Major professional sports leagues in the United States and Canada

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The major professional sports leagues in North America are the highest professional competitions of team sports in the United States and Canada. The four leagues universally included in the definition are Major League Baseball (MLB), the National Basketball Association (NBA), the National Football League (NFL), and the National Hockey League (NHL). Other notable leagues include Major League Soccer (MLS) and the Canadian Football League (CFL).

The NFL, NBA, MLB, and NHL are commonly referred to as the Big Four. Each of these is the richest professional club competition in its sport worldwide. The best players can become cultural icons in both countries because the leagues enjoy a significant place in popular culture in the US and Canada. The NFL has 32 teams, and the others have 30 each. The vast majority of major league teams are concentrated in the most populous metropolitan areas of the United States. Unlike the promotion and relegation systems used in sports leagues in various other regions around the world, those clubs in the North American sports leagues generally remain static from season-to-season.

Baseball, football and hockey have had professional leagues continuously for over 100 years; early leagues such as the National Association, Ohio League, and National Hockey Association formed the basis of the modern MLB, NFL and NHL respectively. Soccer was first professionalized in 1894, but leagues suffered greatly from lack of sustainability and seldom lasted more than a decade. Soccer's greatest successes were in the form of the American Soccer League (1921-1933), the original North American Soccer League (1968-1984), the National Professional Soccer League (1984-2001) and, currently, Major League Soccer (1996–present). Basketball was invented in 1891 and its first professional league formed in the 1920s.

Each Big Four league, as well as Major League Soccer and the Canadian Football League, averages at least 15,000 fans in attendance per game as of 2013.

Although individual sports such as golf, tennis, and auto racing are also very popular, the term is usually limited to team sports. For golf and auto racing, the PGA Tour and NASCAR Sprint Cup serve as the respective major competitions on par with the major leagues in other sports in terms of media coverage, level of competition and fan following.

Big Four leagues[edit]

Major League Baseball[edit]

Major League Baseball is the highest level of play of baseball in northern North America. It consists of the National League (founded in 1876) and the American League (founded in 1901). Cooperation between the two leagues began in 1903, and the two merged on an organizational level in 2000 with the elimination of separate league offices; they have shared a single Commissioner since 1920. There are currently 30 member teams, with 29 located in the U.S. and 1 in Canada. Traditionally called the "National Pastime", baseball was the first professional sport in the U.S.

National Basketball Association[edit]

The National Basketball Association is the premier basketball league. It was founded as the Basketball Association of America in 1946, and adopted its current name in 1949, when the BAA partially absorbed the rival National Basketball League. Four teams from the rival American Basketball Association joined the NBA with the ABA–NBA merger in 1976. It has 30 teams, 29 in the United States and 1 in Canada. The NBA is watched by audiences both domestically and internationally.

National Football League[edit]

The National Football League was founded in 1920 as a combination of various teams from regional leagues such as the Ohio League, the New York Pro Football League, and the Chicago circuit. The NFL partially absorbed the All-America Football Conference in 1949 and merged with the American Football League in 1970. It has 32 teams, all located in the United States.

NFL games are the most attended of domestic professional leagues in the world, in terms of per-game attendance, and the most popular in the U.S. in terms of television ratings and merchandising.[1] Its championship game, the Super Bowl, is the most watched annual event on U.S. television, with Super Bowl XLVI being the single most-watched program in U.S. television history.[2]

The NFL is the only one of the major leagues not to include any teams from Canada, because Canada has its own version of football (although the Buffalo Bills play one regular-season game per year in Toronto). American football is the only major team sport where there is no professional international competition. The IFAF's World Championship does not count.

National Hockey League[edit]

The National Hockey League was founded in 1917 as a breakaway league from the Canadian National Hockey Association (founded 1909), taking all but one of the NHA's teams. The NHL partially absorbed the rival World Hockey Association in 1979. There are 30 teams, with 23 in the U.S. and 7 in Canada.

The most popular sports league in Canada, and widely followed across the northern U.S., the NHL has expanded southward in recent decades to attempt to gain a more national following in the United States, in cities such as Dallas, Miami, Nashville, Phoenix, Raleigh, and Tampa, with varying success. Hockey remains much more popular in the northern states of the U.S. closer to Canada, such as the Upper Midwest and New England, than in the rest of the United States.

Other notable professional leagues[edit]

Canadian Football League[edit]

The Canadian Football League is the highest level of play in Canadian football. Although some teams trace their existence to the 1860s, the modern league organization was not solidified into its present configuration until 1958 and now consists of 9 teams, all based in Canada. The Grey Cup is awarded annually to the champion every November and is the best attended sporting event in the nation. The oldest extant teams, the Hamilton Tiger-Cats and the Toronto Argonauts, trace their origins to the late 1860s and early 1870s, which ranks them amongst the oldest professional sports teams of any kind still in existence on the continent. The CFL attempted an expansion into the United States between 1993 and 1995, though the expansion teams all either folded or relocated to Canadian cities.

The CFL is the second most popular league in Canada, after the NHL.[3] It has the third highest average attendance of the northern North American leagues, behind the NFL and MLB; in 2010 the average attendance was 26,781, with a total attendance of 1,928,225[4]

Major League Soccer[edit]

Major League Soccer (MLS) is the top-level men's professional soccer league in the United States and Canada. MLS has 19 teams in the 2013 season, with 16 in the United States and 3 in Canada. The league began play in 1996, its creation a requirement by FIFA for awarding the United States the right to host the 1994 World Cup. MLS is the first Division I outdoor soccer league in the U.S. or Canada since the North American Soccer League operated from 1968 to 1984. MLS has increased in popularity following the adoption of the Designated Player rule in 2007, which allowed MLS to sign stars such as David Beckham. In 2012, MLS reported an average attendance of 18,807 per game, with total attendance exceeding 6 million overall, both breaking previous MLS attendance records.

