Sports curses have been dropping like flies in recent years. First it was the Cleveland Cavaliers, who exorcised their city’s sports demons with a dramatic come-from-behind series win in 2016 against the seemingly unstoppable Golden State Warriors. Later that year, it was the Chicago Cubs — perhaps the most sad-sack sports franchise of the 20th century — who razed the Curse of the Billy Goat in a heartstopping World Series victory. After them came the Houston Astros, who had never won a World Series since being formed in the early 1960s. Soon after, the Philadelphia Eagles swept away the Lombardi Curse — and the mighty New England Patriots — in winning the 2018 Super Bowl.
But if you thought there was no more sports misery left in this world, you’d be sadly mistaken. Fans in last year’s top two cities, Buffalo and Cincinnati, still have very little to cheer for, and pro athletes in a host of other North American cities continue to crush their residents’ championship dreams.
Click on a city name to see the playoff history of its sports teams.
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This year, we’ve expanded our rankings beyond the Big Four leagues (NFL, MLB, NBA, NHL) to recognize both the growing presence and excitement around Major League Soccer, as well as the die-hard fandom of the Canadian Football League. These changes allowed us to crown a new, sad champion this year: Winnipeg! As in our previous rankings (2017, 2016, 2015), we weighted playoff appearances, playoff series wins and championships when calculating a city’s Misery Score. Examining every city with at least two franchises, we relied heavily on recent success (but excluding this year’s ongoing NHL and NBA playoffs).
Finally, after many thoughtful comments from readers, we’ve adjusted our formula so that sports teams within a city are not all treated the same way, since some franchises can be much more (or less) popular depending on the city. We recognize that, for instance, the Minnesota Vikings are first in the minds of most residents of Minneapolis-St. Paul, while the MLS’ Minnesota United FC or even the NBA’s Timberwolves are less vital in the city’s sports psyche. See the Appendix for details on our scoring system, weights and city clustering choices.
First off, we wish to apologize to the miserable sports fans from the ‘Peg for ignoring them until this year. Expanding our dataset to the CFL has opened us up to a brand new world of suffering north of the border. But crowning Winnipeg as this year’s champion comes with a major caveat: this year’s Winnipeg Jets are actually very good. A deep playoff run (or, lest we jinx things, a Stanley Cup?) could erase years of sports-induced trauma for Winnipeg’s denizens, and cause a tumble down our misery rankings.
But back to the team’s historical misery. In 1996, hockey-mad Winnipeg fans suffered what is perhaps the ultimate insult: losing their cherished Jets franchise to Phoenix, a Sun Belt city with no hockey tradition and a fan base that could hardly tell an offside from an interference call (they’re still learning the ins and outs of the game). The Jets did make a triumphant return in 2011 after the Atlanta Thrashers relocated north and adopted Winnipeg’s traditional hockey team name. Of course the city has never celebrated a Stanley Cup victory, and their last playoff series victory head been way back in…1987.
The Blue Bombers, Winnipeg’s blue and gold CFL franchise, is truly a model of how not to succeed in a small market city. The Bombers have by far the longest Grey Cup drought of any team in the CFL, stretching back almost 30 years. This may not seem like particularly long from the perspective of patient fans in Cleveland, Toronto or Chicago, until you remember that the CFL has only nine teams, with nearly all of them qualifying for the playoffs each year. In a league that small, the Blue Bombers should have won simply by chance in this stretch of 28 years, but Bombers fans continue to maintain their stiff upper lip through years of poor coaching and even worse management, waiting patiently for their Bombers to break through.
Sports fans in the Queen City are a truly miserable bunch, with their only advantage over the more miserable fans in Winnipeg being that the Reds have actually won a championship since the fall of the Berlin Wall.
The Reds have continued to be mostly terrible through the 90s, the 00s and deep into this century’s second decade. Besides their lacklustre play on the field, the Reds are almost as well known for their mess in the front office as well. While Houston Texans owner Bob McNair may have simply compared his players to prison inmates, longtime former Reds owner Marge Schott took the caricature of evil sports owner to the next level, being known for her racist comments toward African-Americans, Asian-Americans and Jews, and open praise for Adolf Hitler. On the baseball front, her ever-present St. Bernards were known to frequently relieve themselves on the field of Riverfront Stadium, while her distaste for scouts made it difficult for the Reds to develop into a more successful baseball club.
In football, the Bengals have never won a Super Bowl, and have subjected their fans to humiliating defeats in their past seven playoff games (that’s 28 years without a playoff game win). Only Cleveland’s Browns are a sadder NFL franchise. But at least Cincinnati’s Ohio neighbors to the northeast tasted a championship with the Cavs. No such luck for Cincinnati.
Buffalo achieved the pinnacle of misery last year, gaining the top spot in our rankings, so the city has seen some progress. Yes, the Buffalo Bills did make the playoffs last year, after an almost 20-year drought. But they were quickly dispatched by the Jacksonville Jaguars in the Wild Card Playoffs, and that was that. Memories of the Bills’ four straight (losing) trips to the Super Bowl in the early 1990s are starting to feel like the good-old days, and it will take much more than a 9-7 season to get Bills fans feeling good again.
