The history of major league sports in North America

Major professional sports leagues differentiate from other sports leagues by popularity, quality, business and economic factors. 

The four major brands have strict rules regarding who may own a team, for example; they generally do not allow anyone to have stakes in more than one franchise of the same sport, citing conflict of interest. This rule was implemented due to high profile controversies involving ownership of Baseball and Hockey teams in the past. There have been incidents where the league even stepped in to take over teams in order to avoid the controversy, such as;

  • MLB purchased the Montreal Expos, moved the franchise to Washington, D.C. and renamed it the Nationals, before selling the team to a local group.
  • The NHL took over the Buffalo Sabres in 2002 after the owner was arrested for embezzlement. They sold the team the following year
  • The NHL seized the Phoenix Coyotes in 2009 to prevent its owner from selling it to a buyer who intended to relocate the team, and sold the team to a Phoenix-area group in 2013.
  • The NBA purchased the New Orleans Hornets from its owner in December 2010, and sold the team to the NFL’s New Orleans Saints owner Tom Benson in April 2012.
  • MLB took over the operations of the Los Angeles Dodgers in 2011, citing financial and governance issues stemming from the divorce of the co-owners.
  • MLS purchased Chivas USA in 2014 and folded the team after the season.

A seventh example can be found in the CFL, when the league seized the Ottawa Renegades in 2006 suspended the franchise, then sold it to be reactivated in 2014 as the Ottawa Redblacks. 

The NFL  has not taken over operations of any team since 1962, when the American Football League took over the nearly bankrupt Titans of New York in an effort to prevent the team from folding; in 1963, a new ownership group bought the franchise and it became the New York Jets.

Major leagues also grant territorial exclusivity to their owners to avoid marketing and revenue hits, such as a case in MLB where, in order for Nationals to be placed in Washington, Orioles were given rights to television and radio broadcast of Nationals so they did not take a big hit on their revenue bringing in a team that close. NFL is a little less reluctant since all the owners split television revenue equally, for example; when Baltimore Ravens were created, it did not affect Redskins one bit as far as monetary gains goes.

The major brands are;


mlb teams

Major League Baseball is the highest level baseball in North America. It consists of the National League (founded in 1876) and the American League (founded in 1901). Baseball’s National League withstood challenges over the years from other leagues such as the American Association which began in 1882 and was a solid competitor to the NL as the 2 league champions competed in an informal World Series, but eventually four of the AA’s teams defected to the NL and the AA expired in 1891 after labor problems led to the formation of the Players’ League for the 1890 season which attracted a significant amount of the high-caliber baseball talent and caused the NL and AA significant financial harm, but since it lacked financial backing, it too folded in 1891. The minor Western League moved several franchises in NL cities and even cities abandoned by the NL for the 1900 and 1901 seasons, and renamed itself the American League in direct competition with the NL. They eventually made peace in 1903, formed MLB, although still legally separated. As time went on they had other challenges from the likes of the Federal League in 1914 and while African American players were prevented from playing in MLB, various Negro Leagues reached their peak from the 1920s to the 1940s, and the 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. Continental League tried taking off but the MLB prevented them from even getting off the ground after they awarded franchises to three of their proposed cities as well as expanding to two others. The two finally merged on an organizational level in 2000 with the elimination of separate league offices; they have shared a single Commissioner since 1920 though. There are currently 30 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.



The National Basketball Association is the premier basketball league in the world. It was founded as the Basketball Association of America in 1946, and adopted its current name in 1949, when the BAA partially absorbed the rival National Basketball League. The NBA also had to fend off two incarnations of the American Basketball League, the first being an Eastern circuit that predated the NBA, and the second existing from 1961 to 1963, after Abe Saperstein was repeatedly denied an NBA expansion team. Then, four teams from the rival American Basketball Association joined the NBA with the ABA–NBA merger in 1976 and adopted several of the ABA’s rule variations, most notably the three-point shot. It has 30 teams, 29 in the United States and 1 in Canada. The NBA is watched by audiences both domestically and internationally.




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 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. 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 1983–1985, the Canadian Football League’s American franchises of 1993–1995, the XFL of 2001, and the United Football League of 2009–2012. All told, 13 of the NFL’s current 32 franchises were absorbed from a rival league. Another three have been added or moved to USFL cities since the USFL’s demise in 1986. It has 32 teams, all located in the United States and is the only league not to have an anchor in Canada since they have their own football league, but players have been known to bounce between NFL and CFL. NFL games are the most attended and by far the most popular in the U.S. in terms of ratings and merchandising as well as its championship game, the Superbowl, being the most watched annual event on U.S. television.




The National Hockey League is the only one of the major leagues to have been founded in Canada and is by far the most popular sports league there. It was formed in 1917 as a successor to the Canadian National Hockey Association (founded 1909), taking all but one of the NHA’s teams. During its existence from 1972 to 1979, the World Hockey Association challenged the dominance of the NHL while attracting stars by offering higher salaries and successfully invalidating the NHL’s reserve clause, forcing them to keep up. The bidding war brought financial distress to both leagues though, and with the WHA and several NHL teams faced with collapse, the NHL negotiated a merger of the leagues. There are 30 teams, with 23 in the U.S. and 7 in Canada.




Major League Soccer is the top-level men’s professional soccer league in the United States and 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 over the years as they have been able to bring in better players, which has led to bringing in higher crowds but the MLS is not the premier soccer competition in the world, or even in the Americas. 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. The top players from MLS often move to Europe in search of tougher competition and higher salaries but they have steadily improved in international stature in recent years since establishing a designated player rule in 07 that helps bring players back. MLS now has 20 teams, 17 in the United States and 3 in Canada.



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