Urban Sports Suffering

Which cities' fans are the longest-suffering? Which are the most overgorged? Find out who -- and why.

Saturday, June 17, 2006

Urban Sports Suffering: 1966-2006

ATLANTA – October 28, 1995. Tom Glavine and Dennis Martinez toe the rubber at Fulton County Stadium, brilliantly matching pitch for pitch as the Atlanta Braves and Cleveland Indians duel for sports immortality.

Not the World Series – or rather, not just the World Series.

On this night, though neither team knows it, it is the loser that enters the annals of athletic history: the most woebegone urban sports landscape in North America.

Sports radio talk jock Steve Czaban has a saying: 99% of being a sports fan is getting kicked in the nuts.

If that overstates things, it's not by all that much. The NFL now has 32 teams; the other three major sports (MLB, NBA and NHL) have 30 each. There's only one title to award per league per year. The raw mathematics mean that only once every generation and a half should a team expect to end its season without disappointment, and that's without reckoning on expansion. Even for big cities with several teams, it's easy for a decade, or a generation, to whisk past without any of them in a ticker-tape parade.

Czaban's bon mot contrasts with a well-worn media trope of championship week anywhere: that a team has won, or is playing for, its “first championship since [year].” Quite often, the year in question is considerably less distant than one which would indicate an actual drought.

For instance, the New York Giants in Super Bowl XXXIV (2000) were widely reported to have made their “first Super Bowl since 1990.” But in an NFC that grew during that time from 14 to 16 teams, a 10-year wait between title games is no wait at all.

During the nine years between Scott Norwood going wide right and Kerry Collins going wide-eyed, most of the NFC's members didn't have even a single shot at the big game.

Want a real wait? Ask Cleveland.

On that October night, David Justice's sixth-inning home run plated the only run in a 1-0 pitchers' duel, cementing Atlanta's only major sports title ever at the expense of Cleveland's first chance for a championship in any sport in what was then 30 years ... a drought that has since stretched to more than 40.

But is Cleveland really the worst of the worst ... the most victory-starved sports landscape in the country?

I've examined not only championships won but championships lost and semifinal appearances for all teams in all four major sports leagues from the 1966-67 seasons onward in an attempt to capture a representative portrait of which city's fans are getting over – and which are icing their groins.


For each season,* every team is given an “expected final four appearance” score based on the size of the conference or league it competes in. For instance, in 2005, there were 16 teams in baseball's National League and 14 in the American League.

Therefore, the Philadelphia Phillies (an NL club) had a 2 in 16 (0.125) likelihood of playing for the NL pennant, while the Toronto Blue Jays (an AL club) had a 2 in 14 (0.143) likelihood of playing for the AL pennant.

Each then had half that likelihood of playing in the World Series, and half once again of winning the World Series.

A series of these fractional scores for all major pro teams that competed in the city** during the past forty years gives a statistical estimate of the number of times each city should have played for and won a title. The urban-area metric is meant to capture a broader barometer of sports fans' happiness – and one that is slightly more statistically meaningful than the exploits of a single team, an impossibly small sample size.

The results for every city participating in enough seasons to have a minimum of one expected championship are plotted in the chart at top.

The x-axis measures whether the city has had more or fewer semifinal appearances than expected (that is, whether it has contending franchises frequently); the y-axis measures whether the city has had more or fewer championships than expected; and the line with a slope of 1/4 tracks expected conversions of semifinals into championships (cities above the line are more "clutch" with their semifinal chances; cities below the line "choke").

The extreme populations are visibly apparent.

Les Miserables

We begin our tour in the lower left-hand quadrant, where five cities -- Cleveland, Atlanta, Buffalo, Seattle and San Diego -- have ensconced themselves as the losingest sports markets in the land.

Cleveland is, indeed, the worst of the worst, with a world-beating -4.42 titles vs. expected. Ever since the Browns' 1964 NFL championship, the City of Bridges has populated other cities' highlight reels with Cleveland heartbreak, from “The Drive” and “The Fumble” to Michael Jordan's fist-pumping playoff game-winner as Craig Ehlo crumples into the hardwood.
It's been in barely half the 17 or 18 semifinals its vintage would suggest, and the only two finals appearances -- by the 1995 and 1997 Indians, the team's first pennants in 40 years -- yielded World Series rings for the perpetually underachieving Atlanta Braves and an expansion team against whom the Indians held a ninth-inning lead in game seven.

