Ranked: Major Sports Leagues in the US

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The US is home to some of the most profitable sports organizations in the world and has a huge global fan following. Although American sports bring in tons of money compared to other countries, money isn’t the only thing the American sport is all about. Some sports bring in more money, but some have more fans and loyal following. Here, we will cover the major sports in the US based on revenue, the number of teams, and the number of fans as well as team size to give a clearer picture of the US sports landscape.

Major Sports Leagues in the US

Top US Sports Leagues by Revenue

The NFL

NFL banners with USA flags and Union jack on Regent's Street in Central London

Formed in 1920, the NFL (National Football League) has a religious following in the US and around the world. It’s one of the most profitable leagues in the whole world. Although European football is more popular than American football, the latter is the most profitable and generated around $16 Billion[1] in 2019 (declined in the next two years because of COVID-19).

Out of all 50 richest sports franchises in the world, 29 belong to the NFL, which shows where the big money is coming from. Dallas Cowboys, one of the most popular NFL franchise, generated $980 million in 2019[2], which declined a bit in the next two years due to the pandemic.

The NFL consist of 32 teams, which are sub-divided into NFC and AFC, which compete against each other every year to win the Super Bowl, which is the biggest annual sports event in the world. So far, NFC has won 24 Super Bowl Championships, while the AFC has won 21. Most titles belong to New England Patriots (10) followed by Dallas Cowboys (8).

The MLB

Philadelphia Phillies World Series Parade

Baseball is considered to be the national pastime activity of the US and the Major League Baseball is its highest level in the country, which ultimately means tons of revenue. Most of its revenue comes from partnerships with major sports networks like ESPN and fan attendance.

The MLB might not be popular as NFL in other parts of the world, but international supporters still make a large portion of the total fanbase. Formed in 1903, the MLB is the oldest US sports league and now has 30 teams, which was a merger between the National League (15 teams) and the American League (15 teams).

The World Series is the most prestigious championship event which is played out in October. The MLB season is the longest American sports season in which 162 games are played. After the regular season, four teams from each side that rank the highest make it to the playoff games. The MLB is the wealthiest sports in the US after NFL. The total revenue generated by the MLB in 2019 was over $10 billion[3] . Most of this revenue came from media rights deals with major sports channels, including ESPN, Fox and Turner Sports.

The NBA

NBA Café Barcelona in Barcelona. Fit man spinning a basketball

At $8.8 billion (2018-1019 season)[4], the National Basketball association might not be the biggest sports league financially, but it has a larger international following than other leagues. It even has a Canadian franchise. The keyword ‘NBA’ was among the most googled keywords in 2021, which indicates how popular it is in the world. Michael Jordan played a big role in international popularity of the league, which includes 30 teams representing 29 cities in the US (one Canadian).

Initially formed in 1946 as the BAA (Basketball Association of America), it merged with National Basketball League in 1949 and changed its name to NBA. Another four franchises from the American Basketball Association merged in 1976. Each NBA team plays 82 matches in the regular NBA season, which runs from October-April, while play-offs run until June. As far as annual salary per player is concerned, NBA players lead the global charts.

The NHL

Founded in 1917, the National Hockey League is the second-oldest sports league in the US and Canada and consists of a total of 32 teams (25 US, 7 Canadian), which are further divided into four divisions and two conferences. Three of the best performing teams from each division make it to the playoffs plus two wild card teams. All teams compete to win the prestigious Stanley Cup. The NHL generated a little less than $5 billion in the 2018-2019 season, which is expected to reach $5.4 billion in season 2022-23.[5]

The professional ice hockey league is world’s fifth biggest sports league after the NFL, MLB, NBA and EPL (English Premier League, England). It expanded into the US in 1924 with Canada constituting most of its players. However, the number of players from the US, European countries and Russia has been increasing in the recent past. Most of NHL’s revenue comes from TV, royalties and gate receipts with hockey-crazed Canadians being the primary market. On average, NHL players are paid between $75-$80 million (annual).

Power Five Conferences

TEAM - American football concept

The elite in US college football, Power Five Conferences are part of the FBS (Football Bowl Subdivision) of NCAA (National Collegiate Athletic Association) Division I. The five conferences include the ACC (Atlantic Coast Conference, 15 teams), Big Ten (14 teams), Big 12 Conference (10 teams), Southeastern Conference (14 teams) and Pac-12 Conference (12 teams). Its total revenue for the fiscal year 2019 almost hit the $3 billion[6] mark with the Big 10 alone contributing $780 million.

In addition to football, the Power Five conferences also sponsor other sports, including basketball, baseball, ice hockey, volleyball, soccer, lacrosse, wrestling and water polo. The conferences generate most of their revenue through TV deals, which account for almost 80% of the total revenue.