Traits of these major leagues[edit]


The following table compares the big four leagues, plus MLS and the CFL, on certain attributes that collectively attempt to indicate whether the league has "major league" status. The table includes the longevity and stability of the league, as measured by the year founded and the last time the league underwent contraction, the number of teams in the league, and the popularity of the league, as measured by annual revenues and average attendance.

US$ (bn)
Recent Average
National Football LeagueAmerican football1920321952$11.067,604 (2012)
Major League BaseballBaseball1869301899$7.030,451 (2013)
National Basketball AssociationBasketball1946301954$5.017,347 (2013)
National Hockey LeagueIce hockey1917301978$3.317,720 (2013)
Major League SoccerSoccer1994192002$0.518,608 (2013)
Canadian Football LeagueCanadian football195892006$0.127,005 (2013)


The top four major leagues each have revenues that can be many times greater than the payrolls of less popular sports leagues in the two nations. In terms of overall league revenue, the NFL, MLB and the NBA (in that order) rank as 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). The NHL is ranked in fifth place.[citation needed]

Annual revenue comparison

All figures in U.S. dollars.

LeagueTotal Revenue (bn)TV RevenueRef
National Football League$11.0$5.0 bn[5][6]
Major League Baseball$7.0$1.5 bn[5]
National Basketball Association$5.0$930 m[7][8]
National Hockey League$3.3$200 m[9]
Major League Soccer$0.5$40 m[10]
Canadian Football League$0.1$16 m[11]

Television exposure[edit]

LeagueRatings / ViewersTV Revenue
NFL10 / 16.6m (aggregate)$5.0 bn
MLB1.7 / 2.5m (Fox)
0.8 / 1.2m (ESPN)
$1.5 bn
NBA3.3 / 5.4m (ABC, 15 games)
1.7 / 2.5m (TNT, 43 games)
1.3 / 1.9m (ESPN, 71 games)
$930 m
NHL1.0 / 1.6m (NBC, 12 games)
0.2 / 0.3m (NBC Sports, 90 games)
$200 m
MLS0.4 / 0.5m (NBC, 3 games)
 ?? / 0.3m (ESPN, 20 games)
 ?? / 0.1m (NBC Sports, 40 games)
$40 m

The major sports leagues have their matches televised on the big four U.S. broadcast TV networks -- CBS, NBC, ABC, and FOX—enjoy strong TV viewer ratings, and earn significant revenues from these TV contracts. All of the top four major sports leagues have had television contracts with at least one of the original "big three" U.S. broadcast television networks (CBS, NBC, and ABC) since those networks' early years, indicative of the sports' widespread appeal since their inception, continuing today additionally with FOX.

The NFL has the largest TV contracts, and will earn $5 billion annually from its contracts with Fox, CBS, NBC, and ESPN for the 2014 through 2022 seasons.[12] MLB will earn $1.5 billion annually from its contracts with ESPN, Fox, and Turner Sports (TBS) for the 2014 through 2021 seasons.[13] The NBA earns $930 million annually in its contracts with ABC/ESPN and TNT covering the 2008-09 through 2015-16 seasons.[14] The NHL earns $200 million annually in its U.S. contract with NBC & NBC Sports that covers the 2011-12 through 2020-21 seasons, not counting the Canadian share.[15] The NHL has been broadcast on the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation's Hockey Night in Canada since 1952, and the 2006 Stanley Cup Finals attracted 2.63 million viewers on the CBC.

In the last generation, cable and satellite networks have taken a larger chunk of the major sports' pie. All four major sports leagues have a network of their own. NBA TV launched in 1999, the NFL Network launched in 2003, the NHL Network launched in Canada in 2001, while the U.S. version launched in 2007. Major League Baseball introduced the MLB Network in 2009, and though it was the last to launch, it launched in more television households than the other networks due to partnerships with cable and satellite operators.

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. NFL teams also are allowed to negotiate their own television deals for preseason games, but with syndication and broadcast stations instead of regional cable networks.

MLS matches are shown on ESPN and NBC Sports. MLS signed a broadcast deal with NBC that has seen games broadcast on that network since 2012. MLS also has a contract with ESPN to air matches on ESPN.

As of 2013, the largest league in North America with no over-the-air terrestrial television is the CFL. The CFL's last over-the-air broadcasts ended in 2007 in Canada and 2009 in the United States. Its current broadcast deal gives exclusive broadcast rights for all of its regular season and postseason games to one cable broadcaster, which to date has not shown any games over the air. Despite this over-the-air blackout, the CFL renewed its cable-only deal prior to the deal's scheduled expiration in 2013 without allowing any terrestrial broadcaster to bid on it.


Major professional sports leagues generally have significantly higher average attendance than other sports leagues. The following chart shows the average attendance of all professional sports leagues in the United States and Canada with an average attendance of 15,000 or higher.

