Major professional sports leagues in the United States and Canada
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The major professional sports leagues, or simply major leagues, in the United States and Canada are the highest professional competitions of team sports in the two countries. Although individual sports such as golf, tennis, and auto racing are also very popular, the term is usually limited to team sports.
The term "major league" was first used in 1921 in reference to Major League Baseball (MLB), the top level of professional American baseball. Today, the major northern North America professional team sports leagues 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), the Canadian Football League (CFL), the Arena Football League, Major League Lacrosse, the National Lacrosse League and the Women's National Basketball Association.
The NFL, MLB, NBA, 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 and elsewhere in the world, 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.
Baseball, football, hockey, and soccer have had professional leagues 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 is a relatively new development; the NBA evolved from the National Basketball League and its splinter group the Basketball Association of America, taking on its current form in 1949.
Every major league averages 15,000 fans in attendance per game or higher as of 2011.
Big Four 
Major League Baseball 
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 
The National Basketball Association is the premier basketball league. It was founded as the Basketball Association of America in 1946, and adopted its current name in 1949, when the BAA partially absorbed the rival National Basketball League. Four teams from the rival American Basketball Association joined the NBA with the ABA–NBA merger in 1976. It currently has 30 teams, 29 in the United States and 1 in Canada. The NBA is watched by audiences both domestically and internationally.
National Football League 
The National Football League was founded in 1920 as a combination of various teams from regional leagues such as the Ohio League, the New York Pro Football League and the Chicago circuit. The NFL partially absorbed the All-America Football Conference in 1949 and merged with the American Football League in 1970. It has 32 teams, all located in the United States.
NFL games are the most attended of domestic professional leagues in the world, in terms of per-game attendance, and the most popular in the U.S. in terms of television ratings and merchandising. Its championship game, the Super Bowl, is the most watched annual event on U.S. television, with Super Bowl XLVI being the single most-watched program in U.S. television history.
The NFL is the only one of the major leagues not to include any teams from Canada (although the Buffalo Bills do play one regular season game per year in Toronto). American football is the only major team sport where there is no professional international competition (although there are a few professional players from outside the United States).
National Hockey League 
The National Hockey League was founded in 1917 as a breakaway league from the Canadian National Hockey Association (founded 1909), taking all but one of the NHA's teams. The NHL partially absorbed the rival World Hockey Association in 1979. There are 30 teams, with 23 in the U.S. and 7 in Canada.
The most popular sports league in Canada, and widely followed across the northern U.S., the NHL has expanded southward in recent years to attempt to gain a more national following in the United States, in cities such as Dallas, Miami, Nashville, Phoenix, Raleigh, and Tampa, with varying success. 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 leagues 
Arena Football League 
The Arena Football League is the highest level of play in the indoor/arena styles of gridiron football. As the name implies the sport is played in an indoor arena on a much smaller field than American football. The league was founded in 1987 and operated continuously until 2009, with an ongoing revival starting in 2010, overcoming the perception that it was merely a fad. From 2000 to 2009, the AFL had a developmental league, af2.
The AFL indefinitely suspended operations in 2009. The af2 conducted its full 2009 season, but came to an end when none of its franchise committed to playing the next year. Afterward some teams from both the AFL and af2 came together to organize a new league for the 2010 season, initially known as Arena Football 1. The AF1 purchased both predecessor leagues' assets in December 2009 and it adopted the Arena Football League name. Since resuming play in 2010 the Arena Football League had an average attendance of 8,154 per game and a total attendance of 970,369.
Canadian Football League 
The Canadian Football League is the highest level of play in Canadian football. Although some teams trace their existence to the 1860s, the modern league organization was not solidified into its present configuration until 1958 and now consists of eight teams, all based in Canada, with a ninth team set to be added in 2014. The Grey Cup is awarded annually to the champion every November and is the best attended sporting event in the nation. The oldest extant teams, the Hamilton Tiger-Cats and the Toronto Argonauts, trace their origins to the late 1860s and early 1870s, which ranks them amongst the oldest professional sports teams of any kind still in existence on the continent. The CFL attempted an expansion into the United States between 1993 and 1995, though the expansion teams all either folded or relocated to Canadian cities.
The CFL is the second most popular league in Canada, after the NHL. It has the third highest average attendance of the northern North American leagues, behind the NFL and MLB; in 2010 the average attendance was 26,781, with a total attendance of 1,928,225
Major League Lacrosse and National Lacrosse League 
Major League Lacrosse (MLL) and the National Lacrosse League (NLL) represent the top level of professional lacrosse in northern North America. The MLL plays field lacrosse (outdoors), while NLL plays box lacrosse (indoors). The NLL was founded in 1986, while MLL was founded in 1999; the leagues had their inaugural seasons in 1987 and 2001, respectively. In 2010 the NLL had an average attendance of 9,559 per game, with a total attendance of 841,208. MLL had an average attendance of 5,278 per game, with a total attendance of 190,033.
Major League Soccer 
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 2012 season, with 16 across the United States and 3 in Canada. The league began play in 1996, its creation having been a requirement by FIFA for hosting the 1994 World Cup in the United States. It is the second continent-wide top level soccer league to have established a long-term presence; the North American Soccer League operated from 1968 to 1984. In 2012, MLS reported an average attendance of 18,807 per game, and exceeding 6 million overall for the first time, continuing substantial growth from the previous record-high in 2011.
