Major professional sports leagues of the United States and Canada
Major professional sports league, or simply major league, is the term used in
Canadaand the United Statesto refer to the highest professional division in any team sport. The term "major league" was first used in 1921 in reference to Major League Baseball, the top level of professional American baseball, and for many years "major league" or "the majors" referred exclusively to baseball.
Major leagues are complemented by
minor leagues, which are lower division and/or developmental leagues below the major league in the national sport-tier hierarchy; and amateur leagues, in which the athletes receive no salary. The designation as to whether a league is a major or minor league is made by the national or international governing body for that sport, not by the popular perception of that sport (e.g., TV ratings or number of articles in the daily newspaper). In any country or region, the top major leagues generally will have the best athletes, the largest-capacity stadiums, the largest and most active fan bases, the most lucrative televisioncontracts, and, therefore, the largest revenues and player salaries.
In the United States and Canada, the "Big Four" major leagues are generally accepted to be
Major League Baseball(MLB), the National Football League(NFL), the National Basketball Association(NBA), and the National Hockey League(NHL). Major League Soccer(MLS) is arguably a fifth leading US major league with average attendance figures comparable to the NHL and NBA. Additionally, NASCARis often included in discussions of the business of spectator sports; its television audience is second only to the NFL.
Other major leagues include the
Canadian Football League(CFL), the Arena Football League(AFL), the National Lacrosse League(NLL), Major League Lacrosse(MLL), the Major Indoor Soccer League(MISL), the Women's National Basketball Association(WNBA), and the National Women's Hockey League(NWHL).
Unlike similar sports leagues around the world (with
Australian leagues as a notable exception), those in the United States and Canada do not use the system of promotion and relegation. Rather, their structures are characterized by the use of "franchises" and closed membership; the same teams compete in the leagues each year.
Note that in the United States and Canada, the term "major league" is usually limited to
team sports, even though individual-driven spectator sports such as golf, tennisand auto racingare also very popular. The top "leagues" take the form of touring series, such as the PGA, ATP, WTA, IndyCar, and NASCAR.
The Big Four
The most commonly accepted list of the top four major leagues in the United States and Canada is:
National Football League(32 teams as of 2008, founded in 1920). The NFL partially absorbed the All-America Football Conferencein 1949 and merged with the American Football Leaguein 1970.
Major League Baseball(30 teams as of 2008, constituent leagues began cooperation in 1903). MLB is divided into the American League(founded in 1901) and the National League(founded in 1876). The two are effectively merged on an organizational level and have shared a single Commissioner since 1920.
National Basketball Association(30 teams as of 2008, 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. The rival American Basketball Associationmerged into the NBA in 1976.
National Hockey League(30 teams as of 2008, founded in 1917). The NHL formed as a breakaway league from the National Hockey Association(founded 1909), of all but one of the NHA's teams. The NHL partially absorbed the rival World Hockey Associationin 1979.
Since the four major leagues listed above are those listed as the top four major leagues, the sports they play (
baseball, basketball, American footballand ice hockey) are often referred to as the top four "major professional sports" or even just the top four "major sports" in the both countries ("the Big Four"). As of 2005, thirteen American metropolitan areas have at least one team in each of the top four major leagues.
The best players can become
cultural icons to tens of millions of North Americans because the leagues enjoy a dominant place in U.S. popular culture combined with a significant (and dominant with the NHL) place in Canadian popular culture.
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 Leagueof English soccer being in third or fourth place (depending on 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.
Other major leagues
Major League Soccer (MLS)
On an amateur level soccer is the second-most popular team sport in the U.S. after basketball. It has yet to achieve the same level of success as a spectator sport at the professional level, however.
North American Soccer Leagueof the 1970s and 1980s was fairly successful. The top NASL teams, such as the New York Cosmos, compared favorably with club teams in Europe and Latin America. However, other teams struggled to draw crowds, the league ran into financial problems in the early 1980s and went out of business in 1984. It would be over a decade until the United States had another "premier division" league, although amateur and semi-pro soccer flourished in the meantime. Major League Soccer's most popular year was the league's inaugural season in 1996, which posted impressive attendance numbers. After a slight decline and leveling out, MLS has now experienced consistent growth, stabilization, and a recent expansion over the past couple of years.