LeagueTeamsRecent Average
2009 Avg.
Since 2009
National Football League3267,604 (2012)65,043+2,561[16]
Major League Baseball3030,514 (2013)30,300+214[17]
Canadian Football League928,193 (2012)28,054+139[18][19]
Major League Soccer1918,807 (2012)16,037+2,770[20]
National Hockey League3017,455 (2012)17,460–5
National Basketball Association3017,274 (2012)17,520–246

Franchise stability[edit]

League Stability
Last Expansion
NFL195219981994-2002 (28→32)
MLB189920051998 (28→30)
NBA195420082004 (29→30)
NHL197820111991-2000 (21→30)
MLS200220062005-2015 (10→21)

All of the top four major leagues exhibit stability in most of their franchises. No team from the top four leagues has collapsed outright since the 1970s. The last team to cease operations was the NHL's Cleveland Barons in 1978, when financial pressures forced a merger with the Minnesota North Stars (now the Dallas Stars). MLB voted in 2001 to contract from 30 teams to 28, but ran into opposition and never executed the contraction plan.[21] Unlike some other leagues in other countries which use a system of promotion and relegation, franchises in these leagues are stable, and do not change annually.

None of the Big Four leagues have added teams through expansion since 2004. Relocation of teams is generally uncommon compared to minor leagues. However, all of the top four major leagues have had at least one franchise relocate to another city since the 1980s. Among the big four leagues, the NHL has had the highest number of recent relocations, relocating three teams during the 1990s and another in 2011.

Recent expansion franchises have commanded huge entry fees, which represent the price the new team must pay to gain its share of the existing teams' often guaranteed revenue streams. The Houston Texans paid $700 million to join the NFL.[22] By comparison, the Charlotte Bobcats paid $300 million to join the NBA. The Diamondbacks and Devil Rays paid $130 million each to join MLB. The Blue Jackets and Wild paid $80 million each to join the NHL. New York City FC paid $100 million to join Major League Soccer.[23]

Since MLS contracted teams from Miami and Tampa Bay in 2002, MLS has exhibited a general pattern of growth. MLS has gone a considerable expansion, adding at least one new team each year from 2007 to 2012. MLS has had one franchise suspend operations, the San Jose Earthquakes, when the Houston Dynamo joined the league in 2005; the Earthquakes returned in 2008.

The CFL has a somewhat mixed record of stability. All seven teams between Vancouver and Toronto have been in place since the BC Lions were established in 1954. East of Toronto, teams representing Ottawa and Montreal have operated intermittently. The Ottawa Rough Riders represented Ottawa for 120 years before failing in 1996; the Renegades operated from 2002 to 2005 before also failing, and the city's third CFL team, the Ottawa RedBlacks, will begin play in 2014. In Montreal, the city has been represented by eight teams in the past 100 years, the most recent being the current Montreal Alouettes that began play in 1996. The most unstable time in the CFL's history was an ill-fated expansion into the United States, especially in the 1994 and 1995 seasons. In part due to a lack of viable professional markets in Canada, the CFL has never relocated a team from one Canadian city to another.[citation needed]

Franchise locations[edit]

Franchise Locations
LeagueLargest MSA
without team
Smallest MSA
with team
NFLLos Angeles (17.9m)Green Bay (0.3m)
MLBMontreal (3.8m)Milwaukee (1.8m)
NBASeattle (4.2m)New Orleans (1.2m)
NHLHouston (6.1m)Winnipeg (0.7m)
MLSMiami (5.6m)Salt Lake City (1.7m)

United States[edit]

Major leagues tend to place franchises only in the largest, most populated metropolitan areas. Most major league teams are in metro areas having populations over two million. All but seven continental U.S. metropolitan areas over one million people host at least one major sports franchise. The major leagues typically place two teams per league in New York City, Los Angeles, and sometimes in Chicago.

MLB, more than any other major league, focuses its teams in the largest markets. MLB is the only major league to have at least one team in every metro area with a population of over 4 million, and is the only major league that does not have any teams in markets with fewer than 1.75 million people. The NHL is the major league that least follows the general trend. The NHL does not have teams in a number of metro areas with populations of over 3 million (Houston, Atlanta, San Diego) but has five teams in metro areas with fewer than 1.25 million people (Winnipeg, Edmonton, Calgary, Ottawa, Buffalo).

The NFL has two major exceptions: The NFL has not had a franchise in Los Angeles, the second largest metro area in the U.S., since 1995. The Green Bay Packers survive in major league sports' smallest metropolitan area (300,000 popullation) thanks to a unique community ownership and the loyalty of their Cheesehead fans. 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, all 3 of which now have significant fan bases for other nearby teams (the Chicago Bears, Cincinnati Bengals, and Indianapolis Colts, respectively).

The largest metropolitan area without a major professional sports franchise is California's Inland Empire, which is located east of Los Angeles and is part of the Los Angeles television market. Las Vegas is the largest standalone metro area that does not have a major league team. The major leagues are wary of placing a team in Las Vegas because it would be taboo to have any association with the city's gambling industry, although both the AFL and CFL have placed franchises there that have failed. Other large metro areas without a major professional franchise are Austin, Texas and the Norfolk, Virginia (the "Hampton Roads" metro area).


The NHL has been the dominant professional sports league in Canada, and was first established in Canada in 1917. Some US-based leagues, like MLB and the NBA, have awarded franchises to Canadian cities, though outside of Toronto most teams have been unsuccessful.

