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Old 03-06-2020, 11:27 PM
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When did the “4 major American sports” get established as such?


Ok a debatable phrase but as far back as I can remember Major League Baseball, NFL, NBA and NHL were considered the “four major leagues” in the USA, or at the very least “four major pro team leagues”.

Baseball, while supplanted by the NFL and maybe even the NBA in popularity, was always a no brainer.

The NHL while the second oldest league only had 6 teams from 1940s to 1967, was it considered a “major” sport all that time or was it not until the 70s when it fully expanded?

The NFL the third oldest for decades seemed to be considered inferior to the college game until maybe the late 50s and thanks to TV perhaps became considered one of the “top” leagues in the 1960s. I compare the early years of the NFL to lacrosse today. Lacrosse is considered a “college” game while the pros play in low paying, shifting leagues.

Then there’s the NBA the youngest league. While the 50s gave us George Mikan and Bob Cousy I wonder when the NBA was considered a “major” sport and am guessing the 60s with Wilt, the Celtics and Lakers.

From what I have read, from at least the 1930s to the 1950s, baseball, horse racing and boxing were the “three major sports” here.

Soccer is a clear “fifth” major pro team sport here and the way the league is structured will never break into the “major” group, though indoor soccer had a shot in the 1980s as well as the NASL in the late 70s.

Are there any sports on the horizon that will be part of the “major” category? Any you think are unfairly excluded?



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Old 03-07-2020, 01:33 AM
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There have been professional baseball teams since 1869 with the Cincinnati Red Stockings considered the first. Major League Baseball dates its origins to the 1876 establishment of the National League and the founding of the American League in 1901. The first World Series between the two major leagues was in 1903 which is the year MLB gives as its official founding.
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Old 03-07-2020, 05:40 PM
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I'm not sure when the NHL made it to major status in this context, but I suspect it was probably after the 1967 expansion. It is remarkably difficult to find out when this term actually came into play, but maybe I'm wrong; even prior to the 1967 expansion the NHL was at worst the fourth largest professional team sports league in North America; what we now call the Original Six (despite the term, they aren't the NHL's original teams) were all in place by 1926, though Detroit wasn't originally called the Red Wings. Obviously the term is post-WWII, though, since there wasn't an NBA prior to 1947.

The gap between the big four and the rest is enormous:

NFL - ~$14 billion
MLB - ~$10 billion
NBA - ~ $8 billion
NHL - ~ $5 billion
Major League Soccer - Maybe $1 billion

The likelihood of MLS catching up to hockey is very slim. The obvious problem isn't the relative population of the sports, but the fact that the NHL is unquestionably the best hockey league in the world, and MLS isn't remotely close to being the best soccer league in the world. Fans know the difference between the elite and the also-ran.
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Old 03-07-2020, 06:47 PM
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I’d say cable tv and the 1980 Olympics definitely helped the NHL become the 4th major sport in the USA. The NHL has always been an ugly stepchild, never really dominating in TV ratings and mostly covered on cable networks. The NBA has benefited from college basketball as well as one big star being able to dominate.

I don’t really see any sport taking any of the places of the big 4. MLS will always be a poor substitute for the European leagues which we can now see in the USA. I’d go watch it, especially now that’s it not way off in the burbs of Chicago. I’ve enjoyed the games I’ve seen elsewhere, but it’s more of a nice ace to spend a summer night and I find the phony European stuff in MLS maddening.
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Old 03-07-2020, 07:00 PM
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From what I have read, from at least the 1930s to the 1950s, baseball, horse racing and boxing were the “three major sports” here.
With the fourth probably being college football. Even though the NFL didn't really take off until the 1950s, the college game was tremendously popular (far more so than the pro game) for the first half of the 20th century.
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Old 03-07-2020, 07:51 PM
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I’d say cable tv and the 1980 Olympics definitely helped the NHL become the 4th major sport in the USA. The NHL has always been an ugly stepchild, never really dominating in TV ratings and mostly covered on cable networks.
That's because the NHL's popularity was (and still is to a significant degree) regional. For example, in Canada, the NHL was huge even before its expansion in 1967. In the US, the league's popularity was mainly limited to the northeast and the Great Lakes region (i.e., anywhere the temperature rarely got above 32 degrees F from November to April). Once you got into warmer climes, however, interest in the sport dropped sharply. Even now, the NHL's a tough sell in places like Phoenix and Atlanta (which had and lost two franchises).
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Old 03-07-2020, 08:15 PM
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. In the US, the league's popularity was mainly limited to the northeast and the Great Lakes region (i.e., anywhere the temperature rarely got above 32 degrees F from November to April).
A bit of a nitpick: Average high temperatures in the four US "original six" NHL cities

