For much of the first decade of the 21st century, the Detroit sports faithful were living the mid-market dream. The Pistons and general manager Joe Dumars assembled a defensive juggernaut with newly minted Hall of Famer Ben Wallace at the center, their grit and tenacity endearing them to the city whose personality they reflected. The Bill Laimbeer-coached Shock were a dynasty: Powered by the likes of Swin Cash, Katie Smith and Deanna Nolan, the team captured three WNBA titles in six seasons. The Red Wings seamlessly transitioned from generational talent to generational talent, as the aging superstars that had restored the franchise to glory — including Steve Yzerman, Brendan Shanahan and Sergei Fedorov — passed the torch to stars-in-the-making Pavel Datsyuk and Henrik Zetterberg, perennially contending for Stanley Cups along the way. The Tigers threw off two decades of middling-to-piddling seasons and made folk heroes out of Pudge Rodríguez and Magglio Ordóñez, with right-handed phenom Justin Verlander representing the future. And the Lions … well, the Lions reminded everyone that sometimes pain is what brings people closest together.
But the dream has since transitioned into a nightmare. The past few years have seen the four remaining major sports franchises in Detroit battling to stay out of last place, let alone look competitive. After a prolonged period of sustained success, a Michigander could be excused for imagining the present situation to be historically grim. But in this case, it isn’t just recency bias that’s driving such feelings: The data confirms that Detroit sports are currently mired in an unprecedented three-year run of ignominy.
To quantify Motown’s misery and find its place in the hierarchy of sports cities, I first grouped franchises in five major professional sports leagues (NFL, NBA, NHL, MLB, WNBA) according to the metropolitan area that they call home. I limited my sample to only those metropolitan areas that had at least one franchise from at least three of the five professional leagues. I then analyzed the regular-season standings for each season since 19971 (the first year of play in the WNBA) to arrive at a normalized metric for futility for a given city.
I translated each team’s winning percentage at the end of the regular season2 into a set of z-scores to find how many standard deviations a metropolitan area’s3 winning percentage was from the mean that season. I then took the average of the z-scores for the metropolitan areas that had at least one team in at least three of the five leagues to arrive at a final futility index. Here are the 15 worst seasons for a city in the past 25 years:
|Z-score by league|
|Metro area||Year||NFL||MLB||NBA||WNBA||NHL||Avg. Z-score|
Pending the 2021 NFL season — which, valiant comeback effort on Sunday notwithstanding, doesn’t promise much in the way of pulling the average up — the last three years of Detroit sports will have all ranked among the 11 worst for any city over the past two and a half decades. The Pistons, Red Wings, Lions and Tigers have sputtered along to a series of bottom-feeding finishes. Only once did one of the four teams finish .500 or better during this stretch: the 2018-19 Pistons, who posted a 41-41 mark before getting swept out of the first round of the playoffs by the Milwaukee Bucks. Had this year’s Tigers not pulled out of their early season tailspin — after being 13 games under .500 in mid-June, they now stand at 68-76 — 2021 had the potential to be the worst year of the bunch. And, of course, the Shock haven’t been able to pull the average up since the team departed for Tulsa after the 2009 season, marking yet another decline in Detroit sports excellence.
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No other city has seen a three-year spell of losing quite like Detroit’s, although Tampa and Cleveland both appear three times in this list. 1998 was the inaugural season for the Tampa Bay (then-Devil) Rays, which they commemorated by losing 99 games, second-worst in MLB that year. The Devil Rays’ inauspicious start was actually a marginal improvement on the Lightning’s forgettable 1997-98 season, in which the Bolts posted the NHL’s worst record. Cleveland’s roughest period came soon after the end of the first LeBron James era; to add insult to injury, during the city’s low point in 2012, James was celebrating his first NBA championship with the Miami Heat.
But both of these cities have had reasons to celebrate since then: Tampa has perhaps the strongest overall sporting scene in the country right now, with the Buccaneers and Lightning winning three championships between them in the past two seasons and the Rays currently occupying first place in the American League. And though James’s second departure from Cleveland may make recollections of the era bittersweet for fans in Northeast Ohio, he took the Cavaliers to four consecutive NBA Finals from 2015 to 2018, winning the city’s first title since 1964 in 2016.
You have to squint pretty hard to see any glimmers of hope on the horizon for Detroit in 2022, as each of the city’s franchises progresses through the slog of rebuilding. Somewhere between 30 and 40 percent of the Tigers’ payroll will still be allocated to a now-replacement-level designated hitter.4 Yzerman, now the general manager of the Red Wings, is trying to right the ship in Hockeytown, but he appears to be in the midst of a multi-year rebuilding effort, like the front offices of the Pistons and the Lions. It may require an All-Star rookie season from top NBA draft pick Cade Cunningham to ensure that Detroit does not appear again on this list in 2022.
Neil Paine contributed research.