Tuesday, January 20, 2009

Worst Franchise in Sports

The Lions have unquestionably been the worst franchise in professional sports over the better part of a decade. Since 2001, they are 31-97 for an unfathomably bad winning percentage of .242. They just put the finishing touches on the worst eight-year stretch in the NFL since the Cardinals went 12-70-3 from 1938-45. That stretch was gloriously capped off by the worst season in professional sports history. While the magnitude of the losing is new, the actual losing is not. The Lions are one of only three veteran NFL franchises that haven’t made it to a Super Bowl (Saints and Browns). They also only have one playoff win in the last 50 years. Does all of this make the Lions the worst franchise in modern sports history?

I scoured the four major sports for the worst performers of the last four decades. I chose 1970 as my definition of “modern sports history” for a few reasons. First, the NFL/AFL merger took place in 1970. NFL franchises have been on equal footing since then in terms of scheduling. Second, a number of franchises in each of the sports were formed in or around 1970. In fact, the four major leagues had nearly twice as many franchises in 1970 as they had just five years earlier making 1970 a convenient—albeit arbitrary—separation point between smaller and larger leagues. Basically, 1970 represents the beginning of sports as we know it today.

Defining the “worst” franchise is clearly a subjective measure. Some franchises boast better regular season winning percentages while others boast more playoff successes (relatively speaking, of course). However, I’m pretty confident that I was able to identify the worst franchises of the four major sports taking all factors into consideration. Where there were multiple candidates, I included them all. Here is a chart comparing the relative merits of the most inept franchises of the last four decades (teams established after 1970 are not included)…

Worst Franchise?

LeagueTeamWin%Years +.500PlayoffsPlayoff WinsFinalsTitles
MLBTexas Rangers*.480153000
MLBMilwaukee Brewers.476123110
MLBSan Diego Padres.465135320
MLBWashington Nationals#.483141000
NBAL.A. Clippers%.36464000
NFLArizona Cardinals@.40785410
NFLAtlanta Falcons.429109610
NFLDetroit Lions.413119100
NFLNew Orleans Saints.41386200
NHLL.A. Kings.4791421810
NHLVancouver Canucks.46613211120

*Includes Washington Senators (1970-71)
#Includes Montreal Expos (1970-2004)
%Includes Buffalo Braves (1970-78) and San Diego Clippers (1978-1984)
@Includes St. Louis (1970-1987) and Phoenix Cardinals (1988-1993)

It’s pretty clear that the worst franchises in the NHL and MLB are nowhere near as pathetic as the worst NFL franchises and the L.A. Clippers. While being the worst in a particular league over a near 40-year stretch is nothing to be excited about, the participants from the NHL and MLB can rest easy. Identifying the worst NFL franchise since 1970 is a thankless task. Atlanta is clearly more distinguished than its competitors with the best winning percentage, the most playoff wins, and a Super Bowl appearance. The Saints and the Lions are nearly identical. The Saints boast four more regular season wins and one more playoff win while the Lions boast three more playoff appearances. I’m not sure how much a “playoff win” should be worth in a comparison like this. Is one playoff win worth more than three winless playoff appearances? The Lions and Saints are a push in my opinion. That leaves the Arizona Cardinals as the remaining NFL team in competition. The Cardinals are what got me thinking about all of this in the first place. For years, the Lions could rely on the futility of the Cardinals to bail them out of being the worst franchise in the NFL. I’m not so sure that is the case anymore. In just one postseason, the Cardinals have distanced themselves from the Lions. The Lions still have a fairly significant lead in regular season success outdistancing the Cards by 15 wins. However, the Cardinals own four times as many playoff wins, a Super Bowl appearance, and possibly a Super Bowl-win. That vaults the Cards over the Lions, in my opinion.

So far, the Lions have been worse than every NHL and MLB franchise and find themselves in a dead-heat with the New Orleans Saints as the worst franchise in the NFL. The L.A. Clippers are the only remaining threat to Detroit’s claim to being the worst franchise in modern sports history. Unfortunately, this is a matchup that even the most masochistic Lions fan could not skew in the Lions favor. The Lions have been an embarrassment to the city of Detroit and to the sport of football but even that isn’t enough to take the mantle of worst franchise from the unequivocally atrocious L.A. Clippers. The Clip-show has an all-time winning percentage of .364. That means they have averaged a 30-52 record in 39 years of existence. They also have zero series wins and only six playoff appearances. I tried to put on my objective hat in this comparison but I found myself rooting hard for the Lions. Just like on the football field, though, they came up short yet again. Still, I feel confident saying that the Lions are the second worst professional franchise of the last 40 years.

That could be the end of the debate but it doesn’t necessarily have to be. There is an addendum that could change things depending on how much credence you’re willing to give it. On statistics alone, it is clear that the Clippers have been the worst franchise of the modern era. However, the Clippers were actually formed in 1970. In fact, every team on this list with the exception of the Cardinals and Lions were formed after 1960. The Lions had been a franchise for 50 years before the Clippers ever came into existence. The Clippers had to start a franchise from scratch which usually guarantees a decade or more of futility. That’s why the majority of the teams in the chart are only 40-45 years old. The Lions have no such excuse. The Clippers have been the worst franchise in modern sports history statistically speaking with the Lions and Saints coming in a close second. Considering the Clippers and Saints were newly founded franchises in 1970 and the Lions were founded in 1920, the Lions could very well be the most pathetic franchise in modern sports history. It all depends on whether you grade on a curve or not. Regardless, the Lions have been pathetic. Although, I’m pretty sure all of you knew that already.


Detroit Sports Guru said...

Great piece, keep up the great work!

Anonymous said...

Another variable worth considering might be the presence or absence of salary caps/luxury taxes/whatever. Seems to me that the worst NFL team has fewer excuses than the worst MLB team when you consider that the entire structure of the former's league is meant to level the playing field. The MLB not only has greater disparities between rosters, but has (had? I don't follow MLB closely) that bizarre draft situation wherein a team drafting high might take a less desirable player because the best prospects could basically refuse to play for them. So when comparing post 1970, it might be instructive to note when caps and draft rules changed among the different leagues. My guess is that the Lions look a lot worse in this light.

-long time reader, first time commenter

Jake said...

Great point! The NFL and the NHL are the only leagues with a “hard” salary cap and the NFL had it 11 years before the NHL. The NFL certainly goes out of its way to promote a competitive balance. Only one of the last eight Super Bowls losers has even made it back to the playoffs the following year. Six times since 1994, a team has missed the playoffs one season and played in the Super Bowl the next season. Since 2002, 27 of the 32 NFL teams have won a Division title. Over a five year stretch from 2003-2007, the team that finished last in the NFC South won the NFC South the following year. These things don’t happen in other leagues.

Certainly, things weren’t as easy in the NFL prior to the institution of the salary cap in ’94. The dynasties were tough to contend with. However, no league has made it easier for its teams to compete over the last 15 years than the NFL. That definitely puts the Lions in a worse light and is yet another reason why the Lions might actually be as bad or worse than the Clippers all things considered. Thanks for the comments and take care!


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