Cursed Sports Cities
Many sports find themselves in a spate of misery. Aside from football, all four major American sports leagues are in the offseason on the heels of COVID-necessitated pauses in play earlier this year. Still, for some fanbases the feeling of misery started long before the current coronavirus pandemic.
The betting favorite for most tortured fanbase was clear until a few years ago, with Cleveland holding the perennial crown during their infamous run of failure. Since Akron's favorite son delivered Cleveland its first title since Biblical times, the situation became more muddled with Cleveland, Washington, DC, Houston, and Toronto ending longstanding championship droughts..
Now, with the COVID-19 pandemic further muddying the waters of American sports, the time is right to consider which cities or regions can emulate Cleveland's standard of sports misery.
My metrics are complex. I use classic metrics like years of drought, total championships, heartbreaking close calls and number of teams (I'm only qualifying cities or regions with at least three teams in the Big Four American sports.), but I also include less sports-focused qualifications. Rust Belt deindustrialization and brutally cold weather infused the legend of Cleveland's misery. To choose a true successor, aspects such as a city's day-to-day life warrant serious consideration. Beyond Cleveland, I adjust for the population of each city or region, since the most suffering fanbase, after all, is strengthened by the largest base of sufferers.
Without further ado, the list:
Phoenix Metropolitan Area
Number of Big Four Sports Teams: 4 (Since 1998)
Total Number of Championships: 1
Years Since Last Championship: 19
Perhaps more than anything else, the Phoenix Metropolitan Area is defined by quiet expansion. Tucked into the underappreciated Southwest, Phoenix grew from a city of just under a half a million people in 1970 to just under a million twenty years later in 1990, to just under a million and a half in 2010. Today, the Metropolitan Area is the 11th most populous in the nation. During this time, the rapid growth of the city inevitably attracted pro sports franchises, quadrupling in number over just ten years from a one sport city in 1987 to a four sport powerhouse in 1998.
Slowly growing unnoticed, in true Phoenix style, is the city's championship drought. The Diamondbacks did in just three years what none of its other franchises had with an upstart World Series win in 2001. But in the near generation since, it has been nada for the area. The 2002 defending champion Diamondbacks looked primed to start a dynasty, with returning contributors Randy Johnson, Luis Gonzalez and Curt Schilling leading the snakes to an increased win total of 98. However, this promise ended abruptly with a sweep at the hands of the Cardinals in the NLDS. The Suns tried to pick up the slack, reaching the Western Conference Finals of the NBA in 2006 behind a second straight MVP season from point guard Steve Nash and All-Star forward Shawn Marion. The Suns won Game 1 in Dallas, but still fell to the Mavericks in six games. The 2008 Arizona Cardinals tried to exchange a well-rounded season for a hot playoff run, reaching the Super Bowl behind Hall of Fame wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald and a late career resurgence from quarterback Kurt Warner, despite a regular season record of just 9-7. The Cinderella run came up juuuust short, with a Santonio Holmes game winning catch giving the Steelers the Super Bowl over Arizona. The Cards tried one last time to break the drought seven years later in 2015 with a still active Fitzgerald, another aging quarterback in Carson Palmer, and legendary coach Bruce Arians. But this last bid came up short in the NFC Championship game, as NFL MVP Cam Newton and the Carolina Panthers rolled the Cardinals.
This seems to be a promising case for misery. Even the environment of the area, where the average high temperature in July tops a whopping 106 degrees, seems to be a fire to former champion of misery Cleveland's ice. But the history of Phoenix as a transplant city with transplant franchises, hurts its case slightly. The franchises appear less tied to the fates of the city's people as they were in Cleveland, just as the people are less tied to the city as retirees awaiting the end in the southwest heat. Strengthening this premise, despite being the 11th largest metro area, three of its sports teams finished at 27th in attendance last season. To many, a growing Sun Belt city just can't be thought of in the same way as a Rust Belt town with a median income nearly half that of the former. Still, for the current generation of Phoenicians that have found solace in their local clubs, small as they are, their heartbreak can't be ignored.
Twin Cities, Minnesota
Number of Big Four Sports Teams: 4 (1989-1993 and Since 2000)
Total Number of Championships: 3* (*1969 Vikings won NFL Championship but lost Super Bowl)
Years Since Last Championship: 29
On its face, the Twin Cities are the natural successor to Cleveland. An icy, Midwest pair of cities with histories of winning in their past, but with a very long drought at present. The "Purple People Eaters" defensive line led the Minnesota Vikings to a win in the final NFL Championship game in 1969. The Minnesota Twins picked up two more titles between 1987 and 1991. But what has followed is nearly 30 long years of championshipless teams. The 1998 Vikings seemed destined to win the franchise's first Super Bowl, with a 15-1 season capped by a run to the NFC Championship. The Vikings had the most potent offense of any team statistically since 1983, and led 20-7. They only needed Gary Anderson to convert a field goal to go up 10 with over two minutes left. Despite having not missed a field goal since 1997, Anderson missed (of course), and the Dirty Bird Falcons rallied to beat the Vikings in overtime.