The '95 World Series spares Atlanta the ignominy, but it's essentially every bit as dreadful as Cleveland -- and because Atlanta has four major sports teams to Cleveland's three, it will actually surpass Cleveland in the “titles below expected” metric in 2012, assuming the four leagues remain essentially the same, and neither city bumbles into a ring in the meantime.

Buffalo is also close on Cleveland's heels for heartbreak, albeit of an entirely different character. The city's two current franchises, the Bills and the Sabres, have made their sports' finals six times between them, just about the city's expected haul. Defying all probability, they have lost every one of those six – a 1-in-64 chance on a coin-flip probability.

Apart from Buffalo only San Diego, at 0-for-3, has more than two finals appearances in the last 40 years without tasting glory at least once. But San Diego's real problem is fielding contenders at all: with only five final four appearances against 13.62 expected, it's underperformed its allotment even more egregiously than Cleveland.

Seattle is buoyed by a 27-year-old NBA title, but in the years since the city's three franchises have blown eight "final four" bids, not to mention the seemingly title-bound '93-'94 Sonics' stunning first-round loss to the eighth-seeded Denver Nuggets.

Paradise Cities

Diametrically opposite the dogs, we find a quintent of colossi in the upper quadrant gobbling up sports titles.

In eighteen of the forty years considered here, at least one New York+ franchise has won its league's title. Those teams have a combined winning percentage of around .600 in both the semifinal and final rounds, and the fact that advertisers love this is purely coincidental.

In addition to that long-awaited (and very much advertised) World Series title, Boston has swilled seven NBA titles, two Stanley Cups and three of the last five Super Bowls during our forty-year window. In more than three-quarters of the years in question, at least one Boston team has been in its sport's quarterfinals, including a jaw-dropping twenty-five out of twenty six years consecutively from 1966 to 1991. So what gives with the breastbeating, Beantown?

One of the hilarious features of Super Bowl XL was the suggestion that Pittsburgh fans, a quarter-century removed from winning four Super Bowls in six years, had a horse in the long-sufferingness race against Seattle, making its first appearance in the game in thirty forgettable seasons. Despite a poor 10-17 record in Final Four matches, the Steelers, Penguins and Pirates are an astounding 9-1 in title bouts.

Montreal and Edmonton are essentially one-sport towns that have fielded (if that's the word) hockey dynasties. The Canadiens' ten titles come on only 15 semifinals appearances (the Expos also showed up once), making it the most efficient (or lucky) city at converting chances into bragging rights.


Philadelphians are among the most stentorian of frustrated fandom, always ready to remind the viewing public that the '83 76ers made the most recent contribution to the civic trophy case.

Actually, in the 40-year view, the city is only slightly below par for expected titles ... but remarkable for its ability to churn out championship-caliber teams in every sport (its ratio of championship game appearances to expected appearances is an impressive 4 to 3) without garnering titles. Philly franchises are 5-13 in title games/series, and working on a seven-set losing streak to which each has contributed:

The 1983 Phillies
The 1984-85 Flyers
The 1986-87 Flyers
The 1993 Phillies
The 1996-97 Flyers
The 2000-01 76ers
The 2004-05 Eagles

Less exhibitionistic in their despair, Minnesotans have likewise had more than their share of contenders but made like Walter Mondale on the big stage. They make the title round in only 36% of their semifinal appearances and win it all in only 25% of their finals appearances. That's a painful 8.9% conversion rate of semifinals into titles. Every other city with twenty or more semifinals appearances has at least five championships. No other city with such a deficit of titles earned is actually in positive territory for semifinal berths.

Adding insult to injury, Minnesota has gifted other locales with big winners that should have been theirs: the Lakers, whose legend bestrides the sporting scene while their name harkens to their Midwestern roots; hockey's North Stars, who, after falling short in six semifinals appearances, relocated to a city where ice is only found in sweet tea and lifted the Stanley Cup as the Dallas Stars five years later; and the early 90's Cowboys dynasty, founded on the king's ransom of draft picks heisted from the Vikings in the Herschel Walker deal.

Indianapolis is heading in that direction with the television-punching combination of good teams and a proclivity for bungling golden opportunities: the Pacers lost in the Eastern Conference finals in both the seasons Michael Jordan spent playing minor-league baseball, and in the first season after his second retirement; the 2005 Colts, a mere month after threatening an undefeated season, gagged away a home game against Pittsburgh and the likelihood of steamrolling through the Super Bowl.


The opposite pattern -- subpar production of contenders with unusually high production of titles -- has only one notable exhibit, Detroit.

