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December 18, 2007

The Curse of the Runner-Up

When the Bears lost to the Vikings on Monday Night Football to fall out of the playoff race, they were continuing in the mediocre tradition of Super Bowl losers. Not since 1972 has the team that lost the previous year's championship game come back to win it the next year. And not since the Bills of the early '90s has such a team even reached the Super Bowl. That's way worse than even an average team should do, let alone one of the sport's two best teams—and this curse of the runner-up holds true across all of the major professional sports. What is it about losing the championship game that dooms a team the following season?

First, let's look at the numbers. Even including hockey (perhaps the most dubious assumption in this study), the last team from a major sport to win a championship game or series the year after finishing second is the 1989 Oakland Athletics, which drummed the San Francisco Giants in a series best remembered for the gigantic earthquake that disrupted it. The last NBA team to pull the trick was the '85-'86 Boston Celtics. The last NHL team: the '83-'84 Edmonton Oilers. (In fact, they were the last runner-up to even make it back to the Finals the following year.)

Since each of the leagues has about 30 teams, each team should win a title, on average, about every 30 years. That means each has, on average, about a 50% chance of winning a title in the next 15 years. It stands to reason that the teams we're talking about are far better than average, having almost won the year before. But it's been 18 years since any runner-up from any of the four leagues has claimed a title the following year (which means it's been 72 league-years). Why do these teams end up sucking so much?

Certainly some teams that almost reach the precipice disband after the disappointing finish (see the '03-'04 Los Angeles Lakers). And then there's the possibility that this is just a statistical fluke. But it seems more likely to Gelf that this strange phenomenon is the result of an emotional letdown.

What's your explanation? Let us know in the comments.

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