Like starting your own orchard, launching a franchise in Tampa is an exercise in delayed gratification. Before tasting the sweet fruits of your labor, you must have the patience to endure long, painful periods of no fruit whatsoever. The Tampa Bay Buccaneers and their Creamsicle jerseys managed only three winning seasons in their first 20 years in the NFL; the NHL’s Tampa Bay Lightning finished above .500 only once in their first 10 years; and it wasn’t until MLB’s Rays dropped the “Devil” from their name in their 11th year that they finally recorded a winning season.
In my analysis of the metropolitan areas with the worst collective single-year performances, Tampa-St. Petersburg, Florida, made three appearances in the bottom 15 over the past 25 years. But Tampa Bay’s story cannot be told strictly through sports pain. When checking out the other end of the distribution, it becomes clear that, after enduring its periods of drought, Tampa is experiencing a bumper crop of wins unlike any other city in recent history.
To quantify a city’s misery or joy, I grouped franchises in five major professional sports leagues (NFL, MLB, NBA, WNBA, NHL) according to the metropolitan area that they call home, limiting my sample to only those metro areas that had at least one franchise from at least three of the five professional leagues. I analyzed the regular-season standings for each of those teams by year since 19971 and translated each team’s winning percentage at the end of the regular season2 into a z-score to find how many standard deviations it was from the mean that season. Then I averaged each metropolitan area’s z-scores to arrive at one overall metric. This time, I shifted my focus to the 15 best seasons for a city in the past 25 years:
|Z-score by league|
|Metro area||Year||NFL||MLB||NBA||WNBA||NHL||Avg. Z-score|
Two of the top three city-seasons on our list belong to Houston, which is featured four times in the top 15 overall. Houston’s 2018 season, the best single year of the past 25 years, was led by James Harden and the Rockets, who won an NBA-best 65 games in 2017-18 before falling in Game 7 of the Western Conference finals to the Golden State Warriors, missing point guard Chris Paul — and missing 27 consecutive 3-pointers — in the decisive game. Houston’s earliest appearances on this list, in 1998 and 1999, came in the midst of four straight championships from Sheryl Swoopes and the Comets, the WNBA’s first dynasty.
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And it probably doesn’t surprise anyone to see Boston — the reigning “Titletown” of the 21st century — make four appearances in the top 15. Boston has paired regular-season success with even greater postseason glory, bringing home a total of 12 championships in the new millennium — and at least one from each of its four teams. 2018 was Boston’s strongest regular season, and both the Patriots and the Red Sox crowned their runs with championships. The city’s next best year, 2009, was almost unusual in that none of the Boston teams brought home hardware at the end of the season, and none advanced past the second round of their respective playoffs.
But if the Buccaneers can maintain their strong early season form after squeaking past New England on Sunday, Tampa will have the best three-year run by rolling average z-score of any city in the country in the past 25 years. Even a below-average season from the Bucs in 2019 couldn’t keep Tampa out of the top 10 overall that year, as the Lightning posted the fourth-highest single-season point total in NHL history (before suffering a shocking first-round sweep at the hands of the Columbus Blue Jackets). Tom Brady’s arrival in 2020 capped the strongest year in Tampa’s history, which featured both a Super Bowl victory for the Bucs and a Stanley Cup for the Lightning — though the Rays fell just short of completing the trifecta, losing in the World Series in six games to the Los Angeles Dodgers.
With the Lightning capturing another Stanley Cup in July, it’s now the Rays’ turn to attempt to bring another multi-championship year to Tampa in 2021. They’re in a strong position to do so after setting the franchise record for wins in a season and clinching first place in the American League. If they pull it off, it would be the team’s first World Series — and the team that calls Tropicana Field home would finally bear the sweetest fruit of all.
Neil Paine contributed research.