Women's National Basketball Association 
The Women's National Basketball Association (WNBA) is the top competition in women's basketball. Currently the WNBA is the only fully professional women's sports league operating in North America. Founded in 1996 and beginning play in the 1997 season, it is the longest-running American professional women's sport league in history.
The league's attendance has fluctuated over the last several seasons. It had an average per-game attendance of 8,039 in 2009 and 7,834 in 2010. Total attendance was 1,598,160 in 2010. In 2007, the league signed a television deal with ESPN that would run from 2009 to 2016. This deal is the first to ever pay rights fees to women's teams. In 2009 it had a total television viewership of 413,000 in combined cable and broadcast television.
Traits of these major leagues 
The 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.
|National Football League||American football||1920||32||$11.0||(2012)67,604|
|Major League Baseball||Baseball||1869||30||$7.0||(2012)30,895|
|National Basketball Association||Basketball||1946||30||$4.3||17,274 (2012)|
|National Hockey League||Ice hockey||1917||30||$3.3||17,455 (2012)|
|Major League Soccer||Soccer||1994||19||2002||$0.3||(2012)18,807|
|Canadian Football League||Canadian football||1958||8||2006||(2012)28,193|
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 three of the four most lucrative sports leagues in the world, with the Premier League of English soccer being in third or fourth place (depending on exchange rates, as well as what is counted as league revenue — calculating finances in European soccer is somewhat more complicated compared to US/Canada). The NHL is ranked in fifth place.
Annual revenue comparison
All figures in U.S. dollars. Data accurate as of 2011.
|League||Total Revenue (bn)||TV Revenue||Ref|
|National Football League||$11.0||$5.0 bn|||
|Major League Baseball||$7.0||$1.5 bn|||
|National Basketball Association||$4.3||$930 m|||
|National Hockey League||$3.3||$200 m|||
|Major League Soccer||$0.3||$27 m|||
Television exposure 
|League||Ratings / Viewers||TV Revenue|
|National Football League||10 / 16.6m (aggregate)||$5.0 bn|
|National Basketball Association||3.3 / 5.4m (ABC, 15 games)
1.7 / 2.5m (TNT, 43 games)
1.3 / 1.9m (ESPN, 71 games)
|Major League Baseball||1.7 / 2.5m (Fox)
0.8 / 1.2m (ESPN)
|National Hockey League||1.0 / 1.6m (NBC, 12 games)
0.2 / 0.3m (NBC Sports, 90 games)
|Major League Soccer||0.4 / 0.5m (NBC, 3 games)
?? / 0.3m (ESPN, 20 games)
?? / 0.1m (NBC Sports, 40 games)
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. MLB will earn $1.5 billion annually from its contracts with ESPN, Fox and Turner Sports (TBS) for the 2014 through 2021 seasons. The NBA earns $930 million annually in its contracts with ABC/ESPN and TNT covering the 2008-09 through 2015-16 seasons, 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. 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 and the NHL Network has been available in the U.S. since 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 that 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.
|National Football League||American football||32||(2012)67,604||65,043||+2,561|||
|Major League Baseball||Baseball||30||(2012)30,895||30,300||+595|||
|Canadian Football League||Canadian football||8||(2012)28,193||28,054||+139|||
|Major League Soccer||Soccer||19||(2012)18,807||16,037||+2,770|||
|National Hockey League||Ice hockey||30||17,455 (2012)||17,460||–5|
|National Basketball Association||Basketball||30||17,274 (2012)||17,520||–246|
Franchise stability 
All of the top four major leagues exhibit stability in most of their franchises. Although all of the top four major leagues have had at least one franchise relocate to another city in the last fifteen years, relocation of teams is generally uncommon compared to past leagues and minor leagues. No team from the top four leagues has collapsed outright in several decades. The last team to cease operations was the NHL's Cleveland Barons in 1978, when financial pressures forced the NHL to allow a merger with the Minnesota North Stars (now the Dallas Stars).
Unlike some other leagues in other countries which use a system of promotion and relegation, franchises in these leagues are stable, and do not change annually. Instead, teams with worse records may receive better draft picks for the following year's season, as to ensure a level of parity.
With the folding of franchises now a rare occurrence, the numbers of teams in these leagues only change through expansion. The most recent expansion occurred in 2004, when the NBA added the Charlotte Bobcats. The most recent expansion in the NFL was 2002; in the NHL, 2000, and in MLB, 1998. Recent expansion franchises have commanded huge entry fees, which are generally held to represent the price the new team must pay to gain its share of the existing teams' often guaranteed revenue streams. The Houston Texans paid an unprecedented US$700 million to join the NFL. By comparison, the Charlotte Bobcats paid $300 million to join the NBA. The Diamondbacks and Devil Rays paid $130 million each to join MLB while the Blue Jackets and Wild paid $80 million each to join the NHL.
