Borderlines In North American Sports


Graphic by Ella Ermshler

The United States and Canada share nine teams within the MLB, NHL and NBA. Currently, the NFL has no team in Canada and has looked to expand in Europe and Mexico.

The origin of sports can be traced all the way back to 776 BCE, the year of the first Olympic Games, but sports in the U.S. and the rest of North America are fairly new. Three of the four major professional sports were first played at a professional and/or collegiate level in the U.S. less than 165 years ago.

The first college baseball game took place on July 1, 1859, the first college football game in 1869 and the first game of basketball ever played came in late 1891. All three sports were played and created in the United States, but the fourth and final major professional sport, ice hockey, was first played in Montreal, Canada in 1875.

So how exactly did a Canadian-created sport become integrated with American culture and a part of the four major U.S. professional sports?

Ice hockey migrated south to the United States during the 1890s, and the first record of games are known to have taken place between Johns Hopkins University and Yale in 1895. Hockey became a universal sport and spreaded to Europe going into the 20th century, and the 1920 Antwerp Summer Games were the first Olympic Games that included the game of ice hockey for men.

The first professional U.S. ice hockey league, now known as the NHL, was created on November 26, 1917 in Montreal. The league first consisted of six teams, known as the original six, in the Detroit Red Wings, Chicago Blackhawks, New York Rangers, Boston Bruins, Toronto Maple Leafs and Montreal Canadiens.

The three other major professional sports were also founded in similar ways. In 1871, the National Association of Professional Baseball Players was established and considered baseball’s first “major league.” In 1876, the National League was formed with the creation of the original eight teams consisting of the Boston Red Stockings, Chicago White Stockings, Cincinnati Red Stockings, Hartford Dark Blues, Louisville Grays, New York Mutuals, Philadelphia Athletics and the St. Louis Brown Stockings. 25 years later, the American League was created and in 1903 the first World Series game was played between the two leagues.

As for professional basketball, on Aug. 3, 1949, the Basketball Association of America (BAA) and National Basketball League (NBL) merged to form the National Basketball Association (NBA). This new league was made up of 17 teams that represented both small towns like Fort Wayne and large cities like New York across the country. 

27 years later, on August 5, 1976, the National Basketball Association (NBA) merged with the American Basketball Association (ABA),  and created what is now the modern day National Basketball Association. In the merger the NBA took on the ABA’s four most successful franchises in the Denver Nuggets, the Indiana Pacers, the New York Nets and the San Antonio Spurs.

Like the NBA, the NFL was essentially a merge between multiple professional football leagues. On Sept. 17, 1920, 11 professional football teams ranging across Ohio, Illinois, Indiana and New York (Akron Pros, Canton Bulldogs, Cleveland Indians, Dayton Triangles, Decatur Staleys, Hammond Pros, Massillon Tigers, Muncie Flyers, Racine Cardinals, Rochester) came together and created one single league. Before the inaugural season came to an end, The Buffalo All-Americans, Chicago Tigers, Columbus Panhandles and Detroit Heralds joined the league, raising the total number of teams to 14.

Fast forward to today and every Major United States sports league and even the MLS has at least one Canadian team apart of their respective league, all except the NFL. 

Until 2004 the MLB had two major league teams in Canada. The Montreal Expos played in the NL East from 1969 until 2004 when they  moved to Washington, D.C. and were renamed the Nationals.

The remaining MLB team left in Canada is the Toronto Blue Jays. The Blue Jays came into the league in 1977 and have since won two World Series titles coming in back to back years in 1992-93. 

The NBA is also similar in that they too, once had two teams in Canada. In 1995, both the Toronto Raptors and Vancouver Grizzlies joined the NBA as expansion teams. While the Raptors are currently playing night in and night out, Vancouver on the other hand, only played from 1995 to 2001.

Professional Canadian teams are not necessarily new to basketball though. Before the first merger in 1949 the Toronto Huskies were a part of the Basketball Association of America (BAA) – which is odd due to the fact that they were based in Canada. Most NBA fans won’t be too familiar with the Huskies because they only lasted a single season in 1946-47.

The professional league that has the most Canadian teams – and rightfully so – is the NHL. The NHL currently consists of 31 teams: 24 in the United States and 7 in Canada (Montreal Canadiens, Toronto Maple Leafs, Ottawa Senators, Winnipeg Jets, Edmonton Oilers, Calgary Flames and Vancouver Canucks).

Combined, the four U.S. major professional sports have a total of nine teams based in Canada, with no contribution coming from the NFL.

Why is that? Perhaps it’s because the Canadian Football league is already in place, but why has the NFL never looked to expand Northward?

Well, the topic of putting a U.S. professional football team in Canada has been a heated debate for more than a quarter century.

In 1982 the United States Football League (USFL) was founded and considered a rival to the NFL. During the USFL’s three seasons (1983-1985) there were multiple attempts and conversions to put a football team in Canada, but in 1974 the Canadian government passed a law called the Canadian Football Act that prohibited the U.S. from establishing an American Football in Canada so long as the CFL existed.

Isn’t it quite bizarre that two neighboring countries have even pursued legal action to stop the establishment of a football team in Canada? To be fair, Canada has a good reason for taking football to an extreme level. 

Due to the relationship between the NFL and CFL, the CFL’s bare existence gives the NFL “competition” in a legal sense. Because the NFL is much larger than the CFL, the NFL does not want to put the CFL out of business. Direct proof of this is when the NFL actually gave the CFL a loan 1997. 

In 1997, the NFL reached a five-year agreement with the CFL. In this partnership, the NFL gave a $3 million loan to the Canadian league, as well as the NFL being granted the ability to hold an annual preseason or regular season game in either Toronto or Vancouver for the duration of the five years.

Over the past five years the CFL has tried to improve, expand and appeal to younger and more diverse audiences, but the spread of COVID-19 in 2020 did not help their cause whatsoever.

According to the CBC (Canadian Broadcasting Corporation), the CFL collectively lost around $20 million in the 2019 season. With no football in 2020, the CFL is most likely to have lost between $60 and $80 million.

If the CFL continues to go on a downhill spiral, then maybe we will finally see a Canadian football team in the NFL. But until then, all four U.S. major professional sports are continuing to expand their respective sports across the northern and eastern hemispheres.