New York: Nov = 55, Dec = 44, Jan = 39, Feb = 43, Mar = 52, April = 64.
In fact the average low temperature is above 32 in Nov, Mar and Apr.

Boston: Nov = 52, Dec = 42, Jan = 37, Feb = 39, Mar = 46, April = 57.
Average low temperature above 32 in Nov and Apr.

Chicago: Nov = 50, Dec = 37, Jan = 32, Feb = 36 Mar = 45, April = 56.
Average low temperature above 32 in Nov, Mar and Apr.

Detroit: Nov = 45, Dec = 35, Jan = 32, Feb = 35 Mar = 45, April = 58.
Average low temperature above 32 in Nov and Apr.

It would hardly seem "rare" that the temperature doesn't get above 32 in those cities.
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Old 03-07-2020, 09:48 PM
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When I was a kid in the early 80s, hockey definitely seemed like an afterthought behind baseball, football, and basketball. Part of that might be that Cleveland had major league teams in the other three but not hockey, but part might be that hockey requires a more specialized arena: You can't just play it on any old field or gym.
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Old 03-07-2020, 10:16 PM
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When I was a kid in the early 80s, hockey definitely seemed like an afterthought behind baseball, football, and basketball. Part of that might be that Cleveland had major league teams in the other three but not hockey, but part might be that hockey requires a more specialized arena: You can't just play it on any old field or gym.
And it’s kinda a tough sport to play as a kid in a non hockey culture. Even if you never played tackle football, varieties of flag football and touch football are easily done as organized or semi organized kid activities
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Old 03-07-2020, 11:09 PM
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That's because the NHL's popularity was (and still is to a significant degree) regional. For example, in Canada, the NHL was huge even before its expansion in 1967.
But even then it was specifically only in Toronto and Montreal. Those teams had some national following of course, but people in Vancouver certainly weren't contributing much to the NHL's revenue stream until they got a team in 1970.

HOCKEY was huge in Canada; the NHL, specifically, was mostly huge in Quebec and Ontario, and to some extent the Maritimes. It was after hockey began expanding (by which I also include the WHA) that it became a more significant business enterprise beyond the "original six" cities.

Prior to 1967, the CFL was as big a business enterprise as the NHL was in Canada. Today the entire CFL makes less money in a year than any two Canadian NHL teams, or either the Leafs of Canadiens by themselves. The CFL is barely hanging on and was killed bythe encroachment of legitimate major leagues - the NHL spreading across Canada in the 1970s, and the arrival of major league baseball and NBA basketball in Toronto has nearly finished off the Toronto Argonauts.
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Old 03-07-2020, 11:20 PM
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Part of that might be that Cleveland had major league teams in the other three but not hockey, but part might be that hockey requires a more specialized arena: You can't just play it on any old field or gym.
In most of the US, for most of the year, that's true. But, kids in much of Canada are able to (and traditionally do) play on backyard rinks and frozen ponds through the winter months, which may help explain why hockey is part of Canadian culture in a way that it simply isn't for most Americans.

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Old 03-08-2020, 12:48 AM
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Me and my friends would play spontaneous games of baseball, football, basketball, or soccer when we had enough people and time. There no way to spontaneously play hockey. Maybe street hockey, but even that requires hockey sticks for everyone.
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Old 03-08-2020, 08:23 PM
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But even then it was specifically only in Toronto and Montreal. Those teams had some national following of course, but people in Vancouver certainly weren't contributing much to the NHL's revenue stream until they got a team in 1970.



HOCKEY was huge in Canada; the NHL, specifically, was mostly huge in Quebec and Ontario, and to some extent the Maritimes. It was after hockey began expanding (by which I also include the WHA) that it became a more significant business enterprise beyond the "original six" cities.