The NASL's failure was blamed on the high cost of importing foreign star players. The MLS was structured to prevent teams from getting into bidding wars for the top players. This did keep personnel costs down, but it also meant that most of the top American and Canadian players continued in most cases to go to Europe to play. Some well-known foreign players (e.g.,
Walter Zenga, Carlos Valderramaand Marco Etcheverry) did come compete in the new league, but only a few of them, and mostly towards the ends of their careers.
IN 2007, however, MLS attracted a huge amount of publicity and coverage with the landmark signing of world soccer superstar
David Beckhamin 2007 for $50 million in direct salary plus $200 million in other income over five years. Beckham's addition has been followed by other stars such as returning American captain Claudio Reyna, Mexican legend Cuauhtemoc Blanco, Colombian striker Juan Pablo Ángel. Furthermore, it has new national TV deals with ESPN, HDNet, Fox Soccer Channel, and Univision ( Telefutura) that provide rights fees to the league for the first time, as well as numerous foreign television rights contracts. Additionally, MLS has began to solidify its standing by building soccer-specific stadiums, with the latest opening in 2007, DSG Park and BMO Field. Meanwhile, Rio Tinto Stadiumand Red Bull Parkare currently under construction and scheduled for opening within the next couple of years, as well as two about to be started in San Jose and Kansas City. Lastly, expansion to multiple additional major markets is expected within the next couple years, to at least already announced Philadelphia and Seattle and possibly to St. Louisand elsewhere.
There is keen interest in international soccer, which is broadcast frequently on
cable TVand on Spanish-language channels.
Canadian Football League (CFL)
Canadian Football Leagueis the highest level of play in Canadian footballand the second most popular sports league in Canada after the NHL.cite web | author = Canadian Press | authorlink = Canadian Press | date = | url = http://www.theglobeandmail.com/servlet/story/RTGAM..wsurvey8/BNStory/Sports/home | title = Survey: Canadian interest in pro football is on the rise | publisher = The Globe and Mail| accessdate = ] Average per-game CFL attendance ranks sixth of all professional leagues in the world, and third in the involved nations. The CFL championship trophy, the Grey Cup, was first awarded in 1909 and has a rich history comparable to the NHL's Stanley Cup.
The CFL was founded in 1958, however most of the teams competed in its two main antecedent leagues in the decades prior to that year. It was only in 1981 that these organizations (then known as the Eastern and
Western Football Conferences) were legally dissolved into the CFL. Of the eight current teams, seven have competed continuously in the same city since 1954 or earlier. 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 still in existence.
The CFL can be prone to receiving a negative perception from
gridiron footballfans because of its close proximity and relative similarity to the NFL, the world's richest sports league. Although the U.S. league has the highest per-game attendance of any sports league in the world, the primary source of the disparity between CFL and NFL team revenues is the leagues' television contracts (the U.S. television market is ten times that of Canada). However, the CFL plays on a larger field and with substantially different rules compared to the NFL, and as a result exploits a largely different pool of talent, where speed is typically valued over size.
Arena Football League (AFL)
Arena Football Leagueis the highest level of play in indoor/arena styles of gridiron football. Since commencing play in 1987, the league has stabilized and overcome the perception that it was merely a fad. In recent years, the AFL has seen attendance increase dramatically. Typically, a team will play in hockey or basketball arenas. The league has recently signed a new television deal with ESPNafter its NBCcontract expired. Unlike the NFL or CFL, the AFL has a formal minor league system in the form of arenafootball2.
Major League Lacrosse (MLL) / National Lacrosse League (NLL)
Major League Lacrosseand the National Lacrosse Leagueare other major leagues in the US/Canada. Though they have not yet achieved the level of success of MLS, they became more successful in recent years. MLL is an outdoor league starting in the year 2001. It is a much younger league than NLL and plays in many college football and MLS stadiums. On the other hand, the NLL is an indoor league, which is older than MLL and plays in many NBA, NHL, and smaller arenas. Which is more successful is debatable, though each have some level of success.
