October is coming up. And you know what that means?
For sports fans, October is a fun month, as it’s the only time that all four major North American professional sports leagues are in action (MLB, the NFL, the NHL, and the NBA).
With Major League Baseball, the playoffs get underway and soon the current year’s champs will be determined in the World Series. In the NFL, teams are approaching mid-season form and football fans can start to clearly see the contenders for the Super Bowl.
With the NHL and NBA, October marks the beginning of the season where fans can dream early about winning the Stanley Cup or Larry O’Brien Trophy.
With October coming up and thinking about all 4 leagues, some may think about the great sports franchises that have come to represent their respective sports. But how does one compare the top teams in North American professional sports history?
For starters, I’ll admit my own analysis is somewhat subjective. When you think about each league, certain teams pop out.
For objectivity purposes, I considered a variety of factors such as championships won, overall record, overall playoff appearances, franchise value (according to Forbes), and legendary players (please note that the MLB records are through the 2009 season).
A list like this would favor teams that have been around since the earlier days of their respective leagues, although a few younger clubs that have become great winners in their sports could easily be considered among the greatest.
That being said, I do realize that winning percentages of the top teams tend to be higher in the NFL and NBA versus the NHL and MLB. I was sure to take that into consideration.
Let me know in your comments what you think. Did I get these rankings right? Are there teams I left out that should have made the list? Is my logic off or is it coherent?
Without further ado, I announce the greatest sports franchises in North American pro sports.
W-L: 1,653-1,103 (.600)
Finals Appearances: 4
Playoff Appearances: 30
Franchise Value: $398 million
Founded in 1967 in the ABA, the San Antonio Spurs were one of four teams from that league to join the NBA in 1976 and is the only former ABA team to have won an NBA championship. Actually, make that four championships.
Under the tutelage of Coach Gregg Popovich, the Spurs won all four of their trips to the NBA Finals between 1999 and 2007. With the first two title runs, David Robinson teamed with Tim Duncan to form the “twin towers”—arguably the most talented duo of 7-footers to play for any team in NBA history.
While Duncan is widely regarded as the best power forward of all time, the franchise has been blessed with other superb talents. “The Iceman” George Gervin was one of the best scoring guards in league history, with his signature finger roll shot. Other top talents include “Mr. Eva Longoria” Tony Parker and Manu Ginobili.
But what has made this franchise respectable is that since 1977, the team has won 17 division titles, which is the most in the NBA. The team has made the playoffs in 19 out of the past 20 years, including the last 13 in a row. In addition, the team has won 69.6% of its games since 1997, the best winning percentage in pro sports.
About the only knock on the team is that it serves a smaller market and gets less media attention than it probably deserves. Still, the San Antonio Spurs are an exemplary franchise.
W-L: 1,818-1,757 (.509)
Finals Appearances: 6
Playoff Appearances: 29
Franchise Value: $511 million
The Chicago Bulls present an interesting case for a franchise. The team was founded in 1966 and in the 44 years of its existence, the Bulls have had several poor or mediocre seasons.
During its early days, the Bulls in the 1970s were known for their defensive play, featuring players like Jerry Sloan and Bob Love. After that period ended and after enduring a few years in the doldrums, the team’s fortunes changed when it drafted Michael Jordan in 1984.
Under Jordan and Coach Phil Jackson, arguably the best player and coach in NBA history, the team became one of the best dynasties, not just in the NBA, but in pro sports history, winning six titles in eight years.
Teaming with players like Scottie Pippen and Dennis Rodman, the Bulls became the only team in NBA history to win over 70 games by reaching 72 wins in 1996. That season was followed up with 69 wins in 1997, which is good enough to tie for the second best all-time record.
Perhaps more importantly than just the wins, the team helped spread the popularity of the NBA around the world during the 1990s. The last championship series in 1998 remains the most watched finals series in NBA history.
The team today is in a rebuilding mode, trying to get back to the NBA Finals. Under the leadership of players like Derrick Rose and Carlos Boozer, the team may have an opportunity to rise towards the top of the league over the next few years.
W-L: 8,574-8,043 (.516)
World Series Appearances: 11
Playoff Appearances: 20
Franchise Value: $870 million
The Boston Red Sox is a franchise that barely missed making the top 10 teams. The club was one of the American League’s eight charter teams, founded in 1901. Right off the bat (no pun intended), the team played in a dominant fashion, winning the first World Series in 1903 and four more by 1918.
The franchise’s fortunes would change after the team sold baseball legend to the New York Yankees in 1918 and endured an 86 year drought between World Series wins. This period is known by many as the “Curse of the Bambino.”