Prior to 1967, the CFL was as big a business enterprise as the NHL was in Canada. Today the entire CFL makes less money in a year than any two Canadian NHL teams, or either the Leafs of Canadiens by themselves. The CFL is barely hanging on and was killed bythe encroachment of legitimate major leagues - the NHL spreading across Canada in the 1970s, and the arrival of major league baseball and NBA basketball in Toronto has nearly finished off the Toronto Argonauts.

What also hurt the CFL was when big TV money started coming in for the NFL, something that can never happen in Canada because of the size of the market. So, with a few notable exceptions the best players increasingly went there because the money was better.

I would guess if things really went South the NFL could step in and save the league because other than the XFL now it’s the closest thing the NFL has to a minor league.


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Old 03-08-2020, 10:09 PM
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I would guess if things really went South the NFL could step in and save the league because other than the XFL now it’s the closest thing the NFL has to a minor league.
Not that the CFL couldn't function that way, but it really doesn't act as a minor league to the NFL today.

CFL rules limit how many players from the US each team can field (currently, only 20 out of a CFL team's 46 players can be Americans).

And, in practice, players don't generally come to (or come back to) the NFL after a stint in the CFL. Part of that is that an NFL team can't generally send a player to the CFL for "seasoning," while still retaining rights to him.

So, American players who play in the CFL tend to be ones who choose to go up there of their own volition. They tend in one of two groups:

1) A young guy who didn't catch on with an NFL team out of college (might have gone to training camp with an NFL team, and got cut), and who goes up to Canada to get some more experience, with hopes of parlaying that into another shot with an NFL team. One sees a few of these guys coming back to the US and making an NFL roster, but they still usually seem to just be fringe players, though a very small number, like Cameron Wake, have been successful in the NFL.

2) A guy who played a bit in the NFL, probably as a backup, and went up to Canada for a chance to keep playing football. These are guys like Henry Burris, who was (barely) a backup quarterback in the NFL, but who won three Grey Cups in a long CFL career.

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Old 03-09-2020, 08:14 AM
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I don't think the NBA became a major sport until the 1980s. I remember my HS graduation in 1979. There was an NBA finals game that evening, but it was not shown live on TV. It was shown on tape delay starting at 10:30 PM central time.

Then after a monumental NCAA final with Larry Bird and Magic Johnson, they both entered the NBA the following season. The NBA rode the Celtics-Lakers to popularity. Cable TV probably helped too.
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Old 03-09-2020, 09:25 AM
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The gap between the big four and the rest is enormous:

NFL - ~$14 billion
MLB - ~$10 billion
NBA - ~ $8 billion
NHL - ~ $5 billion
Major League Soccer - Maybe $1 billion
What are these numbers?
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Old 03-09-2020, 10:10 AM
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NHL was regional for a long while. Fall of the Iron Curtain helped bring a lot more players to the NHL from Russia and other eastern Euro countries. And also more people from US, Sweden and Finland.
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Old 03-09-2020, 10:41 AM
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What are these numbers?
Pretty sure that represents annual revenue for each league.
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Old 03-09-2020, 01:43 PM
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I don't think the NBA became a major sport until the 1980s. I remember my HS graduation in 1979. There was an NBA finals game that evening, but it was not shown live on TV. It was shown on tape delay starting at 10:30 PM central time.
It certainly wasn't what it later became, but anyone in 1979, asked what he big four major sports leagues were, would have known precisely which four you were talking about. By 1980 that was pretty well established, espoecially since the ABA had been merged into the NBA and the WHA into the NHL, this solidifying the attention of those sports into one league.

I don't think you could say that in, say, 1965.
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Old 03-09-2020, 02:07 PM
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I don't think the NBA became a major sport until the 1980s. I remember my HS graduation in 1979. There was an NBA finals game that evening, but it was not shown live on TV. It was shown on tape delay starting at 10:30 PM central time.
I think it probably "really took off" when Kareem Abdul-Jabaar joined the league in the early 1970s, especially with Wilt Chamberlain in the league as well.

