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Tennessee Has Sneakily Compiled The Next Great Sports Drought

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.

CHAMPIONSHIPS
STATE EXPECTED ACTUAL DIFF.
Tennessee 1.71 0 -1.71
Utah 1.37 0 -1.37
Connecticut 0.86 0 -0.86
Oklahoma 0.33 0 -0.33
Kentucky 0.15 0 -0.15
Iowa 0.06 0 -0.06
Among winless states, Tennessee is the biggest underachiever

Expected championships are calculated by assigning each team in a league equal odds of winning the title in a given season and then adding up those title chances over time.

Source: Sports-Reference.com

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.

CHAMPIONSHIPS
STATE/PROVINCE YEARS TEAM-SEASONS ACTUAL EXPECTED DIFF.
1 Massachusetts 1903-2016 382 37 24.0 +13.0
2 Quebec 1927-2016 153 23 11.7 +11.3
3 New York 1903-2016 804 56 47.7 +8.4
4 California 1926-2016 777 38 32.4 +5.6
5 Wisconsin 1922-2016 218 15 11.1 +4.0
6 Alberta 1980-2016 71 6 2.8 +3.2
7 Ontario 1927-2016 180 14 11.9 +2.1
8 Maryland 1950-2016 132 8 6.4 +1.6
9 Texas 1952-2016 347 14 12.9 +1.1
10 Rhode Island 1925-31 7 1 0.6 +0.5
11 Florida 1966-2016 257 9 8.7 +0.3
12 New Jersey 1929-2016 70 3 2.8 +0.2
13 Iowa 1950 1 0 0.1 -0.1
14 Michigan 1903-2016 348 22 22.1 -0.1
15 Colorado 1950-2016 142 5 5.1 -0.1
16 Kentucky 1922-26 3 0 0.2 -0.2
17 Oklahoma 2006-16 10 0 0.3 -0.3
18 Oregon 1971-2016 46 1 1.9 -0.9
19 Connecticut 1926-97 19 0 0.9 -0.9
20 Manitoba 1980-2016 22 0 0.9 -0.9
21 North Carolina 1989-2016 66 1 2.2 -1.2
22 Louisiana 1967-2016 67 1 2.4 -1.4
23 Utah 1980-2016 37 0 1.4 -1.4
24 Tennessee 1997-2016 52 0 1.7 -1.7
25 British Columbia 1971-2016 51 0 2.2 -2.2
26 Washington 1968-2016 123 2 4.6 -2.6
27 Pennsylvania 1903-2016 626 31 33.8 -2.8
28 Minnesota 1922-2016 201 6 9.0 -3.0
29 Indiana 1922-2016 91 1 4.1 -3.1
30 Arizona 1969-2016 115 1 4.2 -3.2
31 Illinois 1903-2016 509 28 31.5 -3.5
32 Missouri 1903-2016 409 16 19.9 -3.9
33 D.C. 1903-2016 246 7 12.3 -5.3
34 Georgia 1966-2016 169 1 6.5 -5.5
35 Ohio 1903-2016 464 16 23.2 -7.2
Which states (and provinces) have overachieved?

Expected championships are calculated by assigning each team in a league equal odds of winning the title in a given season and then adding up those title chances over time, for states with pro sports teams between 1903 and 2016.

Source: SPORTS-REFERENCE.COM

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.

Footnotes

  1. The data for this story does not include any leagues with seasons still in progress, including the 2016-17 NHL and NBA seasons. (Yes, the Grizzlies have been eliminated from the latter, but we still don’t know who the eventual NBA champion will be.)

  2. This story covers only teams from the so-called “big four” North American sports leagues: MLB (since 1903, the year of the first modern World Series), the NFL (since 1922, its first season), the NHL (since 1927, the first year that the Stanley Cup was exclusively awarded to the NHL champion), and the NBA (since 1950, its first season). Super Bowl-era AFL teams are also included, since they played for a common championship with the NFL, but other rival leagues (such as the ABA and WHA) are not.

  3. And that team played zero home games during its final season while being outscored 108-0. (!)

  4. And, besides, we’re focusing on U.S. states here, you hosers.

  5. A touchdown would have brought them within an extra point of a tie, since the score was 23-16 at the time. Or it could even have set up a possible game-winning 2-point conversion try.

  6. With correlation coefficients of 0.31 and 0.39, respectively.

  7. Especially since our earlier analysis found that Nashville was the smallest market (in terms of total hockey fans) in the NHL.

Neil Paine is a senior sportswriter for FiveThirtyEight.

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