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 larger media markets in the U.S., respectively Phoenix and Denver. The NHL's Canadian teams have benefited greatly from the rise of the Canadian dollar to parity with its U.S. counterpart, mainly because they collect most of their revenues in Canadian dollars but pay their player salaries in U.S. dollars. As a result, the NHL returned to Winnipeg for the 2011–12 season, with the Atlanta Thrashers relocating to become the newest version of the Winnipeg Jets. There has been discussion of potential relocation to Quebec and, at least on a part-time basis, to Saskatoon in the future; while there have been efforts to bring an NHL team to Hamilton or suburban Toronto, the league currently opposes those efforts and has actively blocked efforts to relocate teams to Hamilton.

The Canadian Football League has teams in all seven current NHL markets, in addition to Hamilton, Ontario and Regina, Saskatchewan. Regina is considered a regional franchise and also represents Saskatoon as well as the rest of the province of Saskatchewan. In addition, the CFL also has an annual regular season game in the maritime provinces, under the name Touchdown Atlantic; the league had awarded the Atlantic Schooners in the early 1980s to an ownership group in Halifax, but the team could not secure a large enough stadium to field a CFL team, and the expansion was canceled. As of 2012, all of the regular-season Touchdown Atlantic games are being held at Moncton Stadium in Moncton, New Brunswick, the largest stadium in the Maritimes but one of marginal CFL capacity; preseason games have previously been held at the smaller Canada Games Stadium in Saint John and Huskies Stadium in Halifax. The CFL is the only major league with a presence in the Maritimes.

The first Major League Baseball team in Canada was the Montreal Expos who began play in 1969. In 2005, they moved to Washington, D.C. and became the Washington Nationals. The Toronto Blue Jays, who began play in 1977, became the first team outside the United States to win the World Series in 1992 and 1993.

The Toronto Huskies were a charter member of what is now known as the NBA, but they only lasted from 1946 to 1947. The NBA returned to Toronto in 1995 when the Raptors joined the league. That same year, the Vancouver Grizzlies began play, but moved to Memphis in 2001.

The NFL has a working agreement with the Canadian Football League (CFL) which is second in popularity only to the NHL in that country. In the 1950s and 1960s, selected NFL teams would travel north to Canada to play a CFL team in pre-season "American Bowl" games. In 2008 the Buffalo Bills began playing one regular-season game each year in Toronto.[24] Toronto is about 90 miles (145 km) from Buffalo and is considered by both the Bills and the NFL as a part of the team's market. The Bills currently draw about 15,000 Canadian fans per game, and the Bills' ownership sees Toronto's corporate market as key to securing the franchise's future, as the Bills have effectively maxed out their revenue potential in the economically struggling Buffalo area.[25]

Ownership restrictions[edit]

All four major leagues have strict rules regarding who may own a team, and also place some restrictions on what other sort of activities the owners may engage in. The major leagues generally do not allow anyone to own a stake in more than one franchise, to prevent the perception of being in a conflict of interest. This rule was adopted after several high-profile controversies involving ownership of multiple baseball teams in the 1890s. Additionally, the NHL's "Original Six" period, from 1942 to 1967, was marked by the Norris family owning a controlling stake in half of the league's teams, a factor in the league's stagnation during that period.[citation needed] There have been four exceptions since 2000 to this rule in the major leagues, where the league itself has taken ownership or control of a franchise:

All of the top four major leagues grant some sort of territorial exclusivity to their owners, precluding the addition of another team in the same area unless the current team's owners consent, which is generally obtained in exchange for compensation, residual rights, or both. For example, to obtain the consent of Baltimore Orioles to place an MLB team in Washington (about 35 miles (56 km) away), a deal was struck under the terms of which television and radio broadcast rights to Nationals games are handled by the Orioles franchise. Regarding territorial rights, the main concern for many team owners is television revenue, although the possibility of reduced ticket sales remains a concern for some teams. Because the National Football League shares all of its television revenue equally, and most of its teams sell out their stadiums with little difficulty, some NFL owners are seen as being less reluctant to share their territories.[citation needed] For example, the return of the NFL to Baltimore in 1996 attracted no serious opposition from the Washington Redskins organization.

Many major professional sports leagues generally forbid religious groups, governments (there are some cases where government entities can own a team, usually county level), and non-profit organizations owning a team. The NFL has stronger ownership restrictions. The NFL forbids large ownership groups or publicly traded corporations from purchasing NFL teams, although the Packers' were 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. NFL owners may freely own soccer teams because Lamar Hunt won a court challenge stemming from his investment in the old North American Soccer League. Three NFL owners own soccer teams in the English Premier League.

Major League Soccer has adopted a different league structure and operates as a single-entity league, a structure that survived a lawsuit from the players in Fraser v. Major League Soccer. During the first few years of the league, MLS for the sake of stability allowed individuals such as Philip Anschutz and Lamar Hunt to operate multiple teams. MLS ownership arrangements have evolved, however, with operation of the league's 19 teams now spread among 18 owners. The only remaining multiple operation situation is Anschutz's AEG owning the LA Galaxy and a 50% interest in the Houston Dynamo.

In the Canadian Football League, three teams (the Edmonton Eskimos, Winnipeg Blue Bombers and Saskatchewan Roughriders) remain community owned, while David Braley owns both the BC Lions and Toronto Argonauts; Braley had previously owned the Hamilton Tiger-Cats. The other four CFL teams operate with more conventional ownership structures.

Weathering challenges from rival leagues[edit]

All of the majors have bested at least one rival league formed with the intention of being just as "big" as the established league, often by signing away star players and by locating franchises in cities that were already part of the existing league. In many cases, the major leagues have absorbed the most successful franchises from its failing rival, or merged outright with it.