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I’d say cable tv and the 1980 Olympics definitely helped the NHL become the 4th major sport in the USA. The NHL has always been an ugly stepchild, never really dominating in TV ratings and mostly covered on cable networks.
The NHL had a network presence (I remember seeing it first on CBS, then NBC) until 1975 or so. When it did return on cable, it was on SportsChannel America, which half the country didn't get at the time.

I think the main problem with the question is, how is "major" defined? I would probably choose the date that all four were considered major as the time of the first NHL expansion, which was, what, 1967?
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Old 03-09-2020, 02:09 PM
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I became a baseball fan at the very end of the sixties and became aware of other sports in a significant way by 1971 or so. Now, I lived in Chicago, where we had one of each of the four current leagues plus an extra baseball team, but if you had asked me what the major sports leagues were I'd have had no hesitation saying baseball, the NBA, football, and hockey.
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Old 03-09-2020, 03:05 PM
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I don't think the NBA became a major sport until the 1980s. I remember my HS graduation in 1979. There was an NBA finals game that evening, but it was not shown live on TV. It was shown on tape delay starting at 10:30 PM central time.

Then after a monumental NCAA final with Larry Bird and Magic Johnson, they both entered the NBA the following season. The NBA rode the Celtics-Lakers to popularity. Cable TV probably helped too.
Some of the obituaries for David Stern, who died in January, give him a lot of credit for making the NBA a much bigger deal than it was when he started, and not just in the US. He also signed agreements to broadcast games all around the world.
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Old 03-09-2020, 04:21 PM
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With the fourth probably being college football. Even though the NFL didn't really take off until the 1950s, the college game was tremendously popular (far more so than the pro game) for the first half of the 20th century.
I'd argue that college football is probably actually the fourth major sport, with NHL hockey being fifth.

Some teams in college football out earn all NHL teams- the highest earning NHL team (NY Rangers) would be 5th in CFB team revenue, and the 2nd highest earning NHL team (Montreal Canadiens) would be 12th.

Viewership is similarly high for CFB vs. the NFL.
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Old 03-09-2020, 04:23 PM
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I'd argue that college football is probably actually the fourth major sport, with NHL hockey being fifth.

Some teams in college football out earn all NHL teams- the highest earning NHL team (NY Rangers) would be 5th in CFB team revenue, and the 2nd highest earning NHL team (Montreal Canadiens) would be 12th.

Viewership is similarly high for CFB vs. the NFL.
That’s impossible, college athletes are amateur competitors and the college experience is all about getting an education!
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Old 03-09-2020, 05:04 PM
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College FB is certainly very big in some of the deep south since many of those areas still don't have the NFL. And it's big in the Midwest. In the west and northeast it's mostly less popular than the NFL outside of some schools like Penn State , USC, etc. .
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Old 03-09-2020, 06:53 PM
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In most of the US, for most of the year, that's true. But, kids in much of Canada are able to (and traditionally do) play on backyard rinks and frozen ponds through the winter months, which may help explain why hockey is part of Canadian culture in a way that it simply isn't for most Americans.
Canadian kids don't limit themselves to playing on ice--they'll play anywhere they can delineate a playing area, with whatever presents itself to play with. A pair of boots can become a goal, and a tennis ball can become the puck (a lot bouncier, but it rolls better on non-ice surfaces). They'll play in schoolyards, parking lots, and on the street. If they can't play on ice, they'll play anyway.

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Me and my friends would play spontaneous games of baseball, football, basketball, or soccer when we had enough people and time. There no way to spontaneously play hockey. Maybe street hockey, but even that requires hockey sticks for everyone.
Yes, every kid would need a hockey stick, but kids' hockey sticks are fairly inexpensive, and available at every sporting goods store. If kids (or their parents) can afford baseball bats and gloves, footballs, soccer balls, and the like, for pickup games in the schoolyard, then they can certainly afford hockey sticks.

Now, if American kids don't want to play pickup hockey in the schoolyard, with makeshift equipment, except for hockey sticks, that's fine; but a lack of ice, pro-quality equipment, nets, boards and so on, doesn't present an obstacle to Canadian kids. It's a cultural thing, I suppose.
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Old 03-09-2020, 07:12 PM
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The New York Times ran an article (paywall warning) a couple of weeks ago about how the increasing cost of equipment ($100-300 for composite sticks, a thousand bucks for skates), fees, travel and training is leading some Canadian families not to pursue serious youth hockey.