During this championship drought, the team still featured legends such as Carl Yastrzemski and the great hitter Ted Williams. Additionally, the team carried on playing at Fenway Park—one of MLB’s iconic stadiums.
The Red Sox have since returned to championship form, winning two World Series since 2004 and featuring talented players such as Nomar Garciaparra, Manny Ramirez, David Ortiz, Pedro Martinez, and Curt Schilling.
While many other greats have played for the team, including Bobby Doerr, Wade Boggs, and Roger Clemens, what sets the Red Sox apart from other teams is its popularity. The team consistently ranks as one of the top MLB teams in average road attendance.
If not for the small capacity of Fenway Park, the team might light the league in overall attendance too. Over the last seven years, every home game has been sold out, which is an MLB record. Due to its popularity, not surprisingly, the team has the second highest franchise value in Major League Baseball.
Despite enduring 86 years between World Series wins, the history and popularity of the team make the Boston Red Sox one of the premier faces of MLB.
W-L: 2,505-2,486 (.502)
Stanley Cup Appearances: 21
Playoff Appearances: 61
Franchise Value: $470 million
The Toronto Maple Leafs is a team that has benefited from its history. Founded in 1917, the team was one of the “original six” members of the NHL.
In the franchise’s early years, the team competed with the Montreal Canadiens for the title of the NHL team with the most championships. After winning six Stanley Cups in the 1940s led by stars Syl Apps and Turk Broda, the Maple Leafs took the title away from its rival in 1948 for a period of 10 years.
In the 1960s, the team formed a new dynasty winning four more championships. The Maple Leafs of this era featured several Hall of Fame players including Dave Keon, Red Kelly, Tim Horton, Frank Mahovlich, Johnny Bower, and legendary coach Punch Imlach.
Yet, after all of this success over the first 50 years of the team’s existence, the Maple Leafs have not won a Stanley Cup since 1967, which is the longest active drought in the NHL.
So with over 40 years and counting without winning the championship, what makes the Maple Leafs a top franchise?
Besides winning an impressive 13 championships, the team has the longest current sellout streak in the NHL (along with the Minnesota Wild). Quite frankly, the team has been highly popular through most of its history, taking advantage of being in the largest market in a country that loves hockey.
From 1949 until 1999 when the Maple Leaf Gardens closed, every home game was sold out. That tradition has since been maintained with a current sellout streak at Air Canada Centre dating back to 2002.
With the team’s popularity and loyal fans, it’s no wonder that the franchise is the most valuable team in the NHL.
Given the countless legends to play for the Maple Leafs, the multiple championships, and popularity, the Toronto Maple Leafs belong in the top 10 list of greatest pro franchises.
W-L: 10,020-9,342 (.518)
World Series Appearances: 17
Playoff Appearances: 23
Franchise Value: $488 million
The Cardinals organization was founded in 1882. After joining the National League in 1892, the team has gone on to win 10 World Series championships. That record ranks as the best in the National League and second in MLB history.
Throughout history, the organization has maintained a remarkable level of consistency, winning the World Series in multiple decades and being only one of four MLB teams to reach 10,000 wins in franchise history.
Like all the great teams in history, the Cardinals have featured many legends over its history including Joe Medwick, Rogers Hornsby, Stan Musial, Mark McGwire, Tip O’Neill, and Albert Pujols. Even more impressive, 16 different Cardinal players have won a total 20 MVP awards.
Of the sixteen triple crowns of hitting in MLB, four of them were by Cardinals (an amazing feat considering only six have been in the National League). Other extraordinary feats are the records for home runs in a game (Mark Whiten with four) and RBI in a game (Jim Bottomley with 12). In addition, in 1999 Fernando Tatis is the only player in MLB history to hit two grand slam home runs in the same inning.
And there seems to be something magical in the air surrounding the Cardinals organization. In 2006, after the team moved to the new Busch Stadium, the Cardinals turned a 83-win season into a World Series win against the heavily-favored Detroit Tigers. The previous time a team won the World Series the first year it moved to a new Stadium was when the Yankees won in 1923.
With all of the statistical records, legendary players, and second best winning record in Major League Baseball, the St. Louis Cardinals are a worthy choice on the list of greatest teams.
W-L: 503-410 (.551)
Super Bowl Appearances: 5
Playoff Appearances: 21
Franchise Value: $925 million
Named after the gold prospectors that flocked to California in 1849, the 49ers franchise was established in 1946. During the first few decades, the team experienced mixed success.