The Sabres, one of hockey’s least successful franchises of the past decade, appear to actually be getting worse, coming in dead-last in the NHL this season by a wide margin. At this point, it would take Pat LaFontaine coming out of retirement to pull the Sabres out of their misery. The city remains without a championship in either the NFL or the NHL, and no reasonable prognosticator would expect this to change in the next few years.
Detroit may at first seem a somewhat unusual choice to be in the top 5 most miserable sports cities in North America. After all, the Red Wings — until recently — have been one of the NHL’s most consistently successful franchises, appearing in 25 straight postseasons through 2015-16, while the Detroit Pistons were also a strong NBA franchise in the last decade.
Nevertheless, our data suggests that Detroit fans care most about their baseball (Tigers) and football (Lions) teams, both of which have caused nothing but sorrow for their loyal fans. The Tigers last won a World Series in 1984, but gave their fans some hope starting in 2005 with a strong (and expensive) free agent push led by owner and Detroit native Mike Ilitch. Expensive signings of players like Pudge Rodriguez, Magglio Ordonez and Prince Fielder led to a decade of success along with two World Series appearances, but the team could never get over the top and win an elusive championship.
The story of the Lions is even less positive. The team has failed to win a playoff game since 1991 (a 38-6 stomping of the Cowboys, for those Lions fans with long memories), and have the ignominious honor of a winless season in 2008. The Lions’ many poor drafting decisions over the years have kept the team at a standstill, and so the future does not look particularly bright for the pride of the Motor City.
New York City’s “little brother” teams — the Jets, Mets and Islanders, who share a historical fan base in Queens and Long Island — have not been the worst teams in their respective sports, but it seems like one-step-forward, two-steps-back for the whole bunch. The Mets appeared to be growing into a formidable club in the National League, with an ace pitching staff that includes Noah Syndergaard, Matt Harvey and Jacob deGrom, but 2017 was a huge disappointment, as the team was ravaged by injuries and a series of questionable trades. The New York Islanders have at times looked resurgent under the leadership of superstar captain John Tavares, winning their first playoff series (in 2015) in over two decades, but Tavares may be on the way out, and the team appears heading in the wrong direction. The Jets, in the post-Rex Ryan era, had a breakout 2015, but followed it up in the next two seasons with abysmal records.
With a 32-year championship drought, the most of any major sports city, New York’s proud little brother fans will continue their long, painful wait for sports glory.
Cities with Multiple Teams
Several large cities in North America have more than one professional team in the same league. To handle these cases, we divided fans up into natural allegiances, and calculated separate misery scores for each set of fans. Chicago is an easy one: one set of fans supports the Cubs (Chicago A), while the other supports the White Sox (Chicago B). Los Angeles is similar, with those supporting the Clippers (Los Angeles A) and those supporting the Lakers (Los Angeles B); LA’s two soccer teams were distributed based on geography, with the new Los Angeles FC playing on the same site as the Clippers’ former arena, and the flashy Galaxy joining the Lakers grouping.
The San Francisco Bay Area has two football teams and two baseball teams (and a single basketball and hockey team). Those in the East Bay typically back the Raiders and Athletics (San Francisco Bay Area A), and those in San Francisco and the peninsula back the 49ers and Giants (San Francisco Bay Area B).
Then, there is the complexity of New York City. There are of course many exceptions to the clustering that we selected, but generally speaking, we have the “big brother” and “little brother” teams of New York. The Rangers and Knicks (who both play in Madison Square Gardens), along with the Yankees and Giants, have a somewhat consistent fan base. Similarly, the Jets and Mets (who shared Shea Stadium in Queens), along with the New York Islanders (who are originally from neighboring Long Island), tend to share fans based on geography and a common history (Queens-Long Island).
The Misery Score Explained
We first compute a misery score for each team, as follows: a team gets a demerit point for each year since (i) it last made the playoffs, (ii) it last won a playoff series (which doesn’t include MLB play-in game wins), and (iii) it last won a championship. We cap each of the three above point values at 30, because the average fan’s age in the major sports is approximately between 42 and 43, and the age of 12 or 13 is the general age of enlightenment when fans start to really understand sports (and the misery that comes with losing). These points are added together, which gives each team a number of points between 0 (if the team won a championship last season) and 90 (if the team hasn’t made the playoffs in the past 30 years); we then normalize these values onto the [0,100] scale, to get a team-level misery score.
Finally, for each city, we combine the scores by weighting each team’s importance to that city’s fans. This isn’t an easy thing to calculate, or even know, but we used a technique adapted from FiveThirtyEight where we calculate a team’s importance to the city via Google Search traffic in that team’s state/province over the past five years. Naturally, MLS teams end up with a much lower weight than teams from other sports, as do CFL teams when compared to their hockey counterparts. Generally, NFL teams tend to have the highest weights, followed by MLB teams, but this trend isn’t universal, with the Royals being the heavyweights in Kansas City, and the Golden State Warriors in the San Francisco Bay Area.
For ease of interpretability, we bucket these city scores into 4 categories: green (0-15), yellow (15-30), orange (30-45) and red (45+). Green means that you only need to look back, on average, about 5 years to see a lot of success (Boston); yellow look back 10 years (Indianapolis), orange look back 15 years (Tampa Bay), and red over 15 years (Buffalo and Cincinnati).
Note that we have only chosen to display NFL champions since the first Super Bowl (in 1967). Teams with their last win prior to that (ex. Detroit) are marked as “NA” in our graphic.