I'm stating the obvious when I say sports fandom is about losing a lot more than it's about winning. Every year, in every sport, all but one team ends their season with a loss, with both fans and players left wondering "What could we have done differently?" and thinking "We'll get them next year". We don't, generally, but we still think it. It's all we have.
So we know sports fandom is an exercise in soul crushing disappointment, but are some fans tortured more than others? As a Leaf fan it's often implied that we endure a special kind of punishment, but is this really true? Are our trials and tribulations worse than other NHL teams, or other teams in the other big North American sports for that matter? Or are they just more publicized?
With that question in mind, I visited hockey-reference.com, as well as the MLB, NBA and NFL equivalents, to get a sense of what fans of the other big North American sports have to endure. Results after the jump…
The first four charts show for all current franchises the number of years in existence, the number of championships won, and the % of seasons they won a championship. At the far right is the % of times the season ended in disappointment (ie not winning a championship), and each league is sorted by most successful to least successful (on a % basis). For teams with 0 championships, it’s sorted based on number of seasons in existence (Note: previous incarnations of franchises are rolled into existing franchises. The lists also include only active franchises, so there are a lot of now-defunct teams that won championships in their respective leagues that aren’t shown here. This is what was available to me, so this will have to do.) Below those charts are totals for each league, both in totality and breaking out the Top 5 franchises in each.
A caveat here before we get into it: of course I'm REALLY over-simplifying the definition of ‘disappointment’ here. Being a contender year in and year out is certainly better than being a bottom feeder. Just getting to the post-season is an accomplishment and at least gives you a chance at a championship. Most Leaf fans would kill a man at this point to scrape into the playoffs, never mind get past the first or second round. For these purposes though, this is a good starting point to measure success versus failure without getting into nuance and anecdote. (And for those interested, I'll look at NHL playoff %s in a bit).
In terms of futility, there are a ton of teams (and fans) to feel sorry for here, in every league. The Minnesota Vikings and Texas Rangers share the honour of 'most futile' with a full 50 years in existence without a single championship. The Houston Astros are right behind with 49 seasons (tough going being a baseball fan in Texas apparently) followed by the Denver Nuggets and Atlanta Falcons with 45, and the St Louis Blues at 44. (Until last week LA shared that honour with St Louis - this chart was made before the Cup Final actually finished. Excuse my laziness).
Not surprisingly, in every league the overall 'Disappointment Rate' hovers around 95% - most leagues have had between 20 and 30 teams for the better part of the last 30 years (or longer), so simple math dictates that all else being equal you're going to win once every 20 or 30 years.
However in every league there's a cluster of 4 or 5 teams at the top that have success rates way above the rest of the leagues. Canadiens, Leafs, Yankees, Marlins, Celtics, Lakers, Packers, Browns... over their franchise history they've won at a rate 2 to 3 times that of the league as a whole. (Some like to argue that it was 'easier' for teams like the Canadiens or Leafs to win when there were only 6 teams in the league, but that argument kind of falls apart when you look at the relative success (or lack thereof) for the Rangers, Bruins, Hawks and Wings during the same era.) When you remove them from the totals, the average 'Disappointment Rate' for the rest of the teams jumps to almost 97%. Interestingly, 4 of the top 5 in the NHL - Montreal, Toronto, Edmonton, NY Islanders - have certainly had their share of success historically, but have been in the bottom 5-10 of the league by almost any measure since the lockout. A little karmic rebalancing by the Hockey Gods perhaps?
So if the average disappointment rate is around 95%, but there are a group of teams that have won at a rate above the league average, that must mean there's a group that has lost a lot more frequently as well. The chart below summarizes teams with 0 or 1 championships in all leagues in totality, and then breaks out just the NHL.
So out of the 122 franchises evaluated here, 32% have never won a championship, and 17% have won only once, making up almost a full 50% of the total. For this poor group, their season has ended in disappointment a full 99% of the time - 1,965 seasons of 1,988.
In the NHL the situation is even worse, with 43% of current franchises having never won a championship, and 17% winning only once, making up 60% of the total. Again, for this group, their season ended in disappointment 99% of the time - 490 of 495 seasons. In this simple context, it's hard to argue that the Leafs really have a history of being a tortured fan base. They've had ups and downs like every franchise, and actually more 'ups' than the average team. Unfortunately for the current, younger fanbase, most of the 'ups' happened quite some time ago, with recent history filled with more 'downs', but even recent history isn't that much worse than it has been for the majority of other NHL franchises.
Taking the analysis a little further for the NHL, the chart below shows the number of years each team has made the playoffs, sorted in descending playoff % rate. (It also includes Division and Conference championships - 2 categories that the Leafs don't fare too well in). While the Leafs are slightly above league average at 69% (vs 63%), any way you look at it a 7 year playoff drought is pretty abysmal, putting the last 10 seasons at a 30% playoff appearance rate. Even the last 20 years - which include 2 conference final appearances and a 6-year playoff streak - are below league average, with only a 50% playoff rate. Thank god for the 80s, the Norris Division, and the divisional playoff format.
In closing - LOL at Winnipeg (Atlanta) and Columbus.