The CFL and MLS also have a relatively high degree of stability, although not as much as the other four leagues. MLS has only once folded a franchise, when it contracted the Miami Fusion and Tampa Bay Mutiny concurrently in 2001. MLS has had one franchise suspend operations, the San Jose Earthquakes, when the Houston Dynamo joined the league in 2005; the Earthquakes returned in 2008. The CFL has never relocated any of its core Canadian teams, and apart from a largely failed expansion into the United States, two teams in the CFL's history have folded. The original Montreal Alouettes folded in 1982; said team was immediately replaced by the Montreal Concordes, which itself folded during the 1987 preseason. Montreal was left without a CFL franchise until the Alouettes were revived when the American team that had originally played in Baltimore moved to Montreal and assumed the history of the Alouettes. The Ottawa Rough Riders folded in 1996; an attempted revival of an Ottawa franchise, the Ottawa Renegades, suspended operations in 2005 and is set to return to play no sooner than 2014.
Franchise locations 
United States 
Major leagues tend to have franchises only in the largest, most heavily populated cities and market areas. Most teams are in metro areas having populations over two million — all but one metropolitan area (Las Vegas) of this size or larger have at least one team. This typically means at least one franchise (and often two) per league in each of the New York City, Chicago, and Los Angeles areas. There are two major exceptions: The NFL has not had a franchise in Los Angeles since 1995, and the Green Bay Packers survive in major league sports' smallest metropolitan area (less than 300,000) thanks to a unique community ownership, and their proximity to the larger Milwaukee area, not to mention the loyalty of their fanbase. The Packers are the last remaining link to the NFL's small-town Midwest roots. Many such teams existed in the NFL before 1934 in places like Decatur, Illinois; Dayton, Ohio; and Muncie, Indiana.
Professional sports leagues as known today evolved during the decades between the Civil War and World War II, when the railroad was the main means of intercity transportation. As a result, virtually all major league teams were concentrated in the northeastern quarter of the United States, within roughly the radius of a day-long train ride. No MLB teams existed south or west of St. Louis, the NFL was confined to the Great Lakes and the Northeast, and the NBA's 1946 launch spanned only from the Iowa-Illinois Quad Cities to Boston. The NHL remained confined to six cities in the Northeast, Great Lakes and eastern Canada until 1967, though in the 1910s and 1920s, teams from its predecessor league had contested the Stanley Cup at season's end with teams from western Canada and the Pacific Northwest. College, minor league and amateur teams existed from coast to coast in all four sports, but rarely played outside of their home region for regular season games. Early professional soccer activity was concentrated almost entirely on an East Coast corridor from Baltimore to Boston, though a series of leagues located solely within the St. Louis metropolitan area also served as de facto major leagues for periods.
As travel and settlement patterns changed, so did the geography of professional sports. With the arguable exception of the western hockey teams which competed for the Stanley Cup in the early 20th century and the independent Los Angeles Bulldogs football team of the 1930s and 1940s, there were no major league teams in the far west until after World War II. The first west coast major-league franchise was the NFL's Los Angeles Rams, who moved from Cleveland in 1946. The same year, the All-America Football Conference began play, with teams in Los Angeles and San Francisco (not to mention the Miami Seahawks, who became the only southern-based major league franchise, although Louisville, Kentucky had previously had short-lived baseball and football teams). The San Francisco franchise would be one of three AAFC teams admitted to the NFL after the AAFC's demise in 1949. Baseball would not extend west until 1958 in the controversial move of both New York-based National League franchises, the Brooklyn Dodgers and New York Giants. The NBA would follow in 1960 with the move of the Minneapolis Lakers to Los Angeles, while the NHL would not have a west coast presence until it doubled in size in 1967. With the exception of the Los Angeles Kings, the NHL's initial franchises in the Southern and Western United States were ultimately unsuccessful — teams in Oakland, Atlanta, Kansas City and Denver all relocated. From 1982 until 1991, the Kings were the only U.S.-based NHL franchise south of St. Louis and/or west of the Twin Cities, 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. Most major areas are well represented, with all but seven continental U.S. metropolitan agglomerations over one million people hosting at least one major sports franchise. As of 2006, the largest metropolitan area without a major professional sports franchise is California's Inland Empire, which is located immediately due east of Los Angeles and constitutes part of the Los Angeles television market. The highest-ranking teams in the area are the Ontario Reign of the ECHL and several baseball teams in the single-A California League.
Los Angeles, the second largest city in the United States and Canada, is the largest city which does not have a complete set of the "big four" major-league sports: it has lacked a football team since 1995. (The L.A. region has two teams each, however, in baseball, basketball and ice hockey. It is also the only city with two Major League Soccer clubs and the largest city with one or more Division I FBS college football teams.) The smallest market with a complete set of "big four" sports is Denver, which ranks #18 amongst US and Canadian cities.
The most populous independent metropolitan area outside of a major franchise's local market is Las Vegas. Despite the area's explosive growth before the economic crisis, all four leagues are wary of placing a team there because of the city's legal gambling industry, which includes sports betting. In the U.S., for a professional sports organization to have any association, real or perceived, with gambling interests has been taboo ever since the 1919 Black Sox Scandal; this taboo was recently reinforced by the Tim Donaghy scandal. All four leagues forbid their teams or personnel to have any type of contact or association with gambling interests and any connection between professional sports and gambling, no matter how benign, quickly gains the attention of law enforcement. Additionally, the city's abundance of entertainment options might make it difficult for a Las Vegas-based team to attract a large and stable fan base. The highest-ranking teams in Las Vegas are the UFL's Las Vegas Locomotives, the ECHL's Las Vegas Wranglers, and the Las Vegas 51s, a AAA baseball team affiliated with the major league New York Mets franchise. Both the Arena Football League and Canadian Football League have placed franchises in the area that have failed, twice in the former league's case, while the Locomotives are on the verge of being relocated to Salt Lake City. The NBA hosted its 2007 All-Star Weekend in Las Vegas, at which point both the league and the city expressed interest in locating a team there. However, NBA Commissioner David Stern has said the city will need a new arena larger and more modern than the Thomas & Mack Center before it will even host another All-Star Weekend. While the event was initially regarded as successful and incident-free, media reports of criminal incidents (including two shootings related to the event, one of them involving NFL player Adam Jones) that began to surface after the conclusion of the weekend may hurt the city's chances of gaining an NBA or any major league team. Las Vegas also hosts the NHL's annual Frozen Fury preseason game between the Los Angeles Kings and the Colorado Avalanche.