Traits of the top US/Canadian major leagues
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 this countries in that there is no
promotion and relegationsystem. 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 were the Cleveland Barons (formerly the California Golden Seals), which were merged into the
Minnesota North Stars(now the Dallas Stars) organization in 1978, two years after moving to Ohiofrom California. The last NHL team to fold outright were the New York Americansin 1942. (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 and no MLB team has folded since 1899, when four National Leagueteams 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 Jacketsand Minnesota Wild, who began play in 2000, while the newest MLB teams are the Arizona Diamondbacksand 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.
Many sports analysts and owners believe that 30 is the optimal number of teams for a major league, which is only two below the maximum number any league has ever had. Thus, future expansion is by no means certain, especially by the NFL which is now over the 30-team threshold. The NFL is still anxious to return to Los Angeles (see below) but many believe that NFL officials would privately prefer to re-locate an existing team in order to avoid altering its current eight four-team division alignment. Even if expansion franchises could continue to command huge fees, as more teams join the leagues the owners' share of the fees is constantly reduced. Even if large markets remain without a team, a point could still be reached where one-time expansion revenues are offset by chronic stresses such as a drain on the talent pool (which could have a noticeable impact on the quality of play and thus start turning off fans) and saturation of the national television market (if the leagues are unable to negotiate higher fees from the television networks, then additional teams will simply cause the existing television revenue to be split into smaller shares). The NFL has struggled with these issues since they added the
Houston Texansand Baltimore Ravens: teams have struggled to find qualified players to fill out their rosters and television ratings have plummeted thanks to the oversaturation of the national television market. Some have considered reducing roster sizes to make up for the drain on the talent pool, but such a move would alienate the fanbase and dramatically reduce the quality of play.
Canadian Football League(CFL), is a professional sports league located in Canada that plays Canadian football. Its eight teams, located in eight cities, are divided into two divisions of four teams each (East and West). The league's nineteen-week regular season runs from mid-June to early November. Each team plays eighteen games with one bye week. Following the regular season, six of the eight teams compete in the league's three-week playoffs, which culminate in the late-November Grey Cup championship, the country's largest annual sports and television event.  The CFL, officially founded in 1958, yet tracing its origins to the 1860s, is the highest level of play in Canadian football, the most popular football league in Canada, and most popular sports league in Canada after the National Hockey League.  The Grey Cuptrophy and game predate the league by many years, just as does the NHL's championship trophy, the Stanley Cup.
Although ice hockey is Canada's most popular sport, the CFL is highly popular in Quebec and Western Canada, and along with Canadian football played at amateur levels (ie. youth, high school, CJFL, QJFL, CIS and senior leagues such as the Alberta Football League), has increased in popularity in recent years. In Southern Ontario, the CFL is recovering from the bankruptcy that plagued the Toronto and Hamilton teams in the 2003 season; having come under new ownership, both teams have improved their attendance figures dramatically since then. The
BC Lionshave also seen a recent resurgence of fan support, which many attribute to improved on-field and off-field management. The Lions now compete with the Edmonton Eskimos for top attendance numbers; the Eskimos average as many as 40,000 people per game (Vancouver's BC Place Stadium, Edmonton's Commonwealth Stadium, and Toronto's Rogers Centre are the only stadiums that seat 40,000+). Saskatchewan Roughridersfans are known for their loyalty and for attending Roughriders games at stadiums across the country
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 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, Boston, 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, Akron, Ohio, and Muncie, Indiana; since then only the Packers remain.
