosse (such as the NLL's Johnny Tavares) hold outside jobs (Tavares spends his weeks as a teacher in southern Ontario).

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.

Franchise stability

All of the top four major leagues exhibit the stability of 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 the less successful major leagues in American/Canadian history. It should be noted that all four of the top major leagues have had frequent franchise collapses and relocations in their early histories, but these events became much less frequent by the time these major leagues reached their "top four" status.

The major leagues in the United States and Canada are different from most leagues outside these countries in that there is no promotion and relegation system. The same teams compete in the leagues each year. The worst teams are not relegated each year to a second tier league, to be replaced by the best teams from the second tier league. One could even argue the worst teams are rewarded for their futility, as the worst teams receive a higher position in the following year's draft for new players, which in football and basketball, usually consists of players who have played the sport in college. A notable result of the "closed shop" aspect of the major leagues is that the franchises have average book values that are considerably more than those of the clubs of the Premier League (which as noted above has comparable average team revenues to the major leagues but also a relegation system).

The most recent team from one of the top four major leagues to fold outright were the original Baltimore Bullets in 1955, while the last team to cease operations was the NHL Cleveland Barons, which was merged into the Minnesota North Stars (now Dallas Stars) organization in 1978, two years after relocating from Oakland, where the team was known as the California Golden Seals. The last NHL team to fold outright was the Brooklyn Americans in 1942. Both the NBA and NHL did however, merge with rival leagues in the 1970s. During these mergers only four franchises in each rival league, the American Basketball Association and World Hockey Association, survived: the remaining ABA and WHA franchises went out of business. The last NFL team to fold were the Dallas Texans in 1952; although the franchise was reconstituted into what is now the Indianapolis Colts, the NFL does not acknowledge this lineage.[citation needed] Prior to this, the last NFL team to fold outright was the 1934 Cincinnati Reds. No MLB team has folded since 1899, when four National League teams ceased to exist.

The top four major leagues all expanded within the last decade and currently have either 30 or, in the case of the NFL, 32 teams. The newest major league team is the Charlotte Bobcats, who joined the NBA in 2004. The newest NFL team is the Houston Texans, who became the NFL's 32nd team in 2002 after the NFL was unable to find a viable ownership group and stadium plan in Los Angeles. The newest NHL teams are the Columbus Blue Jackets and Minnesota Wild, who began play in 2000, while the newest MLB teams are the Arizona Diamondbacks and Tampa Bay Devil Rays, now the Tampa Bay Rays, who began play in 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.

Franchise locations

United States

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 professional 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.

The Utah Jazz are located in the least populous state of any U.S. team, but the Salt Lake City metropolitan area is not the smallest metropolitan area to host a U.S. team. The Jazz relocated to Salt Lake City from New Orleans during a turbulent period in NBA history, and also shortly after the demise of the ABA Utah Stars, and have enjoyed strong support from a wide swath of the Intermountain West devoid of other major sports teams.

Professional sports leagues as we know them 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 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 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.

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, 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. 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 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.[6] 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.[7]

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 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 a 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. Virginia is also the most populous state without a team within its borders, though its northern reaches are served by the Washington clubs (two of whom — the Capitals and the Redskins — actually have their practice facilities and operational headquarters in Virginia). 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; the Hampton Roads market is ranked 42nd. 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.


The NHL has operated on both sides of the Canadian-American border since 1924, and there were strong American-based clubs even before the NHL was founded in 1917. 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 the U.S. The three remaining small-market Canadian teams 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.

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; they moved to Memphis in 2001.

Prior to 2008, the NFL had never attempted to enter the Canadian market, leaving Canada to the Canadian Football League, which plays under significantly different rules than those used in the United States. The CFL was formed in the 1950s from the merger of two competing leagues, one based in the west and the other in the east. The CFL briefly expanded south of the border in the mid-1990s; the venture had mixed success, with the most successful team being the Baltimore Stallions (aka "CFL Colts"), which drew respectable crowds and won a Grey Cup before becoming the current incarnation of the Montreal Alouettes. (The Stallions were forced out of Baltimore when Art Modell moved his NFL franchise from Cleveland to become the Ravens.) The CFL and NFL forged a working relationship less than a year later, with the NFL providing an interest-free loan to the CFL in exchange for the right to sign CFL players entering the option year of their contracts. The NFL's "hands-off" policy toward Canada, however, ended in 2008 when Ralph Wilson, owner of the Buffalo Bills, agreed (with unanimous league approval) to lease his team to Canadian media mogul Ted Rogers, who will have the Bills play 8 games (3 preseason and 5 regular season) over the course of five years, in Toronto's Rogers Centre. Both the Bills and Detroit Lions (a team that is adjacent to Windsor, Ontario) draw from southern Ontario for their regular fan base.

Ownership restrictions

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 two recent exceptions to this rule in the major leagues — first, 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 lead by Theodore N. Lerner. Secondly, the National Hockey League 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.

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 HSBC Arena, the home arena and headquarters of the Buffalo Sabres, who, as a small-market franchise, vehemently oppose an expansion team in their territory.

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, based in Dallas and Columbus, and he had only sold a third team, in 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).[citation needed] 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.