The most populous individual city without a major professional sports franchise is Austin, Texas, which sits in the middle of a conglomeration of teams in other Texas cities such as Houston, San Antonio, and the Dallas–Fort Worth Metroplex. Austin's television market is currently the 51st largest in the United States, smaller than all major league cities except for Green Bay and smaller than the market for many cities with no major league team.
Other major metro areas without a major professional franchise are Norfolk, Virginia (the "Hampton Roads" metro area) and Louisville, Kentucky. Both boast television markets larger than those for Jacksonville, Buffalo, New Orleans and Green Bay, each of which has at least one major professional franchise.
Hampton Roads is 130 miles (210 km) from the nearest major sports teams in Washington, D.C. and Raleigh, North Carolina. Another significant issue with the area as a sports market is internal transportation. The metropolitan area is split into two distinct parts by its eponymous harbor; as of 2012, the harbor has only three widely separated road crossings (the Hampton Roads Bridge-Tunnel, Monitor-Merrimac Memorial Bridge-Tunnel, and James River Bridge), each with two lanes of traffic in each direction. In addition, the area has two other major tunnels, plus several drawbridges on key highway corridors.
Hampton Roads previously hosted a successful franchise in the American Basketball Association, although it was never a full-time home for that team. Its highest-ranking teams as of 2012 are the Virginia Destroyers of the UFL, the Norfolk Admirals of the AHL, and the Norfolk Tides of the IL. Virginia is also the most populous state without a major team playing within its borders, though its northern reaches are served by the Washington clubs—two of which, the NHL's Capitals and NFL's Redskins, have their operational headquarters and practice facilities in Virginia. Redskins owner Daniel Snyder, through a separate company, owns two radio stations, WXTG and WXTG-FM, in the Norfolk market. The Hampton Roads television market is ranked 42nd in the U.S.
Louisville hosted major league baseball and NFL teams long ago, and was home to the successful Kentucky Colonels of the ABA, a team kept out of the 1976 merger of that league with the NBA. Louisville's television market is the 48th largest in the United States. Louisville is also noticeably closer to larger markets than Hampton Roads is—Louisville is about 120 miles (190 km) from Indianapolis (#28) and 90 miles (140 km) from Cincinnati (#25), and Nashville (#36) is also within 200 miles. Compared to Las Vegas and Norfolk, Louisville has much less representation in minor professional sport; only the AAA Louisville Bats and some marginally professional low-level teams reside in Louisville. While Louisville itself has economics roughly typical for moderately large U.S. metropolitan areas, and a substantial corporate sector, the same cannot be said for large portions of its state of Kentucky. More than 50 of the state's 120 counties lie within the U.S. federal definition of historically impoverished Appalachia. This makes revenue generation more difficult than in more wealthy regions of the country.
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 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. 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 (one of which is currently suspended), 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. 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.
Ownership restrictions 
All four major leagues have strict rules regarding who may own a team, and also place some restrictions on what other sort of activities the owners may engage in. 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.
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. Additionally, the NHL's "Original Six" period, from 1942 to 1967, was marked by the Norris family owning a controlling stake in half of the league's teams, a factor in the league's stagnation during that period. There have been four exceptions since 2000 to this rule in the major leagues, where the league itself has taken ownership or control of a franchise:
- Major League Baseball purchased the Montreal Expos from its owners after being blocked in their bid to eliminate or "contract" two franchises in 2001. Under the league's control, the franchise was moved to Washington, D.C. and renamed the Nationals before being sold to a local group led by Theodore N. Lerner.
- The NHL purchased the Phoenix Coyotes from former owner Jerry Moyes in 2009, following his declaration of bankruptcy and a legal proceeding in the face of a competing bid by Research In Motion co-CEO Jim Balsillie, who would have attempted to relocate the franchise to Hamilton, Ontario.
- The NBA purchased the New Orleans Hornets in December 2010 from founding owner George Shinn. Shinn had announced plans to sell his majority stake in the team to minority partner Gary Chouest in April 2010, but the deal fell through by early December. The league purchased the team because the cash-strapped Shinn could no longer afford to operate the team but could not find a buyer. The NBA remained in control until April 2012, when New Orleans Saints owner Tom Benson purchased the team.
- MLB took over the day-to-day operations of the Los Angeles Dodgers in April 2011, with Commissioner Bud Selig citing financial and governance issues stemming from the bitter divorce of owners Frank and Jamie McCourt. Frank McCourt agreed in November 2011 to sell the Dodgers, with a sale to a group including businessman and former NBA star Magic Johnson finalized in late March 2012.
