When the Nashville Predators — who won the NHL’s Western Conference crown Monday night — take the ice in the Stanley Cup Final next week, they’ll be playing for more than their teammates, coaches or even their legions of catfish-throwing fans in “Smashville.” They’ll be trying to end the stealthiest title drought in pro sports and bring the state of Tennessee its first championship.
Since the Houston Oilers packed their bags and moved northeast in 1997 (briefly stopping in Memphis before settling in Nashville), Tennessee’s teams — the Titans, Predators and Grizzlies — have participated in 52 completed professional seasons,1 and 52 times, they’ve ended the year without a parade to show for it.
Among states with major-league franchises,2 that’s the most cracks anybody has taken at a title without winning at least one. Although Tennessee has been a pro-sports state for only 20 years, its teams have played long enough that we’d expect them to have nearly two championships under their belts by now — or they would, that is, if every team in each league had an equal chance of winning the title each year. (Obviously they don’t, but bear with us for the purposes of this exercise.)
Most of the other states on the winless list haven’t had more than one franchise, and in some cases, the team hasn’t been around for a long time: Iowa’s lone team was from the NBA’s first season, 67 years ago, and Kentucky hasn’t had a major pro team in nearly a century.3 Tennessee, by contrast, has had a toehold in three of the four major leagues since the Grizzlies moved to Memphis from Vancouver in 2001.
(Speaking of Vancouver, British Columbia would actually be ahead of Tennessee on the ranking of underperforming states above if we included Canadian provinces. Between the Vancouver Canucks and the Grizzlies, whose stint in B.C. was brief, the province “should have” won 2.2 championships by now but has zero rings. Canada as a whole, though, has run far above expectation — it has won 43 titles, 13.5 more than we would have expected.4)
Tennessee has come close to glory — a few inches, to be specific. The Titans’ Kevin Dyson was within a yard of potentially tying Super Bowl XXXIV on the game’s final play,5 but the Rams’ Mike Jones dragged him to the ground before Dyson’s outstretched arm could reach the ball across the goal line.
The Titans also lost the 2003 AFC championship game and three divisional playoff games (including two at home). Meanwhile, the Grizzlies lost the 2013 Western Conference finals, and the Predators lost three times in the conference semifinals before breaking through this postseason.
Some Tennessee fans might counter that this is all moot anyway, because the state’s flagship university has won more than 20 national championships — most notably in women’s basketball (eight, with the most recent coming in 2008) and football (four, most recently in 1999). But as seriously as the state takes its college sports, adding that elusive title in the pro ranks would no doubt be welcomed warmly.
Then again, if we also look at states that have won championships, albeit not enough of them (given the number of tries they’ve made at it), Tennessee is far from the most disappointing state relative to expectations. Ohio teams have 16 titles (tied with Missouri for the seventh-most of any state), but they’ve also played so many seasons that we’d expect the state to have 23.2 championships by now. That 7.2-ring shortfall, powered in large part by the now-defunct Cleveland sports curse, is the most of any state in the union (exceeding even that of my home state, Georgia, which has just one measly title to show for a half-century of major-league sports).
At the other end of the spectrum, the states with the best championship fortune have been — big surprise — Massachusetts (+13.0), New York (+8.4) and California (+5.6). But kudos to Wisconsin for coming in fourth at +4.0, with the Milwaukee Braves (1957) and Bucks (1971) each pitching in a title to go with the Green Bay Packers’ 13.
In general, there’s a weak-to-moderate relationship between a state’s population or economic power (as measured by gross state product)6 and its ability to win more championships than we’d expect from chance alone. That’s not exactly a shocking discovery; larger, wealthier states tend to have bigger cities, which historically have tended to accumulate a disproportionate share of the available playing talent.
So in that regard, maybe we shouldn’t be too surprised by the slight underperformance of a state like Tennessee. It’s big enough — and economically successful enough — to have three major-sports franchises but not to consistently outcompete other states for the best players. Nor should we be amazed that the last winless multisport state is one whose entire history is in the modern era of huge leagues, when outracing the pack involves much more competition. (Think of how much higher your chances of a title would be in, say, the NHL’s six-team era than the current 32-team NFL.) And some state was probably going to go a stretch of years without winning a championship no matter what. (Much like some city was going to go a half-century without one.) Tennessee just happens to embody the perfect combination of circumstances for it to occur.
The Predators have a chance to change all that. Just like when North Carolina won a Cup in 2006, it might be a bit odd to see a Southern state using hockey (of all sports) as its ticket to finally winning a championship.7 But, hey, a ring is a ring. And you might be up next, Utah.