During the 1950s, however, the 49ers played an exciting brand of football with its “Million Dollar Backfield” that featured Hall of Famers Joe Perry, Y. A. Tittle, Hugh McElhenny, and John Henry Johnson.
But what drove the franchise to prominence was its dynasty of the 1980s to early 1990s. During that span, the 49ers became the first NFL franchise to win five Super Bowls. In addition, the team’s record in Super Bowls remains perfect.
This dynasty featured some of the all-time greats in NFL history, including three-time Super Bowl MVP Joe Montana, perhaps the greatest wide receiver of all-time in Jerry Rice, Ronnie Lott, and Steve Young. While Montana is generally considered the best clutch quarterback in NFL history, Steve Young has the all-time highest career quarterback rating.
While the team has achieved much less success over the past decade, the team remains as one of the most popular in the NFL. Given the legends that wore the 49ers gear, the high franchise value, and the greatness of the dynasty, the 49ers have a deserving spot among the top 10 teams.
W-L: 2,616-2,299 (.532)
Stanley Cup Appearances: 24
Playoff Appearances: 58
Franchise Value: $337 million
The Detroit Red Wings was founded in 1926 as one of the “original six” teams of the NHL. While barely trailing the Toronto Maple Leafs in total championships with 11, the franchise has the best record of any NHL team in the United States.
The team experienced early success, as the Red Wings only missed the playoffs four times between 1934 and 1966. With hockey legends Gordie Howe, Sid Abel, Ted Lindsay, Alex Delvecchio, and Terry Sawchuk, the Red Wings put together a dynasty in the early 1950s, winning four Stanley Cups in six years.
Although the Red Wings have had a considerable number of poor seasons, its recent success is what puts the franchise a step above the Maple Leafs. Over the past 27 seasons, the team has made the playoffs in 25 of them, including the last 19 in a row. In all of North American professional sports, this is the longest current streak of postseason appearances.
Since 1997, the Red Wings have put up impressive records, winning four additional Stanley Cups. Among these teams featured legendary NHL coach Scotty Bowman and standout players Steve Yzerman, Nicklas Lidstrom, Luc Robitaille, Sergei Fedorov, Chris Chelios, Brett Hull, and goaltenders Mike Vernon and Dominik Hasek.
Similar to the Chicago Bulls in the NBA, the Red Wings have helped to popularize the NHL in the US, and led to the marketing efforts promoting Detroit as “Hockeytown, USA.”
For the team’s popularity, history, and dominant recent and past dynasties, the Detroit Red Wings earn a well-deserved place among the top 10 teams.
W-L: 534-509 (.512)
Super Bowl Appearances: 7
Playoff Appearances: 24
Franchise Value: $996 million
Established in 1933, the Pittsburgh Steelers is the oldest franchise in the AFC. Between the dynasty of the 1970s and the dominant teams of the past five years, Pittsburgh has won more Super Bowls than any other NFL team, with an impressive 6-1 record in the big game. In addition, the Steelers are tied with the Dallas Cowboys with 14 conference championship game appearances.
During the 1970s, the Steelers rose to the top of the NFL under coach Chuck Noll and a talented cast, including Hall of Famers Terry Bradshaw, Mel Blount, “Mean” Joe Green, Franco Harris, John Stallworth, Mike Webster, and Jack Lambert. Pittsburgh became the first NFL team to win more than two Super Bowls and remains the only franchise to win four championships in six years.
Although the Steelers failed to win a Super Bowl in the 1980s and 1990s, the Steelers have appeared in at least one Super Bowl in every decade (with the exception of the 1960s which featured just three Super Bowls).
Recently, the team has qualified for the playoffs six times in the past ten years. In 2005 and 2008, the last two times the Steelers won the AFC championship, the team went on to win the Super Bowl. These teams were led by quarterback Ben Roethlisberger and standout players like Jerome Bettis, Hines Ward, and Troy Polamalu.
Expected of a top franchise, the Steelers are one of the most popular teams in the NFL whose fanbase is called Steeler Nation. Not shy to wave their Terrible Towels, these fans are loud and love to show how proud they are of their team.
As one of the biggest winners in NFL history and widespread popularity, the Pittsburgh Steelers rank easily in the top 10 teams.
W-L: 434-314 (.580)
Super Bowl Appearances: 8
Playoff Appearances: 30
Franchise Value: $1.805 billion
The Dallas Cowboys may have been around for only 50 years, having been established in 1960. However, the team has accomplished so much in those five decades that it takes the top spot for NFL teams.