Though each has a proud history, the Tigers (a brilliant one-year championship team in 1984, but no other World Series appearances since 1968) and the Lions (only one conference championship appearance since its last NFL crown in 1957) seem bonded in ineptitude and have held Detroit to nearly six fewer semifinals than expected. But keep the car insurance paid up, because the Pistons and Red Wings both show a discernible ability to close out on top: they're 9-7 in semifinals series, and 6-3 in the finals, giving Detroit +1.2 banners for the rafters.

Other Notes

Milwaukee/Green Bay looks pretty Middle-America average, but the moving 40-year window is about to send it to commiserate with Cleveland. Since the 1970 Bucks added a coda to the Lombardi era trophy haul, Wisconsin teams have made only four trips to their sports' finals and won only Super Bowl XXXI.

Chicago is the sample's most extreme test of the proposition that one franchise's triumphs redeem another's failures: six of its eight championships are Michael Jordan's 1990's Bulls, the most dominant single dynasty in the survey period. But the rest of the city? The Cubs are approaching a full century since their 1908 World Series title and Hockey's Blackhawks haven't kissed Lord Stanley since 1961. Even the two titles earned by non-Bulls franchises are shrouded in bleakness: the 2005 White Sox broke an 88-year World Series drought; and the 1985 Bears failed to establish a dynasty while capturing the team's only NFL title since 1963.

Tampa (Super Bowl and Stanley Cup in an 18-month span earlier this decade) and Denver (two NFL and two NHL titles in the period of five calendar years from 1996 to 2001) are both "new money" -- longtime paupers all of a sudden made respectable.

New Orleans is the only large city with a rolled-over odometer: zero titles, zero title game appearances, zero semifinal appearances.

The L.A. Lakers are a staggering 18-4 in conference finals, though only 9-9 in NBA finals. Their NBA bete noir, the Celtics, are the second-most heavily represented semifinal participant, and while only 9-8 in the conference finals, they're 7-2 in the finals. Outside the seemingly dynasty-friendly NBA, the Dallas Cowboys (16), Montreal Canadiens (15) and New York Yankees (12) lead their respective sports for semifinal appearances. The Portland Trail Blazers have exactly six expected semifinal appearances and exactly three expected finals appearances, and have delivered exactly both those numbers.

*For the first three years of this survey, the World Series was played between the regular-season winners of the two different leagues. Because the “final four” concept gets at an essential metric of “competitiveness” used in this study, I've treated the second-place teams in the league during those seasons as the losing semifinalists, even though they did not participate in the postseason. In the case of the 1967 American League, there was a second-place tie between Minnesota and Detroit, which is reflected in this data as 0.5 semifinal appearances for each city.

**In an attempt to group teams geographically, I've had to make some subjective determinations about which areas constitute a single urban zone and which do not.

+I've considered all New York and New Jersey teams as part of a single metropolitan area – hockey's New Jersey Devils, New York Islanders and New York Rangers; basketball's New York Knicks and New Jersey Nets; football's New York Jets and New York Giants; and baseball's New York Yankees and New York Mets. Needless to say, New York is in a class of its own for size and diversity – and for a diehard follower of any one of these teams, success by their sport's opposite number might taste like ash in the mouth. But while there may be a clear distinction between Mets and Yankees fans, it doesn't map consistently onto Jets and Giants fans, or Rangers and Islanders fans (there's a better case to be made for separating New Jersey teams, which I'll probably do in a future version). The inherent complication posed by Gotham's glorious messiness is lessened by the observation that every single New York/New Jersey team has played in their sports' respective finals during the study period, and only the Nets have failed to win at least once. It's safe to say New Yorkers as a whole or in any collection of subcategories are doing better than average.

Most Championship-Starved Cities

(by Number Below Expected)
San Diego3.400-3.40
St. Paul

Most Championship-Starved Cities

(by Percent Below Expected, Min. 1 Expected)
San Diego3.5400%
New Orleans1.7300%
Salt Lake City1.0300%

Most Championship-Glutted Cities

(by Number Above Expected)
New York
(incl. New Jersey)
Los Angeles9.5313+3.47
San Antonio1.173+1.83

Most Championship-Glutted Cities

(by Percent Above Expected, Min. 1 Expected)
San Antonio1.173257%
New York
(incl. New Jersey)
San Francisco3.325151%


At 1:39 PM, Blogger 30f said...

Good stuff. This was thoughtful and an enjoyable read.

At 2:42 PM, Blogger Mike said...

Science agrees with evolution -- God hates Cleveland sports!


Post a Comment

<< Home