Utah Jazzare located in the least populous state of any U.S. team. They relocated to Salt Lake City from New Orleans during a turbulent period in NBA history and shortly after the demise of the ABA Utah Starsand have enjoyed strong support from a wide swath of the Intermountain Westdevoid 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 railroadwas 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 Lakesand the Northeast, and the NBA's 1946 launch spanned only from from the Iowa-Illinois Quad Citiesto Boston. The NHL remained confined to six cities in the Northeast, Great Lakes and eastern Canadauntil 1967, though in the 1910s and 1920s, teams from its predecessor league had contested the Stanley Cupat season's end with teams from western Canada and the Pacific Northwest. College, minor leagueand amateurteams existed from coast to coast in all four sports, but rarely played outside of their home region for regular seasongames.
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, 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 Conferencebegan 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, Kentuckyhad previously had shortlived 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 Bloomington, Minnesota.
Since then, as newer, fast-growing
Sunbeltareas 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 midway between Los Angelesand San Diegoand which is generally considered part of the Los Angeles market.
L.A., 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 teams: it has lacked a football team since 1995. (The L.A. region has two teams each, however, in baseball, basketball and ironically enough ice hockey. It is also the only city with two
Major League Soccerclubs and the largest city with one or more Division I FBS college football teams.) The smallest market with a complete set of "big four" teams 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 tabooever 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 Sternsays the city will need a new arena larger and more modern than the Thomas & Mack Centerbefore it will even host another All-Star Weekend. [http://www.pahrumpvalleytimes.com/2007/Feb-21-Wed-2007/sports/.html] 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. [http://www.reviewjournal.com/lvrj_home/2007/Feb-20-Tue-2007/news/.html]
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 the
Hampton Roadsregion of Virginiaand 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 convert|200|mi|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 Colonelsof 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.
When the WHA and NHL merged, the NHL inherited teams in Canadian metro areas that were under one million in population at the time, these being
Edmonton, Winnipegand Quebec City, of which only Edmonton survives today. The NHL later added teams in Calgary(via relocation from Atlanta) and Ottawa(via expansion). The distinctive place hockey holds in Canadian cultureallowed 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. but the cities may have NHL franchises return in the near future. 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.
Although Calgary and Edmonton remain the two smallest television markets of any of the major leagues as of 2006, any small-market disadvantage in the two
Albertan cities has been largely off-set in recent years by the fact that the oil-driven Albertan economy is one of the fastest growing in the world. High resource prices have contributed to a rapid appreciation of the Canadian dollaragainst its U.S. counterpart, mitigating the financial problems brought on by unfavourable exchange rateswhich plagued many Canadian franchises in the 1990s. Alberta's GDP per capita is the highest of any Canadian provinceor U.S. stateeven after exchange rates are taken into account. Alberta's total GDP is over C$200 billion as of 2005 and expected to exceed US$200 billion in 2006, surpassing Indiana, which also has two teams. Alberta's economy is well over twice the size of Utah's (less than $90 billion as of 2006); thus it is not difficult to explain how Alberta can support two major league teams if Indiana can also support two and Utah can support one.
The first Major League Baseball team in Canada was the
Montreal Exposwho 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.
Toronto Huskieswere 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. The same year, the Vancouver Grizzlies began play: they moved to Memphis in 2001.
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 Rosebudsof 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 Metropolitanstook the Cup away from the Canadiens. The Boston Bruinsare the oldest US-based franchise in the NHL, having played in the league since 1924.
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 did draw respectable crowds and win a Grey Cupbefore becoming the current incarnation of the Montreal Alouettes. (The Stallions were forced out of Baltimore when Art Modellmoved his franchise from Cleveland to Baltimore 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 yearof 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.
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 Soccerhas 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 Huntto own multiple teams at least for now (see below). However, there was one recent exception to this rule in the major leagues — after being blocked in their bid to eliminate or "contract" two franchises in 2001, Major League Baseball purchased the Montreal Exposfrom 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.
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 Oriolesowner Peter Angelosto place an MLB team in Washington (which is about convert|35|mi|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.
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 Leagueteams) in other NFL cities, and prohibits owners from investing in casinos or being otherwise involved in gamblingoperations. (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 Leagueshares 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 Redskinsorganization.
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.