After winning two Super Bowls with the team, led by quarterback Roger Staubach, the Cowboys became “America’s Team” in the 1990s and did to the already popular NFL what the Chicago Bulls did to the NBA.
Led by coach Jimmy Johnson, quarterback Troy Aikman, running back Emmitt Smith, and wide receiver Michael Irvin, the Cowboys won three Super Bowls in four years. This dynasty was so impressive that it sent 11 players to the Pro Bowl game in 1993.
With a winning percentage of .580, the Dallas Cowboys franchise has the highest win rate of any NFL team. Other records the team holds are most Super Bowl appearances (eight) and most NFC championships (eight).
Between 1966 and 1985, the Cowboys became the only NFL team in history to record 20 consecutive winning seasons, only missing the playoffs twice. This is still one of the longest winning streaks in all of the professional sports leagues.
The team’s national following is impressive as the Cowboys hold the NFL record for consecutive sell-out games. The current streak of sell-outs, standing at 160 games, began in 1990. All of this popularity has led the team to be the most valuable professional sports franchise in North America and second in the world behind Manchester United.
Part of the reason the team is worth so much is that it is the wealthiest team in the NFL, earning almost $269 million in annual revenue. Not surprisingly, the team plays in the brand new Cowboys Stadium which cost $1.3 billion to construct and features the largest high definition screen in the world (about 60 yards long).
To reward its consistent winning and tremendous popularity, the Dallas Cowboys easily make the top 10 team list as the greatest franchise brand in the NFL.
W-L: 3,027-1,866 (.619)
Finals Appearances: 31
Playoff Appearances: 57
Franchise Value: $607 million
Despite not entering the NBA until its third season in 1948 (then the Basketball Association of America), the Los Angeles Lakers have managed to win more regular season and playoff games than any other NBA team.
Only missing the playoffs five times in 62 years and the only franchise to play in the NBA Finals in every decade of the league’s existence, the Los Angeles Lakers have been amazingly consistent throughout its entire history.
The team’s 61.9% winning percentage is the best of any North American professional sports franchise. Furthermore, over the past 30 years with 16 appearances in the Finals and 10 titles, the Lakers have been the most successful sports team in any league.
The team boasts three dynasties, including the George Mikan led teams of the 1950s, the Magic Johnson led “Showtime” teams of the 1980s, and the Kobe Bryant led teams of the 2000s. This does not include the 1971-72 team that won 33 games in a row, a record that remains across all US professional sports.
The Lakers organization has been blessed with some of the biggest legends in the game. Besides Mikan, Magic, and Kobe, the Lakers teams have featured Elgin Baylor, Jerry West (also the NBA’s logo), Wilt Chamberlain, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, and Shaquille O’Neal. Together, sixteen Hall of Famers have played for the Lakers and four players have won a total of eight MVP awards.
In addition, four Hall of Famers have coached the team (John Kundla, Bill Sharman, Pat Riley, and Phil Jackson). This collection of talented players and coaches ranks second to none among other NBA teams.
Among NBA teams, the Lakers are the most valuable franchise. The team has a dedicated fanbase, and Lakers home games are an event in themselves, with many regular Hollywood stars holding season tickets.
With everything that the Los Angeles Lakers organization represents, it goes without saying that the team belongs on the top 10 list.
W-L: 2,972-2,031 (.594)
Finals Appearances: 21
Playoff Appearances: 49
Franchise Value: $433 million
Founded in 1946, the Boston Celtics are a legendary franchise in the NBA. Despite how John Hollinger ranks the Lakers as the NBA’s best franchise, I have to give Boston a slight edge. Not only does Boston have one more championship than the Lakers, but the team holds a 9-3 record in the NBA Finals with their NBA rivals. In addition, four Celtics players hold the NBA record for MVP awards, with a total of ten.
While Los Angeles would steal the top NBA position if it should tie Boston in total championships since it leads in nearly every other statistical category, Boston remains as the top NBA team on this list.
The greatest period in the team’s history came during the great dynasty years between 1957 and 1969, winning 11 championships in 13 years. The eight consecutive championships between 1959 and 1966 remains a North American professional sports team record.
Arguably the greatest sports dynasty across all four leagues, the team was led by multiple Hall of Famers including Bill Russell, Bob Cousy, Sam Jones, Bill Sharman, and John Havlicek.
Besides having the most talent of that era, those Celtics teams were led by legendary coach Red Auerbach. This dynasty changed the way many thought about the game of basketball, and proved that defense and rebounding are the keys to winning championships.