The MLS

Authorized by the USSF (United States Soccer Federation), the Major League Soccer was founded recently (comparatively) in 1993 and consists of 28 teams from the US (25) and Canada (3). By the 2023 season, another five teams are expected to join the league. NASL (North American Soccer League, 1968-1984) was the predecessor of the MLS. Although MLS lost millions in its first few years and was at the brink of bankruptcy, it made a comeback in the following years and now has the 4th-largest attendance of any US/Canadian sports league after the NFL, MLB and CFL (Canadian Football League).

The MLS season usually starts in February (late) to March (early) and runs until the mid of October. Playoffs run through late-October to November leading to the MLS Cup, which is the championship game. Compared to other US leagues that rely heavily on revenue generated from TV deals, the MLS depends on game-day revenue. Its average annual revenue hovers around the $1 billion mark, which is almost 10% of the revenue generated by the MLB.[7]

Top US Sports Leagues by the Number of Teams and Size

Power Five Conferences (Number of teams: 65)

The Power Five conferences include the ACC (The Atlantic Coast Conference), The Big Ten Conference, The Big 12 Conference, The Pac-12 Conference and the SEC (The South Eastern Conference). The ACC consists of 15 teams, the Big Ten has 14, the Big 12 has 10, the Pac-12 has 12 and the SEC has 14.

The NHL (Number of teams: 32)

The National Hockey League consists of a total of 32 teams, two of which were added in 2017 and 2021. The NHL is divided into Eastern Conference and Western Conference. Eastern Conference is subdivided into Atlantic and Metropolitan, while Western Conference is subdivided into Central and Pacific. Each subdivision consists of eight teams with New York Rangers, Toronto Maple Leafs and Montreal Canadiens being the biggest money makers.

The NFL (Number of teams: 32)

The National Football League includes 32 teams, which are equally divided between the NFC (National Football Conference) and the AFC (American Football Conference). Both conferences are further subdivided into four clubs. Dallas Cowboys is the most profitable NHL team, while 26 NFL teams are in the list of world’s top 50 most valuable teams. AFC and NFC are subdivided into four divisions based on geography i.e. East, West, North and South. Each subdivision consists of four teams.

The MLB (Number of teams: 30)

The organization of teams in the Major League Basketball is similar to the NHL. The difference is that instead of each sub division having four teams, the MLB is divided into a set of five. The 30 teams are equally divided into the American League and the National League. Both the AL and NL have three subdivisions i.e. East, Central and West and each subdivision consist of five teams.

The NBA (Number of teams: 30)

The National Basketball Association began in 1946 with 11 teams, which expanded to a total of 30 teams, one of which is Canadian. The teams are further divided into Eastern and Western Conference. The Eastern Conference is further divided into Atlantic, Central and Southeast with each division having five teams. The Western Conference is subdivided into Northwest, Pacific and Southwest groups, which also have five teams each.

The MLS (Number of teams: 28)

The 28 teams of the Major League Soccer are equally divided between the Eastern Conference and the Western Conference. The MLS has been constantly expanding since the 2005 season and a new team St. Louis City SC is on the cards and expected to join the league in 2023.

Top US Sports Leagues by the Number of Teams

It’s no surprise that the top US sports leagues also have the biggest fan following. However, it’s very hard to accurately quantify followership. To make things simpler, the teams have been ranked based on the total attendance as follows (in 2018, before the COVID-19 pandemic):

MLB: 69,649,736[8]

NHL: 22,174,263[9]

NBA: 21,966,880[10]

NFL: 17,095,786[11]

MLS: 8,2552,503[12]

Conclusion

The scope and size of the US sports industry is massive with expansion always on the cards. It looks like every US city wants to have its own sport team whether it be the NFL, NBA, MLB, NHL or the MLS. These leagues want to grow bigger by adding more franchises over time with some leagues even going international. Such growth and loyal followership ultimately means more revenue streams and bigger international fanbase. For now, it seems like major US sports leagues think of 30 and 32 as the magic numbers for a perfect league size.

References

1. https://www.statista.com/statistics/193457/total-league-revenue-of-the-nfl-since-2005/

2. https://www.statista.com/statistics/195257/revenue-of-the-dallas-cowboys-since-2006/

3. https://www.cnbc.com/2019/12/22/report-mlb-revenue-for-2019-season-a-record-10point7-billion.html

4. https://www.cnbc.com/2021/10/18/nba-2021-2022-season-10-billion-revenue-tv-viewership-rebound.html

5. https://www.forbes.com/sites/mikeozanian/2021/12/08/nhl-team-values-2021-22-new-york-rangers-become-hockeys-first-2-billion-team/?sh=2b14801360cb

6. https://www.usatoday.com/story/sports/college/2020/07/10/power-five-conference-revenue-fiscal-year-2019/5414405002/

7. https://www.conductdetrimental.com/post/is-major-league-soccer-on-the-rise-not-quite

8. https://www.espn.com/mlb/attendance/_/year/2018

9. https://www.espn.com/nhl/attendance/_/year/2018

10. http://www.espn.com/nba/attendance/_/year/2018

11. http://www.espn.com/nfl/attendance/_/year/2018

12. https://soccerstadiumdigest.com/2018-mls-attendance/

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