This was only the start of the Vikings' problems. The next year, they again made the Conference Championship and jumped out to a 3-point halftime lead. Alas, they could not keep pace with the high powered "Greatest Show on Turf," losing to Kurt Warner and the Rams despite putting up 37 points. For a third straight year, the Vikings made the Conference Championship in 2001, but this time lost easily to the Kerry Collins-led Giants. Gunslinging future Hall of Fame quarterback Brett Favre steered the Vikes to one last shot at a Super Bowl appearance in 2010. But his gunslinging nature backfired. With the score tied late in the fourth quarter of the conference championship game against New Orleans, the Vikings sat on the edge of field goal range. Favre threw an interception to Tracy Porter of the Saints, forcing overtime. The Saints prevailed. Few other Minnesota Big 4 teams came close to making a league championship during this period. The most notable being a 2004 Timberwolves team that earned the Western Conference 1 seed behind Kevin Garnett before falling in the conference finals in six games to Kobe Bryant's Lakers. The sheer number of close calls for the Vikings, though, is more than enough heartbreak for the Twin Cities in of itself.
There are important advantages the Twin Cities hold over Cleveland. While it is a wintry city in the Midwest, its character is far different than the Rust Belt melancholia that typified Cleveland. The Twin Cities' median income far surpasses Cleveland, and even that of our previous entry of Phoenix. Indeed, despite two playoff appearances by Minneapolis-area teams last season, no Twin Cities franchise finished above 15th in league attendance.
Still, the Twin Cities' claim to the grandaddy of sports suffering, the longest North American championship drought, firmly cements the area as a contender for the misery crown.
State of Tennessee
Number of Big Four Sports Teams: 4 including University of Tennessee Football (Since 2001)
Total Number of Championships: 6* (*Claimed)
Years Since Last Championship: 21
Yes, I'm already bending the rules here. But in fairness, I think the impact of Volunteers Football on the Tennessee sports landscape can't be ignored. While Tennessee is obviously not a single metropolitan area, there's an abundance of sports misery happening across this storied border state.
Both the household income of each of the municipalities where its teams are based and the median income of the state as a whole are lower than the previous two candidates on this list. In fact, they beat out all the contenders on this list but one (more on that later). While the range of high 80s to low 90s average summer temperatures in the three sites of major sports in Tennessee can't top Phoenix, their average humidities, that come out to about twice that of Phoenix's, provide a potent additive. The combined population of all three metro areas exceeds 4 million, rivaling Phoenix as well. Of course, what readers are now undoubtedly protesting must be addressed. The near six-hour distance between Memphis and Knoxville, for example, does matter. I can't assume that the population of all three metro areas forms a perfect unity across the state. But let's assume a common identity is present enough to make Tennessee a viable contender.
Tennessee's close calls started shortly after its last national championship, when the Volunteers football team overcame the loss of Peyton Manning to complete an undefeated national championship season with a Fiesta Bowl win in 1999. Just over a year later, and less than three years after the state welcomed an NFL franchise, the state seemed primed to add a pro football title to their recent college football championship. Behind the play of Pro Bowl multipurpose running back Eddie George and Defensive Rookie of the Year, Jevon "The Freak" Kearse, the Titans made it to the Super Bowl and were driving in the red zone down one score with just seconds left. After a pass by quarterback Steve McNair to receiver Kenny Dyson, Dyson was tackled one yard short of the end zone, ending the game, and ensuring the Titans too would lose to the "Greatest Show on Turf" Rams. In 2002, much of the Titans Super Bowl core remained, with George posting another 1,000 yard season, Kearse coming back from injury late in the year, and McNair posting a career best in yards and the most passing touchdowns of his career up to that point. The team managed to make it back to the AFC Championship and entered the fourth quarter down by just 3 points. But they would eventually fall to the Oakland Raiders, who scored 14 unanswered points in the final quarter. The Grit and Grind Grizzlies would try to pick up the slack ten years later, making the Conference Finals behind Defensive Player of the Year Marc Gasol in 2013 only to be swept by the Spurs. The Nashville Predators broke out late in their franchise's existence, making the Stanley Cup Finals in 2017 and tying the series at 2-2 before falling to the Pittsburgh Penguins. The next year, the Predators took the same core of players including Viktor Arvidsson, PK Subban, Flip Forsberg and Pekka Rinne to 53 wins and a President's Trophy. Unfortunately, the team flamed out in the Stanley Cup Playoffs, losing in the second round to the Winnipeg Jets. The Tennessee Titans had one last go at it, making the AFC Championship Game again in 2020, behind coach Mike Vrabel and star running back Derrick Henry. The team was down by just four points entering the fourth quarter of the game. But just as they did in 2000, the Titans fell to the high powered offense, this time losing to Patrick Mahomes and the eventual Super Bowl Champion Chiefs.
If we allow a state to be considered, Tennessee definitely earns its spot on this list.
Atlanta Metropolitan Area
Number of Big Four Sports Teams: 3* (1968-1999 and Since 2011, *Four From 1999-2011)
Total Number of Championships: 1
Years Since Last Championship: 25
I would say, and I think most would agree, that I could've just posted the video clip above with no additional context as a decent argument for Atlanta fans as the most miserable.