Baseball's National League withstood three challenges in its first quarter century of existence. The American Association began in 1882 partly in response to the NL leaving several lucrative markets vacant. For several years, the AA was a viable competitor to the NL, and the NL and AA champions competed in an informal World Series. Four of the AA's teams defected to the NL in its later years, before the AA expired in 1891. Labor problems led to the formation of the Players League for the 1890 season; it attracted a significant percentage of the 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. While African American players were prevented from playing in MLB, various Negro Leagues reached their peak from the 1920s to the 1940s, and on barnstorming tours the Negro League players showed themselves to be MLB players' competitive equals. After Jackie Robinson broke the color barrier in 1947, the influx of black stars into the major leagues drained the Negro Leagues of talent and eventually caused their collapse. MLB prevented the Continental League from getting off the ground in 1961 by awarding franchises to Houston, Washington DC, New York, and Los Angeles, all of which were proposed CL cities.

The NFL has fought off the most rivals throughout the years, and to this day faces a competing start-up 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.

The NBA withstood the challenge of the American Basketball Association in the 1960s and 70s. The NBA absorbed four of the ABA's 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 NHL fended off two challenges in the 1960s and 1970s. 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 World Hockey Association challenged the dominance of the NHL. The WHA initially attracted stars by offering higher salaries than the NHL, forcing NHL teams to match. Many WHA franchises were mired in financial difficulty, and with the WHA faced with collapse, the NHL negotiated a merger of the leagues. The four strongest teams joined the NHL: the Edmonton Oilers, the Quebec Nordiques (now the Colorado Avalanche), the New England Whalers (now the Carolina Hurricanes), and the Winnipeg Jets (now the Phoenix Coyotes).

Player development[edit]

Three of the top four major leagues possess sophisticated player development systems.

The vast majority of MLB players are developed through the minor league baseball system. Prospective players generally are drafted, and are then assigned to the appropriate minor league level for development. With the growth of college baseball in the past few decades, more players opt to play at the collegiate level and delay entry into the MLB draft.[citation needed] Individual teams' large scouting staffs have given way to smaller staffs and subscriptions to commercial player scouting services. Entering the majors directly from high school or college is rare, and most of the few that have were quickly reassigned to the minors. MLB clubs have also recruited many players from the Japanese leagues, and also sign players from certain Latin American countries such as the Dominican Republic. A small but growing number of prospects are now being signed from Australia and Europe.[citation needed]

Most of the NBA's talent comes from college and high school basketball, although minimum age rules have ended the NBA's practice of drafting players directly from high school beginning in 2006. The D-League was implemented in 2001 by the NBA to perform the role of a farm system in helping with player development and market reach, but NBA teams more frequently recruit talent from overseas professional leagues, mostly in Europe with a few players being recruited from leagues in Latin America, China, and Australia.

The National Football League is the only one of the four major sports leagues that does not have a formalized farm system. The source for almost all NFL players is college football. Drafted players from college immediately join the main team. NFL teams rarely recruit players from indoor leagues or from the Canadian Football League. NFL Europe, which ran from 1995 to 2007, produced few NFL players. American football also has the least global reach for prospects, with the exceptions of American Samoa, and the acquisition of several retired players from other codes of football primarily as kickers and punters.

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). In recent decades,[when?] NHL teams have drafted or signed prospects from Europe, and a growing number of NHL hopefuls are forgoing the CHL in favor of NCAA Division I college hockey.[citation needed] Additionally, the US now has two Junior A hockey leagues in the USHL and NAHL that provide many NHL players (some via NCAA hockey). Regardless of which route hockey players take to sign an NHL contract, almost all draft picks are initially assigned to an affiliate in their NHL team's minor league system for development.

MLS signs players from its youth academies, from the college draft, and from overseas. MLS relies on the development of talent through youth academies, which is now a requirement for all MLS clubs. These academies are commonplace for soccer clubs throughout the world, and MLS clubs can operate youth teams as young as 13–14 years old. Even some youth academy teams participate in lower-tier leagues, a majority participate in MLS Reserve Division matches. MLS also holds an annual draft in which top college soccer players are selected. Minor professional soccer leagues, such as the Division 2 North American Soccer League and Division 3 USL Pro, also exist. MLS has a formal relationship with USL Pro, where developing MLS players can play in USL Pro to gain playing experience.

High player salaries[edit]

Player Salaries
LeagueAverage SalaryTeam Salary Cap
MLB$3.3 mil$178 mil*
NFL$1.9 mil$120 mil
NHL$2.4 mil$64 mil
NBA$5.2 mil$58 mil

The average annual salary for players in the four major leagues is about US $2.9 million in 2008, although player salaries can range from $300,000 for backup players to $20 million for superstars.

NBA players have the highest average player salaries of the four leagues; however, their teams also have the smallest rosters.

The NFL has the highest average team payroll. However, NFL rosters are far larger than the other three leagues (many players on NFL rosters see little actual game play), and teams play far fewer games, making their players the lowest paid of the Big Four major leagues. After a brief lockout during the 2011 off-season, the owners and union signed a new CBA that imposed a hard salary cap of $120 million in the 2011 season, but temporarily suspended the salary floor, which returned in the 2013 season at 89% of the cap.