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Old 03-09-2020, 11:08 PM
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I was born (in Chicago) in 1959, and by the time I was old enough to know what was going on--say 1970--there was no question that the four major American professional team sports were baseball, football, hockey, and basketball. It didn't have to be said; it was just understood. But sometimes it was said, anyway.

I lack the knowledge to say how much earlier this would have been the case. I would say that the four sports have been the most popular team sports at least since the 1920's, but football and basketball at first were primarily high school and college games. Professional football and basketball didn't come into their own until the Fifties and Sixties, respectively, so I would date the advent of the four major professional leagues to that time.

It's true that the NBA of the late Seventies, as others have noted, was small beer compared to what it later became. But, so was every other sport. The NBA, even then, was big time compared to any team sport outside of the big four.
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Old 03-10-2020, 06:46 AM
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Boxing suffered because they had different champions even in the same weight class. It seems now that MMA/UFC is a lot more popular and is on TV a lot. Horse racing lost popularity partly due to many more ways to gamble now. And there are not many tracks outside big cities and the TV coverage is minimal outside the 3 triple crown races.
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Old 03-10-2020, 08:21 AM
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Some of the obituaries for David Stern, who died in January, give him a lot of credit for making the NBA a much bigger deal than it was when he started, and not just in the US. He also signed agreements to broadcast games all around the world.
NBA per game attendance had been gradually climbing from the 1960s on, not every year but the trend was upward for a long time. It was in the mid 1980s that it suddenlty started climbing FAST.

While that does coincide with David Stern (he started as commish in 1984) it also coincides with the ascendancy of Michael Jordan, the most important star in the sport's history. It also coincides with a general growth in the pro sports business in the 1980s; baseball also grew a lot at the same time, seeing 30% attendance growth from 1980 to 1989 without any equivalent star. The NHL grew by about 15%. There was just a lot more consumer spending at that time.

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Boxing suffered because they had different champions even in the same weight class.
Boxing has done more or less everything in its power to make itself less popular. Having multiple champions is a huge problem; there was once a day when the world heavyweight champion was without any question the world's most famous heavyweight. Everyone, even non-sports fans, knew who it was. Men like Muhammad Ali, Jack Dempsey and Mike Tyson towered over sport. My father, a white guy from Canada, loved Muhammad Ali; my grandfather, also a white guy from Canada, was convinced Joe Louis was the greatest athlete who ever lived. Now I don't know who the various champions are without looking it up. (Right now it's either Anthony Joshua or Tyson Fury, neither of whom I would recognize if I met them in person.)

Boxing torpedoed itself in a lot of other ways too. Championship bouts became rare, and they can 't be watched without a tremendous amount of difficulty.

It remains really popular in some countries, but they've totally screwed it up in the USA.
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Old 03-10-2020, 10:26 AM
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Boxing suffered because they had different champions even in the same weight class.
Not only that, the sanctioning organizations were seen as majorly corrupt.

If boxing could go to a tournament to determine its champions, I think that would help with legitimacy. That would be tough logistically, though.

Another thing hurting boxing is that anyone under 40 did not grow up watching boxing. It was bad enough when they went to HBO and Showtime, but now any fight worth watching is on Pay Per View. This enables large paydays but shuts out the casual fan.
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Old 03-10-2020, 12:12 PM
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...
The gap between the big four and the rest is enormous:

NFL - ~$14 billion
MLB - ~$10 billion
NBA - ~ $8 billion
NHL - ~ $5 billion
Major League Soccer - Maybe $1 billion

...
Would be interesting to see the numbers for boxing and horse racing in the past, or for college football/hoops now.

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Me and my friends would play spontaneous games of baseball, football, basketball, or soccer when we had enough people and time. There no way to spontaneously play hockey. Maybe street hockey, but even that requires hockey sticks for everyone.
Well, for baseball, you need at least half as many mitts as players... Which is why this Chicago boy always favored 16"!