Major League Soccer has declined to adopt this sort of league structure and instead operates as a single-entity league. During the first few years of the league, MLS for the sake of stability allowed individuals such as Philip Anschutz and Lamar Hunt to own multiple teams. MLS ownership arrangements have evolved, however, with ownership of the league's 19 teams now spread among 17 owners. The only remaining multiple ownership situations are Anschutz's AEG owning the LA Galaxy and a 50% interest in the Houston Dynamo, and Hunt's ownership of the Columbus Crew and FC Dallas.
The NFL has even stronger ownership restrictions. The NFL currently forbids large ownership groups or publicly traded corporations from purchasing NFL teams. This policy allows the league office to deal with individual owners instead of boards of directors, although the Packers' ownership group was grandfathered into the current policy. The NFL also forbids its majority owners from owning any sports teams (except for soccer teams and Arena Football League teams) in other NFL cities, and prohibits owners from investing in casinos or being otherwise involved in gambling operations. NFL owners may freely own soccer teams without league restrictions because Lamar Hunt won a court challenge stemming from his investment in the old North American Soccer League. Hunt owned three MLS teams during the early years of MLS. Two other NFL owners, Malcolm Glazer and Stan Kroenke, own teams in the English Premier League. Kroenke owns the NFL's St. Louis Rams and the Premier League's Arsenal, while Glazer owns the NFL's Tampa Bay Buccaneers and the Premier League's Manchester United. A third Premier League owner, Randy Lerner (Aston Villa), also owned the Cleveland Browns before selling that team in 2012. This has been an aid in the NFL's international efforts; both the Buccaneers and Rams have served as home teams for the International Series games in London.
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 regarding the new franchise or both. For example, to obtain the consent of Baltimore Orioles owner Peter Angelos to place an MLB team in Washington (which is about 35 miles (56 km) from Oriole Park at Camden Yards), a deal was struck under the terms of which television and radio broadcast rights to Nationals games are handled by the Orioles franchise, who formed a new network (the Mid-Atlantic Sports Network) to produce and distribute the games for both franchises on local affiliates and cable/satellite systems. Similarly, the primary reason that the NHL will not expand into Hamilton is because the city's arena, Copps Coliseum, is within 50 miles of First Niagara Center, the home arena and headquarters of the Buffalo Sabres and is closer still to Air Canada Centre, where the Toronto Maple Leafs play.
Regarding territorial rights, the main concern for many team owners has become television revenue although the possibility of reduced ticket sales remains a concern for some teams. Because the National Football League shares all of its television revenue equally, and most of its teams sell out their stadiums with little difficulty, some NFL owners are seen as being less reluctant to share their territories. For example, the return of the NFL to Baltimore in 1996 attracted no serious opposition from the Washington Redskins organization.
Weathering challenges from rival leagues 
All of the majors have bested at least one rival league formed with the intention of being just as "big" as the established league, often by signing away star players and by locating franchises in cities that were already part of the existing league. In many cases, the major leagues have absorbed the most successful franchises from its failing rival, or merged outright with it.
- The National League withstood three early challenges in its first quarter century of existence. The American Association began in 1882 in response to the NL leaving several lucrative markets vacant, the NL banning the sale of beer at games and the NL's steep (at the time) spectator admittance fee of 50 cents. It was a viable competitor to the NL for most of its existence and its champion competed in an informal World Series with the NL's champion for several years. Four of the AA's teams defected to the NL in its later years and it expired in 1891. Labor problems led to the formation of the Players League for the 1890 season; it attracted a significant percentage of the existing high-caliber baseball talent and caused the NL and AA significant financial harm, but it lacked robust financial backing and folded after only one season. The minor Western League moved several franchises in NL cities and cities abandoned by the NL for the 1900 and 1901 seasons and renamed itself the American League in direct competition with the NL. The NL and AL made peace in 1903; the resulting agreement formed what today is known as Major League Baseball. MLB withstood the challenge of the Federal League in 1914 and prevented the Continental League from getting off the ground in the early 1960s by awarding franchises to some of the proposed CL cities. Before the end of World War II, the combination of a gentlemen's agreement and the restrictive policies of Commissioner Kenesaw Mountain Landis prevented African American players from playing Major League Baseball, and various Negro Leagues sprung up to showcase black players' talents. Although no official cross-league play took place, white and black players often faced off in post-season barnstorming tours where the Negro League players showed themselves to be MLB players' competitive equals. After Jackie Robinson broke the major league color barrier in 1947, the influx of black stars into the major leagues drained the Negro Leagues of talent and eventually caused their collapse.
- The NBA withstood the challenge of the American Basketball Association in the 1960s and 70s, absorbed four of its most successful franchises (Denver Nuggets, Indiana Pacers, New York Nets and San Antonio Spurs) in a 1976 merger, and adopted several of the ABA's rule variations, most notably the three-point shot.