MLB is now alone among the major leagues in that it lacks any form of a salary cap and has enacted only modest forms of revenue sharing and luxury taxes. Compared to the other leagues, there is a far greater disparity between MLB payrolls. The New York Yankees had the highest payroll of any American sports team in 2006 when they paid $194 million in players' salaries – nearly twice the NFL salary cap and nearly thirteen times the payroll of the Florida Marlins who spent about $15 million (significantly less than the mandatory minimum team payrolls in the NFL and NHL).

For the 2010–11 NHL season, the average player salary was slightly above the pre-lockout level of US $1.8 million. In the same season, the league's salary cap was US $59.4 million per team, with the salary floor set at US $16 million under the cap. For the 2013–14 season, the cap has been set as US $64.3 million, with the floor at US $48.2 million.

MLS has lower average salaries and smaller payrolls than the other leagues. MLS kept a strict rein on player salaries until 2007, when MLS introduced the Designated Player Rule (also known as the Beckham rule), which allows MLS teams to pay higher wages for star players. David Beckham was the first player signed under this rule, earning guaranteed annual compensation of $6.5 million. Since then, MLS teams have continued to sign other players earning several millions per year. MLS imposes a limit of three designated players per team.

Dominance of the sport[edit]

Each of the top four major leagues are the premier competitions of their respective sport on the world stage. Major League Baseball is increasingly luring away the stars from the Japanese leagues, the European hockey leagues have become a major source of star talent for National Hockey League clubs, and the National Basketball Association frequently recruits talent from professional leagues in Europe, Latin America and China.

All four leagues are considered to be the top league in their respective sports, not only in revenue, but also in quality of talent, player salaries, and worldwide interest. However, of the four major leagues, the NFL has the least presence outside both countries; it is mainly an American and Canadian interest. Basketball is a strong spectator and participation sport in parts of the world, and the NBA is unquestionably the top basketball league. Hockey (Europe) and baseball (East Asia, Latin America) have loyal followings in some of the world's other regions as well. Selling league broadcasting rights to foreign markets is another way for the leagues to generate revenue, and all the leagues have tried to exploit revenue streams outside of their home market.

The NHL is the top professional hockey league in the world, as NHL teams routinely defeat teams from European leagues, and the NHL attracts top players from European leagues. The NHL has been playing exhibition games against European teams since in the 2007–08 NHL season in the "NHL Premiere" series, the NHL Challenge, and the Victoria Cup. Since the debut of the series, NHL teams have won 24 games to the European teams' four. The International Ice Hockey Federation has proposed[when?] that a world championship playoff between the Stanley Cup winners and the champions of the European Hockey League should be held each year.[32] The NHL's position on this proposal is not clear, but many believe that the players union would be unlikely to support it. Since the decline of Communism in Eastern Europe in the late 1980s, NHL teams have enticed away most of the elite players from the professional teams in eastern Europe and northern Europe due to the higher NHL salaries. Previously, during the "Super Series" tour in the 1970s and 80s, the Soviet club teams played NHL teams in exhibition games.[33] 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.

Major League Soccer is not the premier soccer competition in the world, or even in the Americas, in terms of competition success, revenues, and players. MLS teams compete with top teams from North America, Central America and the Caribbean in the CONCACAF Champions League, with Mexican clubs winning the title each year since the current format was introduced in the 2008-09 season. MLS has annual revenues of about $300 million, whereas five European soccer leagues (England, Germany, Spain, Italy, and France) have annual revenues in excess of $1 billion.[34] The top players from MLS often move to Europe in search of tougher competition and higher salaries. Major League Soccer is improving in international stature however. MLS implemented the Designated Player Rule in 2007, allowing MLS to attract and retain international stars such as David Beckham. MLS attendance has increased to the point where MLS average attendance is among the top ten soccer leagues worldwide.[35] The introduction of soccer specific stadiums had improved revenue growth.

In the late 1940s and 1950s, the Canadian Football League (CFL) and the US National Football League (NFL) operated on roughly equal footing financially, with even some US-born star players joining CFL teams. The situation changed along with the rise of the American Football League (AFL) founded in 1959. By the end of the 1960s, revenue from the US television market and absorption of the AFL helped the NFL become much more successful than its Canadian counterpart. By the 1980s, the CFL became virtually unknown outside of Canada. Attempts to promote the CFL included the failed CFL USA experiment in the 1990s. The CFL's television coverage outside of Canada is primarily broadcast by ESPN America, Fox Sports International and the US government's American Forces Network. In 2009, a record number of 6.1 million viewers watched the CFL's annual Grey Cup championship game,[36] while 151.6 million viewers watched the NFL's annual Super Bowl championship game that same year.[37]

Use of the phrase "world champions"[edit]

The perceived lack of competition from the rest of the world has contributed to the long-standing but controversial practice of the North American media referring to the major sports league champions as world champions.[38] Today, the phrase is more popular in the United States but it retains some acceptance in Canada. However, this practice is usually mocked by non-Americans.[39]

Usage of the phrase in baseball started with organization of championship series between the National League and the earlier American Association in the 1880s, later to be known as the World Series, although some contemporary commentators preferred to call these contests "The Championship of the United States", considering grander alternatives such "World's Championship Series", or "World's Series" inappropriate for a domestic competition. By the 1950s, the phrase World Champions was also being used by the champions of the NFL and the newly formed NBA.