National Leaguewithstood 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 beerat 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 Serieswith 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 Leaguefor 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 Leaguein 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 Leaguein 1914 and prevented the Continental Leaguefrom 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 agreementand the restrictive policies of Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landisprevented African Americanplayers from playing Major League Baseball, and various Negro Leaguessprung up to showcase black players' talents. Although no official cross-league play took place, white and black players often faced off in post-season barnstormingtours where the Negro League players showed themselves to be MLB players' competitive equals. After Jackie Robinsonbroke 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 Associationin 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. Now some NBA players are being drawn to Europe with lucrative contracts in leagues without salary caps. No superstars have gone to Europe, but LeBron Jamesand Kobe Bryantsaid they would consider the move for a contract valued at $50 million per year. One possibility discussed by the NBA is to form a five team European Division that are full members of the NBA with a chance of winning an NBA title.
*The NFL has fought off the most rivals throughout the 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 Bowlgames, 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 Conferenceof 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 were the World Football Leagueof 1974-1975, the United States Football Leagueof 1982-1985, the Canadian Football League's American franchises of 1993-1995 and the XFLof 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 Brownsand San Francisco 49ersfrom the AAFC, and the St. Louis Rams(originally based in Cleveland and later relocated to Los Angeles) of the 1936 AFL. 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 Hulland Derek Sandersonto 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 Whalersand 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 Howeand Mike Liut. The Kontinental Hockey Leaguein Eurasia is the NHL's next big challenge. In the 2008 offseason, the KHL tried to sign NHL players to lucrative deals which made it worth violating their NHL contracts. The leagues have now agreed to honor each others' contracts, but free agents like Jaromir Jagrare still being signed by the KHL.
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 baseballsystem. Prospective players traditionally were drafted or (before the first MLB draft in 1965) signed to a contractwith an MLB team directly after high schooland then assigned to the appropriate minor league level for development. With the growth of college baseballin 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 Americanplayers 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.
high schoolbasketball 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 Leagueonce flourished up to the 1950s, 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 footballin 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 Leagueor 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 NCAADivision I college hockey. Additionally, the US now has two Junior A hockey leagues that provide many NHL players (some via NCAA hockey) in the USHLand 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.
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 seasongames, 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. Three of the four major sports now have entire sports networks dedicated just to each of them. NBA TVlaunched in 1999, with NFL Networkand NHL Networkfollowing.
Major League Baseball had announced plans for their own network, but then dropped them to attempt to start a national sports network with FOX. Those plans were dropped as well, after MLB and FOX failed to acquire a late season package of NFL games that went to NFL Network. MLB has since reimplemented their plans for their own network, and though it will be the last to launch, it will launch in more television households than any of the other three 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).Fact|date=March 2008 The NHL is in a distant 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 Finalsattracted 2.63 million viewer on the CBC.
The NHL began airing games on NBC starting in January 2006 and the
NHL Network, launched in Canada in 2001, is available to U.S. cable and satellite subscribers since 2007. In addition, the NHL broadcasts games nationally 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 (the major television networks are not interested in showing baseball, basketball, or hockey every day or several times a week, except for playoff games and championships); 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 sport, 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 fares as a strong spectator and participation sport all over the world, and the NBA its top league; basketball is probably second in sports worldwide only to soccer. Hockey (Europe) and baseball (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
salaryfor players in the four major leagues is about $2.9 million in 2004, 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
payrolland a salary capthat will exceed $100 million for the first time under the new collective bargaining agreementwith the NFL's players union. However, NFL payrolls distributed among rosters that are far larger than the other three leagues, making their players among the lowest paid on the average at $1.3 million (although this average is likely to increase under the new CBA).
*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 NHL season, the average player salary is expected to be comparable to the pre-lockout level of $1.8 million.
*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 capand has enacted only modest forms of revenue sharingand luxury taxes, and compared to the other leagues there is a far greater disparity between MLB payrolls. The New York Yankeeshad 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 Marlinswho 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.
There are thriving professional ice hockey, baseball, and basketball leagues around the world which are in a position to challenge the dominance of their American counterparts. 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
Europeand Latin America.