- The NFL has fought off the most rivals throughout the years, and to this day faces a competing startup league every few years. Four (all unrelated) were named American Football League; the last of these existed from 1960–1970, before merging with the NFL. In the AFL's last years, it achieved parity with the NFL: AFL teams won the last two of the four pre-merger Super Bowl games, and TV ratings and in-person attendance for the two leagues were about the same. Another strong rival to the NFL was the All-America Football Conference of 1946-1949; three of their seven teams merged with the NFL for the 1950 season, and two of the three still exist in the NFL. Other rival football leagues have included the World Football League of 1974-1975, the United States Football League of 1982-1985, the Canadian Football League's American franchises of 1993-1995, and the XFL of 2001. All told, 13 of the NFL's current 32 franchises were absorbed from a rival league — all 10 AFL franchises of the 1960s, the Cleveland Browns and San Francisco 49ers from the AAFC, and the St. Louis Rams (originally based in Cleveland and later relocated to Los Angeles) of the 1936 AFL (the NFL, however, does not officially recognize the link between the AFL Cleveland Rams and today's franchise). Another three NFL franchises have been added or moved to USFL cities since the USFL's demise in 1986, these being Phoenix, Jacksonville and Baltimore.
- Before the challenge of the World Hockey Association, the NHL prevented the old Western Hockey League from achieving parity with the NHL by doubling in size in 1967. During its existence from 1972 to 1979, the WHA was able to strongly challenge the dominance of the NHL; the WHA initially attracted star players such as Bobby Hull and Derek Sanderson to its teams by offering substantially higher salaries than did the NHL at the time. To compete for free agents, NHL teams were forced to match this salary escalation, bringing hockey players' salaries to parity with those of other American/Canadian professional athletes. Unfortunately, many WHA franchises were mired in financial difficulty, because of high player salaries, and there were frequent franchise moves even in mid-season. With the WHA faced with collapse, NHL President John Ziegler negotiated a merger of the leagues. The four strongest teams joined into the NHL: the Edmonton Oilers, the Quebec Nordiques (now the Colorado Avalanche), the New England Whalers (later renamed the Hartford Whalers and now the Carolina Hurricanes), and the Winnipeg Jets (now the Phoenix Coyotes, although the Atlanta Thrashers were relocated to Winnipeg as the Winnipeg Jets, just before the 2011–2012 NHL Draft). A few WHA players became NHL stars after the merger, including Mark Messier, Wayne Gretzky, Mark Howe and Mike Liut.
Player development 
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 traditionally were drafted or (before the first MLB draft in 1965) signed to a contract with an MLB team directly after high school and then assigned to the appropriate minor league level for development. With the growth of college baseball in the past few decades, more and more players opt to play at the collegiate level and delay entry into the MLB draft. Individual teams' large scouting staffs have given way to smaller staffs and subscriptions to commercial player scouting services. Entering the majors directly from high school or college is almost unknown; most of the few that have were quickly reassigned to the minors. MLB clubs have also recruited many players from the Japanese leagues, with which MLB has a formal relationship; Japanese players under contract in the Japanese leagues must be posted. MLB teams also sign Latin American players from countries with strong baseball cultures, such as the Dominican Republic. Often these players are still in high school. A notable exception is Cuba; although there are several Cuban baseball players in MLB they have had to defect. A small but growing number of prospects are now being signed from Australia and Europe.
- College and high school basketball produce most of the NBA's talent, although minimum age rules have ended the NBA's practice of drafting players directly from high school beginning in 2006. The D-League was implemented in 2001 by the NBA to perform the role of a farm system in helping with player development and market reach, but NBA teams more frequently recruit talent from overseas professional leagues, mostly in Europe with a few players being recruited from leagues in Latin America, China, and Australia.
- 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. Semi-pro football and minor leagues such as the Continental Football League once flourished up to the 1970s. From 1995 to 2007, the NFL maintained its own six-team minor league, NFL Europe, to introduce American football in European markets; NFL Europe, however, produced few NFL players. NFL teams also recruit players from indoor leagues, and occasionally signs players from the Canadian Football League. The independent United Football League, whose season ends before the NFL season, makes its players available to NFL teams at the end of the UFL season for a fee. Amateur and semi-pro football still exists, with several national and regional leagues, but professional leagues almost never recruit players from them. American football also has the least global reach for prospects, with the exceptions of American Samoa, which has deep connections to the game, and the acquisition of several retired players from other codes of football primarily as kickers and punters. Drafted players immediately join the main team.
- Each NHL team has an affiliate in northern North America's top-tier minor hockey league, the American Hockey League, and in lower leagues such as the Central Hockey League or ECHL. For decades, the traditional route to the NHL has been through junior hockey and the Canadian Hockey League (CHL), generally regarded as the world's premier competition for 15- through 20-year-olds. In recent decades, NHL teams have drafted and/or signed prospects from top European amateur and professional organizations, and a growing number of NHL hopefuls are forgoing the quasi-professional CHL in favor of NCAA Division I college hockey. Additionally, the US now has two Junior A hockey leagues that provide many NHL players (some via NCAA hockey) in the USHL and NAHL. Regardless of which route hockey players take to sign an NHL contract, almost all (the top one or two draft picks each year being an exception) are initially assigned to an affiliate in their NHL team's minor league system for development.
- Unlike its respective compatriot leagues, MLS does not run a minor league system. Instead, it relies on the development of talent through youth academies, which is now a requirement for all MLS clubs. These academies are commonplace for soccer clubs throughout the World, and MLS clubs can operate youth teams as young as 13–14 years old. Even some youth academy teams participate in lower-tier leagues, a majority participate in MLS Reserve Division matches. Minor professional leagues, such as the modern North American Soccer League and USL Pro, also exist.