In hockey, the Stanley Cup was initially open only to Canadian teams, but in 1914, the Cup's trustees allowed American teams to compete, with the provision that the Stanley Cup winners were to be recognized as World's Champions, a stance that quickly gained acceptance on both sides of the border. The phrase was repeatedly engraved on the Cup, and continued to be used, as per the wishes of the Cup trustees, when the NHL began admitting American franchises. When the NHL assumed formal control of the Cup in 1947, the resulting agreement required "that the winners of this trophy shall be the acknowledged World's Professional Hockey Champions." Nevertheless, the NHL discontinued active use of the phrase World Champions in the 1970s, possibly to avoid at least a moral obligation to play the WHA champions and possibly because of a string of high-profile losses at the hands of teams in the Soviet Championship League. Even after the NHL merged with the WHA and the Soviet Union collapsed, the NHL did not resume use of the phrase "world champions" to denote the Stanley Cup winners. The participation of NHL players in the Winter Olympics since 1998, and the emergence of other major hockey leagues around the world like the Kontinental Hockey League in Eurasia, makes it less likely that the NHL will ever use the World Champions phrase again.

Team loyalties[edit]

In the United States and Canada, where there is no tradition of promotion and relegation in team sports, the top league in a sport generally commands the loyalties of that sport's followers. Even if a city is home to a minor league team, a sport's fan in that city will typically call a major league team their "favorite team" and follow it more closely. This contrasts with European soccer, for example, where clubs in lower-level leagues have passionate supporters that root for the club to be promoted to higher levels of competition.

Such loyalty has been noticed primarily within the NFL, MLB, NBA and NHL. Contrastingly, it has been noticed that there are numerous passionate supporters rooting for not only MLS sides, but local NASL and USL teams as well.[40][41]

Holiday showcases[edit]

Three of the major sports leagues have always been showcased on a major U.S. holiday. The NFL has always played on Thanksgiving Day since its inception in 1920. The NBA has always played on Christmas Day since 1947. And since 2008, the NHL has had the Winter Classic on New Year's Day. Baseball and soccer are not particularly associated with any holidays; however, in baseball's case, teams generally all play on the three major summer holidays (Memorial Day, Independence Day, and Labor Day in the U.S., and Victoria Day, Canada Day, and Labour Day in Canada), since most MLB teams play almost every day during their season.

Furthermore, the CFL has two longstanding holiday events: the Labour Day Classic and Thanksgiving Day Classic, on Labour Day and Canadian Thanksgiving respectively.

History and expansion of major leagues[edit]

United States[edit]

Professional sports leagues as known today evolved during the decades between the Civil War and World War II, when the railroad was the main means of intercity transportation. As a result, virtually all major league teams were concentrated in the northeastern quarter of the United States, within roughly the radius of a day-long train ride. No MLB teams existed south or west of St. Louis, the NFL was confined to the Great Lakes and the Northeast, and the NBA's 1946 launch spanned only from the Iowa-Illinois Quad Cities to Boston. The NHL remained confined to six cities in the Northeast, Great Lakes and eastern Canada until 1967, though in the 1910s and 1920s, teams from its predecessor league had contested the Stanley Cup at season's end with teams from western Canada and the Pacific Northwest. College, minor league and amateur teams existed from coast to coast in all four sports, but rarely played outside of their home region for regular season games. Early professional soccer activity was concentrated almost entirely on an East Coast corridor from Baltimore to Boston, though a series of leagues located solely within the St. Louis metropolitan area also served as de facto major leagues for periods.

As travel and settlement patterns changed, so did the geography of professional sports. With the arguable exception of the western hockey teams which competed for the Stanley Cup in the early 20th century and the independent Los Angeles Bulldogs football team of the 1930s and 1940s, there were no major league teams in the far west until after World War II. The first west coast major-league franchise was the NFL's Los Angeles Rams, who moved from Cleveland in 1946. The same year, the All-America Football Conference began play, with teams in Los Angeles and San Francisco (and `the Miami Seahawks, who became the only southern-based major league franchise, although Louisville, Kentucky had previously had short-lived baseball and football teams). The San Francisco franchise would be one of three AAFC teams admitted to the NFL after the AAFC's demise in 1949. Baseball would not extend west until 1958 in the controversial move of both New York-based National League franchises, the Brooklyn Dodgers and New York Giants. The NBA would follow in 1960 with the move of the Minneapolis Lakers to Los Angeles, while the NHL would not have a west coast presence until it doubled in size in 1967. With the exception of the Los Angeles Kings, the NHL's initial franchises in the Southern and Western United States were ultimately unsuccessful — teams in Oakland, Atlanta, Kansas City and Denver all relocated. From 1982 until 1991, the Kings were the only U.S.-based NHL franchise south of St. Louis and/or west of the Twin Cities, and even the St. Louis Blues required league action to prevent being relocated to Saskatchewan.

Since then, as newer, fast-growing Sunbelt areas such as Phoenix, Tampa, and Dallas became prominent, the major sports leagues expanded or franchises relocated (usually quite controversially) to service these communities.


The National Hockey League was established in 1917 in Canada with four hockey clubs in three Canadian cities (Toronto, Montreal and Ottawa). The first American club, based in Boston, joined the league in 1924, but American hockey clubs had existed before the NHL expanded into the United States. The first US-based club to compete for the Stanley Cup was the Portland Rosebuds of the Pacific Coast Hockey League, who lost the 1916 series to the Montreal Canadiens (then of the National Hockey Association). The next year, the PCHA's Seattle Metropolitans took the Cup away from the Canadiens. The Boston Bruins are the oldest US-based franchise in the NHL, having played in the league since 1924. When the WHA and NHL merged, the NHL inherited teams in three Canadian cities, Edmonton, Winnipeg and Quebec City. However, of these three teams, only the Edmonton Oilers remain in their original city, or in Canada—the other two teams relocated to the U.S. in the 1990s. (Winnipeg's current NHL team was originally based in Atlanta before moving north in 2011.)