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 Cupchampions 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 Federationhas 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
North America, some think that the NBA and MLB may begin to place franchises in foreign markets. The popularity of baseball in Southeast Asia, Mexicoand Central Americais 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 association football) 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 [http://www.legendsofhockey.net:8080/LegendsOfHockey/jsp/LegendsMember.jsp?mem=p&type=Player&page=bio&list=#photo] . During the first and most famous of these tours Red Army Moscow played the Montreal Canadiensin what the media called an unofficial world championship. However, this was during the height of the Cold Warwhen the Soviet League had comparable talent to the NHL - since the decline of Communismin Eastern Europein the late 1980s, better financed NHL teams have enticed away most the elite players from the former Soviet Unionand Czechoslovakia. Professional leagues in Sweden, Finland, Germany, Austria, 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. 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 Germany.
As mentioned above, 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. [http://www.tsn.ca/nhl/news_story/?ID=&hubname=nhl] 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. 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 Sternand former NBA star Michael Jordanare 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 Tourfeaturing four NBA teams and four Euroleague clubs, with the first competition taking place in 2006. [http://www.euroleague.net/noticia.jsp?temporada=E04&jornada=33&id=130]
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 artindoor arenas suitable for ice hockey and/or basketball has not become a priority in European cities until very recently. No arena likely to meet the standards of either league existed anywhere in Europe until the Manchester Evening News Arenaopened in 1995, followed by Cologne's Kölnarenain 1998. The next NBA/NHL-caliber arena in Europe opened in 2003, when Sinan Erdem Domeopened in Istanbul. [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 UEFAin soccer and FIBA Europein basketball, and its basketball league is a member of ULEB.] The following year saw two more such arenas open—the Olympic Indoor Hall in Athens and Sazka Arena, now O2 Arena, in Prague. Belgrade Arenaand the Madrid Sports Palace followed in 2005, although the capacity of the latter is marginal by NBA standards. The O2 opened in London in 2007, O2 World in Berlin will open in 2008, and plans are in the works for an NBA/NHL-caliber venue in Moscow.
The NFL has the least international exposure of the top four major leagues. Although the least international of the top four major league sports, 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 [http://www.nfl.com/international/story/] 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 Citybetween 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 [http://www.findarticles.com/p/articles/mi_qn4188/is_/ai_n] . (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[http://news.bbc.co.uk/sport1/hi/other_sports/american_football/.stm] 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, [http://www.neworleanssaints.com/Articles/2008/2/London%20Calling.aspx] and preliminary talks are underway to expand the NFL season to 17 regular season games, with each team playing one game overseas. [http://www.nfl.com/news/story/]
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 unorecendented 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 Billsowner 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. [cite news|url=http://sports.espn.go.com/nfl/news/story?id=3076428 |title=Bills owner addresses NFL owners about annual game in Toronto |author=Associated Press |publisher="ESPN.com" |date= 2007-10-23|accessdate=2007-10-26] The league approved the plan, and announced on February 1, 2008that the Bills would play one regular-season game in Toronto each season from 2008 through 2012. [cite news|url=http://www.nfl.com/news/story;jsessionid=DAFF70E67B4A749C6DBA40480DC08656?id=09000d5d8066be0f&template=with-video&confirm=true |title=Commissioner announces Toronto plan for Bills |author=Associated Press |publisher=National Football League |date= 2008-02-01|accessdate=2008-02-08]
Association Football (Soccer)
Although it remains the smallest "major" sport in Canada and the United States,
association footballdoes 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 along with a new SuperLiga competition against Mexican teams which will be determine a champion of North America, and an invite to play in South America's second biggest club competition. The newly expanded CONCACAF Champions Leaguemay become a vital lifeblood for US and Canadian teams in years to come as it will offer a chance to play competitively against elite teams form Europe and South America in the FIFA Club World Cup.
List of U.S. and Canadian cities by professional sports teams
Sports in the United States
Sports in Canada
List of professional sports leagues
List of attendance figures at domestic professional sports leagues- a summary of total and average attendances for the major sports leagues from around the world.
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