In grade school in the early 70s, we had no impediment to playing street hockey all the time. Most kids had multiple sticks w/ plastic blades. Lack of equipment was no impediment.
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Old 03-10-2020, 12:22 PM
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From what I have read, from at least the 1930s to the 1950s, baseball, horse racing and boxing were the “three major sports” here.
Most mornings I skim newspapers from 100 years ago today, and baseball, boxing, and horse racing were the "big three" from at least 1913 until the "present" (1920). Baseball is king, and even then there is a sense that it already has a long history. Like, I'll see stories from old-timers who played in the '80s and '90s (the 1890s) reminiscing about how it was back in the day.

Professional football isn't a thing yet, the NFL not being founded until August "this" year. College football is reasonably popular though, just outside the big three. The dominant teams are in the Ivy League. There is very little mention of basketball and hockey at all, at least in the New York City papers.

(A side note, I'll sometimes catch myself thinking and talking about things from 100 years ago as though they are current events. When the big Dempsey-Willard bout was announced last year (1919), I genuinely looked forward to it.)
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Old 03-10-2020, 02:45 PM
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Would be interesting to see the numbers for boxing and horse racing in the past, or for college football/hoops now.
It would but it's astoundingly hard to figure it out. Boxing and horse racing, of course, do not have the advantage of having a small, discrete number of teams whose summed revenues can be easily independently approximated.

NCAA sports is odd in that while all NCAA teams are technically a "league" it doesn't really work that way. I think there's like 300 college football teams, and obviously the per team average revenue will not compare to an NHL or NBA team even if the total might be comparable. Some teams, like the Michigan State Wolverines, make more than some pro sports franchises, but some like the South Dakota Jackrabbits are probably holding bake sales.

According to the NCAA, literally ALL their sports made about $10 billion in gross revenue in 2018, but that represented a total loss because athletics in total cost $18 billion, the balance of which was presumably made up by student fees, donations from alumni, and whatnot. Major programs - LSU football, North Carolina basketball - are profitable, and prop up stuff like the diving team, but for the NCAA as a whole athletics are not remotely close to being a profitable enterprise, and I doubt they would be even if you narrowed it down to football or basketball. Top programs are, but the "league" is not.

So while the total revenue from NCAA football is probably as much as the NHL, or close to it, it seems kind of odd to suggest it's truly on the same level when the NHL is doing it with just 31 teams and has to make a profit to stay afloat, while the NCAA as an entire unit doesn't make a profit and doesn't have to.
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Last edited by RickJay; 03-10-2020 at 02:46 PM.
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Old 03-10-2020, 03:27 PM
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Yeah - NCAA and college sports are a total scam - and impenetrable. I only mentioned college hoops because I think I read something about the astounding $$$ involved in March Madness TV rights.
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Old 03-10-2020, 03:37 PM
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NCAA FB is dominated by the Power 5 leagues - ACC, SEC, Big 12, Big 10 and PAC 12, around 55 teams. the other division 1 teams are a few notches lower in terms of money and TV games. Division II and III FB is small schools and they make very little money and almost nothing from TV.

Division 1 college hoops has around 312 teams and the big tourney now takes 68 teams so smaller teams can make it by winning their conference.
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Old 03-11-2020, 11:16 AM
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Originally Posted by Bijou Drains View Post
Division 1 college hoops has around 312 teams and the big tourney now takes 68 teams so smaller teams can make it by winning their conference.
Smaller teams could ALWAYS make the tournament by winning their conference. The expansion of the tournament in 1975 allowed Alabama, Kansas State, Maryland, Michigan, New Mexico State, Oregon State, and San Diego State to participate.
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Old 03-11-2020, 11:32 AM
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I think there's like 300 college football teams. Some teams, like the Michigan State Wolverines, make more than some pro sports franchises
There are currently 65 college football teams considered top level, but overall there are 670 college football teams in the NCAA. Also, Michigan State is the Spartans, while Michigan is the Wolverines.
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Old 03-11-2020, 12:16 PM
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Y'know, on thinking about it... If you asked me, "What are the four major American sports?", sure, I wouldn't have any doubt that you meant football, baseball, basketball, and hockey. But if you'd instead asked for the "three major sports", I similarly wouldn't hesitate to say football, baseball, and basketball. Or two, or probably even five (adding soccer, which isn't watched much but is played a lot). Only if you asked for the single biggest, or the top six or more, would I be unsure.
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