After winning a couple more titles in the 1970s, the Celtics setup another dynasty during the 1980s, led by the Hall of Fame frontcourt of Larry Bird, Kevin McHale, and Robert Parish. These teams capped the end of a string of 35 seasons from 1953 to 1988 in which the Celtics reached at least the conference championship series 29 times.
After nearly two decades of mediocrity caused in part by the deaths of Len Bias and Reggie Lewis, the Boston Celtics has risen to prominence over the past few years with the “Big Three” of Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, and Ray Allen leading the way.
Combined with the Lakers, it is remarkable that the two teams have won 33 of the 64 NBA championships in the league’s history. The team’s impact on the league and game of basketball has been extraordinary. As one of the greatest NBA teams, the Celtics take a rightful spot on the top 10 team list.
W-L: 3,060-2,059 (.598)
Stanley Cup Appearances: 33
Playoff Appearances: 78
Franchise Value: $339 million
Whether you call them the Habs or Le Tricolore, the Montreal Canadiens franchise is the greatest in the National Hockey League’s history. Established in 1909, the team is the longest continuously operating professional ice hockey team as well as the existing NHL franchise to predate the founding of the NHL.
Like the Red Wings and Maple Leafs, the Canadiens were one of the “original six” teams from the early part of the NHL before the 1967 expansion. Throughout the club’s history, it has shown a remarkable consistency in winning. Similar to the Lakers in the NBA, the team is the first in the NHL to earn 3,000 wins while leading the league in overall winning percentage.
In addition, the team has the most playoff appearances of any North American professional sports franchise and had a streak of at least one championship in every decade from the 1910s to the 1990s.
Prior to the great Boston Celtics dynasty of the 1960s, the Canadiens streak of five consecutive Stanley Cups from 1956-1960 held the professional sports record for most consecutive championships. This team was led by NHL legends Jean Beliveau, Jacques Plante, and Henri Richard. And this followed the great teams of the 1940s led by Maurice Richard and Toe Blake.
Then in the 15 seasons from 1965 to 1979, the Canadiens put up the most impressive record in professional sports by winning 10 championships, including four straight from 1976 to 1979. The 1976-77 team set the modern-day NHL record for fewest losses (eight).
Led by legendary coach Scotty Bowman, these championship teams featured a wide array of talent including Guy Lafleur, Steve Shutt, Guy Lapointe, Ken Dryden, Larry Robinson, and Yvan Cournoyer.
The team’s last two championships in 1986 and 1993 were led by goaltender Patrick Roy, who in 2004 was named as the greatest goaltender in NHL history by a vote of writers and hockey fans.
The Montreal Canadiens franchise holds many NHL team records and the team’s popularity is among the highest in the league. As the greatest NHL franchise with 24 championships, the Canadiens rank number two on the top 10 greatest teams list.
W-L: 9,575-7,294 (.568)
World Series Appearances: 40
Playoff Appearances: 48
Franchise Value: $1.6 billion
Was there any doubt which team would be listed as the greatest franchise in North American professional sports?
As the highest valued franchise in MLB with a net worth of $1.6 billion, the New York Yankees leads the league in revenue and titles, having won 27 World Series and 40 American League pennants. The team eclipsed the Canadiens in 1999, setting the record for most championships in North American professional sports history.
Spanning several dynasties, the Yankees won 20 World Series in 40 years between 1923 and 1962. And this doesn’t include the great franchise teams of the 1970s, 1990s, and 2000s. All of this winning has led the franchise to a 56.8% winning percentage, the best win rate in MLB.
Just think about the staggering numbers surrounding the Yankees. 44 players in the Baseball Hall of Fame have worn the Yankees pinstripes. The team's players have won an MLB record 22 MVP awards.
Some of the all-stars that have played for the Yankees are some of baseball’s greatest legends: Babe Ruth, Joe DiMaggio, Mickey Mantle, Lou Gehrig, Roger Maris, Yogi Berra, Reggie Jackson, Derek Jeter, Mariano Rivera, Roger Clemens, and Alex Rodriguez.
While the Yankees are perhaps the most popular team in baseball, any team that wins a great deal of the time is going to also polarize other sports fans. Yet, despite critics’ remarks that the Yankees spend heavily in the team’s quest to win, the Yankees continue to sell out stadiums across the US and Canada. In fact, from 2001 to 2006, the team led the league in road attendance.
Whether you call the team the “Bronx Bombers”, “the Pinstripes”, or “the Evil Empire”, one thing remains the same: the New York Yankees set the bar for all the other great franchises, not just in baseball, but across the North American professional sports leagues.