Player development

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, whereas though there are several Cuban baseball players in MLB they have had to defect from Cuba. However, prior to the Cuban Revolution, many Cuban baseball players played in MLB and the Negro Leagues.
  • College and high school basketball produce most of the NBA's talent, though minimum age rules have ended the NBA's practice of drafting players directly from high school beginning in 2006. The NBA D-League supplies the NBA to an extent, though NBA teams more frequently recruit talent from European and Latin American professional leagues. The D-League was recently implemented in 2001 by the NBA to help with control of player development and market reach, which a minor league system provides.
  • Semi-pro football and minor leagues such as the Continental Football League once flourished up to the 1960s, 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 Europa, which also served the dual purpose of introducing the game of American football in European markets. NFL teams also recruit a number of players from indoor leagues, and occasionally signs players from the Canadian Football League.
  • 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.

Team loyalties

In North America, 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.

Television exposure

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 television contracts, the NFL is by far the largest (reportedly $2.2 billion US for the 2012 season), with the NBA and MLB second and third ($500 million and $479 million respectively).[citation needed] The NHL is in fourth place ($120 million). 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.

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.

It should be noted that 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 of North America; it is mainly a North American 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

The average annual salary for players in the four major leagues is about $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 at $4.9 million; however, their teams also have the smallest rosters.
  • The NFL has the highest average team payroll and a salary cap that will exceed $100 million for the first time under the new collective bargaining agreement (CBA) with the NFL's players union. The league also has a hard salary floor approaching $90 million per team under the same agreement. However, NFL payrolls 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 $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 2009–10 NHL season, the average player salary is expected to be comparable to the pre-lockout level of $1.8 million. In the same season, the league's salary cap is US$56.8 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.
  • 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)[citation needed] 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.[8] 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.[9] The NHL's position on this proposal is not entirely clear, but many believe that the players union would be unlikely to support it.

Recently talks about NBA franchises being located in Europe have intensified.[citation needed] 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.[10]

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.[citation needed] 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 in 1998. The next NBA/NHL-caliber arena in Europe opened in 2003, when Sinan Erdem Dome opened in Istanbul.[11] 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.

American football

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. In the 1950s and 1960s, selected NFL teams would travel north to Canada to play a CFL team in pre-season "American Bowl" games. The NFL has also attempted to promote its game worldwide by scheduling selected pre-season games since 1976 in Mexico, Europe, Australia, and Japan [9] and through NFL Europa, although 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, making it the largest attendance at an NFL regular season game.[12] (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 [13] in 2007, becoming the NFL's first venture in the UK since the collapse of two NFL Europa teams based there. Another regular season match at Wembley was added for 2008,[14] and preliminary talks are underway to expand the NFL season to 17 regular season games, with each team playing one game overseas.[15]

The NFL has a working agreement with the Canadian Football League (CFL) which is second in popularity only to the NHL in that country. There has also been speculation that a franchise would be located in Toronto, to balance out a new team in Los Angeles (the only metro area in the U.S. larger than Toronto, or even larger than half Toronto's size that lacks an NFL team). Despite this, the prospect of foreign NFL franchises in the relative near future is unlikely due to gridiron football's lack of popularity outside of Canada and the US, and Canada's likely preference of their own gridiron football over the foreign US product. Also, there is concern that any NFL team in Toronto will likely endanger the current CFL team there, the Toronto Argonauts. Also, due to the unprecedented success of the regular season match played at Wembley stadium, there was much talk of an NFL franchise being located in London, which received popular reviews from the British people.

In October 2007, Buffalo Bills owner Ralph Wilson made a formal proposal to his fellow owners to allow the team to play one preseason game and one regular season game each year in Toronto, which 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 Wilson 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.[16] The league approved the plan, and announced on February 1, 2008 that the Bills would play one regular-season game in Toronto each season from 2008 through 2012;[17] the team now markets the games as the Bills Toronto Series. 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.

Canadian football

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 US soccer 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. MLS teams also play in the SuperLiga against top sides from Mexico.


Although they are competitors in many respects, the "big four" leagues have significant relations and co-operate in many areas. There are many reasons for this, for starters 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 interests and also just as importantly there are common legal interests - the "big four" leagues will often support one another in legal matters since the courts' decisions might establish precedents that affect them all. These relations have become somewhat formalized in recent years with the holding of so-called "summits" between the commissioners of the "big four" leagues[18] which have gained much publicity.

See also


  1. ^ Canadian Press. "Survey: Canadian interest in pro football is on the rise". The Globe and Mail. 
  2. ^
  3. ^ a b Mickle, Tripp (2008-11-03). "MLS attendance, TV viewership numbers slip". Sports Business Journal. Retrieved 2010-01-31. 
  4. ^
  5. ^ George, John (August 6, 2009). "Arena Football League shuts down indefinitely". Philadelphia Business Journal. Retrieved 2009-08-06. 
  6. ^
  7. ^
  8. ^ [1]
  9. ^ [2]
  10. ^ [3]
  11. ^ The city of Istanbul is divided between Europe and Asia, and most of Turkey lies geographically in Asia, but Turkey participates primarily in the European sporting structure. It is a member of UEFA in soccer and FIBA Europe in basketball, and its basketball league is a member of ULEB.
  12. ^ [4]
  13. ^ [5]
  14. ^ [6]
  15. ^ [7]
  16. ^ Associated Press (2007-10-23). "Bills owner addresses NFL owners about annual game in Toronto". Retrieved 2007-10-26. 
  17. ^ Associated Press (2008-02-01). "Commissioner announces Toronto plan for Bills". National Football League.;jsessionid=DAFF70E67B4A749C6DBA40480DC08656?id=09000d5d8066be0f&template=with-video&confirm=true. Retrieved 2008-02-08. 
  18. ^ [8]

External links


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