Team loyalties 
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.
High player salaries 
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 at $4.9 million; however, their teams also have the smallest rosters.
The NFL has the highest average team payroll. The league had a hard salary cap of $128 million and a hard salary floor of over $110 million in 2009. NFL owners opted out of their collective bargaining agreement (CBA) with the NFL players union after 2009, resulting in no cap or floor for the 2010 season. After a brief lockout during the 2011 offseason, 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 will return in the 2013 season at 89% of the cap. 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 (a fifth of the NHL and NBA, and a tenth of MLB), making their players among the lowest paid on the average at $1.3 million.
MLB is in the middle at about $2.5 million per player. MLB is now alone among the major leagues in that it lacks any form of a salary cap and has enacted only modest forms of revenue sharing and luxury taxes. 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).
NHL players were due to be paid about US$1.3 million on average following the settlement of the 2004–05 NHL lockout, although this quickly increased. 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 2012–13 season, the cap has been set as US$70.2 million, with the floor at US$54.2 million. However, the league imposed another lockout in 2012 that was not settled until January 2013, shortening the season from 82 to 48 games.
MLS has smaller payrolls and lower average salaries 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 to compete in the international market to sign star players. David Beckham was the first player signed under this rule, with Beckham earning guaranteed compensation of $6.5 million under his 2007 contract. 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, although this limit may increase.
Dominance of the respective sport 
One other trait that each of the top four major leagues share is that they are the premier competitions of their respective sport on the world stage. Major League Baseball is increasingly luring away the stars from the Japanese leagues, the European hockey leagues have become a major source of star talent for National Hockey League clubs, and the National Basketball Association frequently recruits talent from professional leagues in Europe, Latin America and China.
All four leagues are universally considered to be the top league in their respective sports, not only in revenue, but also in quality of talent, player salaries, and worldwide interest. However, of the four major leagues, the NFL has the least presence outside both countries; it is mainly an American and Canadian interest. Basketball is a strong spectator and participation sport all over the world, and the NBA is unquestionably its top league. Hockey (Europe) and baseball (East Asia, Latin America) have loyal followings in some of the world's other regions as well. Selling league broadcasting rights to foreign markets is another way for the leagues to generate revenue, and all the leagues have tried to exploit revenue streams outside of their home market.
Use of the phrase "world champions" 
The perceived lack of competition from the rest of the world has contributed to the long-standing but controversial practice of the North American media referring to the major sports league champions as world champions. Today, the phrase is more popular in the United States but it retains some acceptance in Canada. Usage of the phrase in baseball started with organization of championship series between the National League and the earlier American Association in the 1880, 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.
In hockey, the Stanley Cup was initially intended to be a challenge cup open only to amateur Canadian teams, however it gradually evolved into a championship of the top eastern and western based professional leagues. In 1914, the Cup's trustees ruled that American teams should also be allowed to compete for the Cup, with the explicit 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 after the western leagues stopped competing for the trophy in 1926. By this time, the eastern leagues had evolved to become the NHL and had admitted American franchises starting in 1924, so from this point, the NHL champions continued called the World's Champions as per the wishes of the Cup trustees. When the NHL assumed formal control of the Cup in 1947, one of the clauses in the resulting agreement with the Cup trustees was "that the winners of this trophy shall be the acknowledged World's Professional Hockey Champions."
By the 1950's, the phrase World Champions was also being used by the champions of the NFL and the newly-formed NBA.
Nevertheless, notwithstanding its legal obligations the NHL discontinued active use of the phrase World Champions in the 1970's, 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 though the Soviets could have made a legitimate challenge for the Stanley Cup given their general supremacy over their NHL counterparts, they never applied to the trustees to do so). 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. More recently, International Ice Hockey Federation has proposed a world championship playoff between the Stanley Cup winners and the champions of the European Hockey League (see below).
Baseball, basketball, and hockey 
If the popularity of baseball and basketball keeps growing in various countries outside of the United States and Canada, some think that the NBA and MLB may begin to place franchises in foreign markets. The popularity of baseball in Southeast Asia, Mexico and Central America is growing, along with the talent of prospective players from the regions. Meanwhile, the popularity of basketball has grown to be the second highest in the world in terms of national associations (after association football). However, it trails both association football and cricket in the number of fans.
However, one major detractor against foreign expansion by MLB is that the sport in question enjoys much of its 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 the sport in Japan, where well-established baseball leagues already exist.
Due to the popularity of hockey in some of the most prosperous parts of Europe, many believe that the major league with the best chance of success outside North America would be the NHL. This has led to the possibility of European NHL franchises being discussed in the past, although NHL officials have repeatedly said they have no current plans to create a European division. The most that has come out of this has been the "Super Series" tour in the 1970s and 80s where the Soviet club teams played NHL teams in exhibition games. During the first and most famous of these tours Red Army Moscow played the Montreal Canadiens in what the media called an unofficial world championship. However, this was during the height of the Cold War when the Soviet League had comparable talent to the NHL – since the decline of Communism in Eastern Europe in the late 1980s, better financed NHL teams have enticed away most the elite players from the former Soviet Union and Czechoslovakia. Professional leagues in Sweden, Finland and Switzerland also have a high level of talent, but the higher salaries and elite level of play offered in the NHL has also lured away many of their best players. Significantly, ice hockey is either popular in countries with a relatively low average income (e.g. Russia, Czech Republic, Slovakia, Belarus, Kazakhstan), a very small population (e.g. Sweden, Switzerland, Finland), or both (e.g. Latvia). In the largest and most populous nations of Europe, such as France, Italy and the UK, hockey is not a major sport. Germany is a partial exception, although hockey is clearly not the most popular sport in that country.