Indeed, close calls are central to Atlanta's argument for sports misery. These instances are as crucial to Atlanta sports misery as events that took on almost mythical proportions like "The Shot", "The Inning," and "The Fumble" were to Cleveland.
From 1991 to 2005, the Braves embarked on one of the most successful runs in baseball history...excluding championships. During this period, the team won five pennants and a whopping fourteen division titles, but only a single World Series in 1995. The '95 Braves remain the city of Atlanta's last championship in any big four sport. The team recently had another solid season, a throwback to the teams of the 90s with an NL East title and NLCS appearance. Unfortunately, it was also a throwback to their playoff disappointments when the team blew a 3-1 lead to the Dodgers.
As for Atlanta's other teams, the Hawks and the short-lived Thrashers NHL franchise exhibited only the briefest glimmers of hope, with strong regular seasons in 2006 for the Thrashers and 2015 for the Hawks punctuated by playoff sweeps. The Falcons' closest brush with success came with a 1998 Super Bowl appearance by a team that lost by two scores. That was the situation...until Super Bowl 51.
It hardly needs repeating, but Super Bowl LI is the worst collapse in Super Bowl history, if not sports history as a whole. Blowing a 25-point lead at the end of the third quarter will undoubtedly have a psychological impact on both the Falcons franchise and Atlanta fans that is impossible to quantify. Between this and the Braves' shortcomings, is a story that is almost Clevelandesque in proportion.
When it comes to the city itself though, Atlanta is in many ways an east coast version of Phoenix. A Southern city that has a median income within $5,000 of Phoenix's with hot summers of its own and the added nuisance of humidity. The population of both metro areas continues to increase, with Atlanta boasting the nation's 9th largest population of the metro area to Phoenix's 11th. There are some important differences, however. Atlanta has long been a majority-black city, but succumbed to gentrification since the city's last sports title, with a sharp increase in white residents. Conversely, Phoenix's percentage of white residents decreased and percentage of Hispanic residents increased since the 1990s. Atlanta is solidly middle of the pack in attendance and in population for American metro areas. Two of their three sports teams recorded losing records last year. Yes, they have only three professional teams, which is a blow, but they did have four franchises for half of their drought. Another city with a short-lived NHL franchise during their drought? You guessed it! Cleveland. With this qualification and the second-longest championship drought in North America, Atlanta is definitely a strong candidate for Cleveland's vacated crown.
Number of Big Four Sports Teams: 3* (1970-75, 1979-1995 and Since 1999, *Four From 1976-1978 and Two From 1996-1998)
Total Number of Championships: 7
Years Since Last Championship: 4
Now I can practically hear the screams of protest at this pick. How can I lump in the suffering of a city with a championship within the last half decade with the rest of the cities or areas on this list? I do agree this is a blow to Cleveland's title as most cursed fanbase. But no matter what ESPN tries to tell you in documentaries like Believeland, a superhuman man delivering one championship cannot heal all wounds. It's worth remembering how bad the drought for Cleveland was compared to the current droughts of the other cities on this list.
What has happened in Cleveland in the admittedly short time since their last championship, you ask? After climbing out of a 3-1 hole to end the city's championship drought, the Indians blowing a 3-1 lead in the World Series seemed almost a karmic reminder that "Hey, the curse may be over, but you're still Cleveland." In the time since the 2016 NBA Finals win, Cleveland watched LeBron James, the one person with the godlike abilities to break even the Cleveland Sports Curse leave AGAIN. The Browns have descended from having the most bets placed on their behalf to win the Super Bowl to going 6-10 during that same season. Without exaggeration, this is more psychological torture in a span of four years than many cities face in a generation. And that's before you examine how bad the original drought was.
At 52 years, Cleveland's drought was almost twice as long as the longest on this list. During this time, many teams that seemed sure to win at least one championship failed. The Browns reached the NFL title game three times in the back half of the 1960s, losing each time. The 1975-1976 Cleveland Cavaliers took the eventual champion Boston Celtics to 6 games in a hard fought Conference Finals before losing the series. In back-to-back years in 1986 and 1987, the Browns lost conference championship games to John Elway's Broncos in heartbreaking fashion. The Cavaliers again lost a six game Conference Finals series in 1992, this time to Michael Jordan's Bulls. The Indians won their division five straight years in the 1990s, with two World Series appearances in 1995 and 1997. They lost in six games to the Braves in 1995 and in a heartbreaking 9th inning, Game 7 collapse in 1997. Even the first seven-year stint of LeBron James with the Cavaliers produced a Finals appearance but no rings. Does one championship erase all this? In my opinion, no.
All in all, I think this at least warrants Cleveland for consideration. Still, the relatively short period of their current drought, their lack of an NHL franchise, and the success of Cleveland overall, with seven total championships, damages Cleveland's case considerably compared to some of the cities on this list.
But maybe we do have to consider what Cleveland brings to the table. Maybe there will never be another Cleveland...except Cleveland, that is.
Class of 2022