Lack of promotion and relegation systems[edit]

In general, sports leagues in North America never developed any system of promotion and relegation like those in Europe. A major factor was the greater distances between cities, with some teams separated by at least halfway across the North American continent, which in turn resulted in higher traveling costs. When the National League of Professional Base Ball Clubs was established in 1876, its founders judged that in order to prosper, they must make baseball's highest level of competition a "closed shop", with a strict limit on the number of teams, and with each member having exclusive local rights. This guarantee of a place in the league year after year would permit each club owner to monopolize fan bases in their respective exclusive territories and give them the confidence to invest in infrastructure, such as improved ballparks. This in turn would guarantee the revenues needed to support traveling across the continent.[42] With the introduction of TV exposure and other sources of increased revenue during the 20th Century, team owners have no incentive to risk giving up this annual income in favor of establishing an "open shop system" where they could be relegated to a lower league that does not generate that kind of lucrative money.

International expansion[edit]

Some of the Big Four sports leagues have in recent years[when?] looked to expand their revenues by playing overseas games in attempt to develop a wider international fan base. There has been increasing cooperation between the NBA and the Euroleague. In 2005, the two bodies agreed to organize a summer competition known as the NBA Europe Live Tour featuring four NBA teams and four Euroleague clubs, with the first competition taking place in 2006.[43]

American football is the member of the top four major league sports with the least international exposure. The NFL has attempted to promote its game worldwide by scheduling selected pre-season games since 1976 in Mexico, Europe, Australia, and Japan.[44] The NFL had promoted the game abroad through NFL Europe, but NFL Europe was never profitable and ceased operations in 2007. In 2005, the NFL held its regular-season game outside the United States. The matchup in Mexico City between the San Francisco 49ers and Arizona Cardinals drew a crowd of over 103,000 to Azteca Stadium (a 1994 crowd of over 112,000 at Azteca Stadium is the largest to attend a pre-season game). There has been talk of expanding the International Series to Ireland.[citation needed]

The NFL then began its International Series, holding at least one regular-season game at Wembley Stadium in London every year since 2007.[45][46] Preliminary talks to expand the NFL season with each team playing one game overseas was curtailed because the expansion was not approved in labor negotiations.[47] The 2013 season was the first of four years in which the Jacksonville Jaguars played one home game at Wembley Stadium, and the league held a second game that did not involve the Jaguars at Wembley in 2013. Jaguars owner Shahid Khan purchased London-based Premier League club Fulham in July 2013.[48][49]

In October 2013, the NFL announced that three games would be played at Wembley in the 2014 season, with the Atlanta Falcons and Oakland Raiders joining the Jaguars in taking a home game to London. The league openly acknowledged "that all three franchises are dissatisfied with their current stadium situations", although it noted that the Falcons are preparing to build a new stadium in Atlanta.[50]

Relations between leagues[edit]

Although they are competitors, the "big four" leagues also cooperate. Some owners have teams in multiple leagues; as mentioned above, the NFL restricts cross-league ownership but the other leagues do not. There are common business and legal interests; the leagues will often support one another in legal matters since the courts' decisions might establish precedents that affect them all. One recent example was the Supreme Court decision in 2010 in American Needle, Inc. v. National Football League, in which the NFL (which ultimately lost the case) received amicus curiae briefs from the NBA, NHL, and MLS.[51] The leagues' commissioners occasionally meet in person, most recently in 2009.[52]

In the early years of the NFL and to a lesser extent the NHL, it was not uncommon for teams to share nicknames with their MLB counterparts. For example, until 1957 New York City played host to baseball and football Giants. MLB's Pittsburgh Pirates shared its nickname with an NFL team (which ultimately became the Pittsburgh Steelers) as well as a now-defunct early NHL team, while the Canadian football team Hamilton Tigers shared a team name with an NHL team. The most recent example of two major teams sharing a franchise name was between 1960 and 1987; when the NFL's Chicago Cardinals relocated to St. Louis, Missouri, it was allowed to keep the Cardinals name despite the established existence of a baseball team of the same name.

In the early years of professional basketball, the American Basketball League, the de facto major league of the 1920s, was backed primarily by NFL owners.

The leagues also cooperate in the construction and use of facilities. Many NBA and NHL teams share arenas, and, in years past, such sharing was very common for MLB and NFL teams, though only one such situation ( Coliseum in Oakland, California, home to both the Raiders and Athletics) currently exists as of 2013. Multi-purpose stadiums were built to accommodate multiple sports in the later half of the 20th century. Even in situations where separate stadiums have been constructed for each team (as is generally the norm in the 21st century), the individual stadiums may be constructed adjacent to each other and share parking space and other infrastructure. More recently, MLS teams have used NFL and CFL stadiums as either full-time home fields (much less so now, due to the league's insistence on soccer-specific stadiums) or for special event games. Also notable in recent years have been the NHL's Winter Classic and Heritage Classic, which have been held in NFL, CFL and MLB stadiums. A unique situation is the Lansdowne Park complex in Ottawa; the same structure serves as the indoor Ottawa Civic Centre (which hosted the NHL's Senators in the 1990s), while on the roof of that arena is seating for Frank Clair Stadium (at the time home of the CFL's Ottawa Rough Riders).

See also[edit]


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