The IIHF has proposed that instead of a direct NHL presence in Europe a world championship playoff between the Stanley Cup winners and the champions of the European Hockey League should be held each year. The NHL's position on this proposal is not entirely clear, but many believe that the players union would be unlikely to support it. Beginning in the 2007–08 NHL season, the NHL began playing exhibition games against European teams in the "NHL Premiere" series, the NHL Challenge, and the Victoria Cup. Since the debut of the series, NHL teams have won 24 games to the European teams' four.
Recently talks about NBA franchises being located in Europe have intensified. For logistical reasons it would be necessary to have a minimum of two and probably four or more teams in Europe, so that visiting Canadian/American teams could play multiple opponents during a single trip. Possible cities for such expansion include London, Paris, Barcelona, Madrid, Cologne, Berlin, Rome, and Moscow. Although current NBA commissioner David Stern and former NBA star Michael Jordan are among those who have endorsed the concept of NBA teams in Europe, increasing cooperation between the NBA and Euroleague Basketball (company), the body that organizes the Euroleague, may make a permanent NBA presence in Europe less likely, at least for the foreseeable future. In 2005, the two bodies agreed to organize a summer competition known as the NBA Europe Live Tour featuring four NBA teams and four Euroleague clubs, with the first competition taking place in 2006.
American football 
Despite being the member of the top four major league sports with the least international exposure, American football is the most popular professional league in the United States. The NFL has also attempted to promote its game worldwide by scheduling selected pre-season games since 1976 in Mexico, Europe, Australia, and Japan and through NFL Europe (which, although it began with teams throughout Western Europe, had relocated several teams to the point where almost all of its teams were in Germany by the time of the league's demise); the latter venture was never profitable and ultimately ceased operations in 2007. Starting in 2005, the NFL has begun holding one regular season game outside the United States. The 2005 matchup in Mexico City between the San Francisco 49ers and Arizona Cardinals drew a crowd of over 103,000 to Azteca Stadium (a 1994 crowd of over 112,000 at Azteca Stadium is the largest to attend a pre-season game). This was followed by a regular-season game at the New Wembley Stadium in London in 2007, becoming the NFL's first venture in the UK since the collapse of two NFL Europe teams based there; the league has played an annual game in Wembley each year since. Preliminary talks had been ongoing to expand the NFL season to 18 regular season games, with each team playing one game overseas, although such talk has been curtailed because the expansion was not approved in labor negotiations. There has been talk of expanding the International Series to Ireland.
Canadian football 
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, while 151.6 million viewers watched the NFL's annual Super Bowl championship game that same year.
Although soccer remains the smallest "major" sport in Canada and the United States, it does have the benefit of having the biggest following in the world. Due to factors such as globalization, the continued arrival of immigrants from many soccer-loving nations to the United States, greater TV exposure to the European leagues and major national competitions, and the continued presence of U.S. teams (especially the women's national team) in international competitions, soccer fandom has been increasing among American sports fans. MLS teams have turned a profit for the first time in their history, and average attendance has steadily increased to the point where MLS average attendance exceeds that of the NBA and NHL. The introduction of soccer specific stadiums and greater revenue control is believed to be crucial to growth. Major League Soccer teams compete with top teams from Mexico, Central America and the Caribbean in the CONCACAF Champions League, the winners of which compete in the annual FIFA Club World Cup each December.
Holiday showcases 
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.
Relations between leagues 
Although they are competitors, the "big four" leagues also cooperate. Some owners have teams in multiple leagues; as mentioned above, the NFL restricts cross-league ownership but the other leagues do not. There are common business and legal interests; the leagues will often support one another in legal matters since the courts' decisions might establish precedents that affect them all. One recent example was the Supreme Court decision in 2010 in American Needle, Inc. v. National Football League, in which the NFL (which ultimately lost the case) received amicus curiae briefs from the NBA, NHL, and MLS. The leagues' commissioners occasionally meet in person, most recently in 2009.
In the early years of the NFL and to a lesser extent the NHL, it was not uncommon for teams to share nicknames with their MLB counterparts. For example, until 1957 New York City played host to baseball and football Giants. MLB's Pittsburgh Pirates shared its nickname with an NFL team (which ultimately became the Pittsburgh Steelers) as well as a now-defunct early NHL team, 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 (O.co 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 
- List of American and Canadian cities by number of major professional sports franchises
- Major professional sports teams of the United States and Canada
- Sports in the United States
- Sports in Canada
- Sports in Mexico
- List of professional sports leagues
- List of attendance figures at domestic professional sports leagues – a summary of total and average attendances for the major sports leagues from around the world.
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- North American Pro Sports Teams – Lists every league that has operated in Canada and / or the United States. Grouped by city.
- USA Today Salary Database – Lists and sorts team payroll by year for all teams in MLB, NFL, NBA, NHL, and Major League Soccer.