With World Series victories in the last dozen years by the Red Sox, White Sox and now the Cubs, we’ve seen the longest three championship-less droughts come to an end. Many are listing the next most “cursed” franchises, with the Indians obviously atop the list, but there’s more to it than simply ranking teams since their last title. For example, nobody perceived the White Sox the way we perceived the Red Sox and Cubs before their victories.
In my opinion, there are three factors that affect how “cursed” a franchise is. The first is the team’s performance during the drought. A team that is never in contention isn’t cursed so much as it’s pathetic. The second, which is related, is the number of high profile heartbreaking losses. A team has to be good enough to play in important playoff games, and it has to suffer “stomach punch” losses. Third is the passion of the fan base. The Florida Panthers could go a century without a Stanley Cup, and I’m not sure that too many people would care.
So here are my rankings of the cursed franchises. The ground rules for this list are as follows: A team has to have gone without a title since the 1960s, and it generally has to have played in the same place since then. If the team has moved cities, it moves down my list. The suffering must be generational, which can only happen when a team stays (and loses) in one place for half a century. Also, despite noting that I give more credit to bigger and more passionate fan bases, I am going to try to treat every sport equally. The word “irrelevant” will appear often in this piece — it’s the worst thing a franchise can be. Of course the NHL has far fewer fans than the NFL, but I’ll try to judge relevance relative to the league, not across sports.
32. Los Angeles Clippers. The Clippers have been around since 1970 without a title, so technically they qualify for this list. Technically. Between Buffalo, San Diego and Los Angeles, they were the most irrelevant franchise in sports until they got Chris Paul this decade. Even so, they’ve never been close to the Conference Finals, let alone the Finals, and few people actually care, except for the bandwagon jumpers as the Lakers and Clippers have swapped positions over the last few seasons.
31. Brooklyn Nets. I’ve lived in New York for nearly half my life and I’ve met a total of one Nets fan. From the perspective of local interest, this is the most irrelevant team on this list. They also technically don’t qualify because they won the ABA Finals in 1974 and 1976, but fewer people cared about the ABA Finals than care about the outcome of minor league preseason games. They’ve never been competitive in the NBA, other than 2002 and 2003, when they took advantage of the greatest conference disparity in NBA history to make it to the Finals twice. Those Nets teams might not have even made the playoffs had they been in the West. And again, nobody here cared.
30. Denver Nuggets. Even in the ABA the Nuggets were playoff losers, falling short of the Finals every year (even their 65-win 1975 season) until finally making the last ever ABA Finals in 1976, which they lost in six games. Since then the only time they sniffed even the Conference Finals was 2009, when — sandwiched in a ten-year run of first round exits — they lost to the Lakers rather easily (including by 27 points in the clincher).
29. Milwaukee Brewers. The Brewers led the 1982 World Series 3–2 only to fall in 7, but other than that they’re as forgettable a franchise as exists in baseball, with nary a noteworthy playoff moment. They’ve switched cities (Seattle to Milwaukee), divisions (West to East to Central), even leagues (AL to NL), but all the while nobody really cares.
28. Arizona Cardinals. They won a title in Chicago in 1947, lost the title the next year, then were terrible for another decade, before moving to St. Louis. They were mostly irrelevant for nearly three decades in St. Louis, before moving to Arizona in 1988. They’ve been mostly irrelevant there as well, other than the fluky (they were 9–7) 2008 Kurt Warner/Larry Fitzgerald playoff run, and the last couple years when they’ve been a contender but nothing special.
27. San Diego Padres. They’re almost always terrible, with just three seasons with more than 90 wins in their history. Two of those (1984 and 1998) they won the pennant, bracketing Tony Gwynn’s career with seasons in which they overachieved and then quickly lost the World Series as massive underdogs. (Sorry San Diego, but when I think of the championships in my life that most seemed to be a fait accompli because of the massive disparity between the teams, the 1998 World Series and Super Bowl XXIX are foremost in my mind.)
26. Seattle Mariners. It seems as if they’re always competitive — they’ve been .500 or better for most of our lives — yet they’ve never even come within two games of a World Series. After losing three of the best players in baseball history in consecutive seasons (Randy Johnson, Ken Griffey, Jr., Alex Rodriguez), the 2001 Mariners were arguably the greatest team ever, going 116–46. And then they managed just one victory in the ALCS. (To add insult to injury, the World Series MVP that year was Randy Johnson. For the newly invented Arizona Diamondbacks.) The Mariners can’t even win the award as most cursed team in their division, having been surpassed on this list by the Rangers in recent years.
25. Atlanta Hawks. In 1958 the St. Louis Hawks were champions. In the next decade they lost in the Finals twice and in the Division Finals five times before moving to Atlanta in 1968. Their first two years in Atlanta they got destroyed by the Lakers in the Division Finals. And that was the last time they’d make it that far until 2015, when they won 60 games and lost to LeBron in the Conference Finals. That 2015 season was one of only two times they’ve won more than 50 games in the last 20 years. The only truly crushing loss in this franchise’s history in the past several decades is 1988, when they led the Celtics 3–2 in the second round only to lose each of games 6 and 7 by two points. That was the only time Dominique’s Hawks even won more than one second round game.
24. Milwaukee Bucks. They came into existence in 1968. In their second year of existence they got Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, who immediately was the best player in the world. In their third year of existence they won a title during one of the greatest seasons of all time. The next three years they were a title contender, losing once in the Finals and once in the Conference Finals. But before the next season Kareem requested a trade to New York or L.A. The Bucks didn’t trade him, and they had their worst season since his arrival. They did trade him the next year, and he immediately went off to L.A. to win a fistful of rings. This ranking is mostly because of coulda/woulda/shoulda — despite losing Kareem, within five years the Bucks were title contenders again, no (or very little) thanks to the pieces they got back in the Kareem trade. But the 1980s Bucks never get over the hump, losing to Philadelphia or Boston in the playoffs seven years in a row. Since then they’ve been mostly irrelevant.
23. New York Knicks. They won two titles in the 1970s and technically shouldn’t qualify, but I have the Jazz higher up and they came into existence after the Knicks’ last title. Since that time they’ve lost three times in the Conference Finals and twice in the Finals. The Knicks’ most devastating losses in that time are games 6 and 7 of the 1994 Finals (#JohnStarks), games 6 and 7 of the second round in 1997 vs. the Heat (which they had to play without Patrick Ewing, Allan Houston, Larry Johnson, John Starks, and Charlie Ward, all of whom were suspended one game for their reactions to P.J. Brown’s bodyslam of Ward), and of course Reggie Miller’s 8 points in 8.9 seconds in the second round the following year (they made a whole movie about that one!).
22. Houston Astros. They’ve won only one pennant in 55 years (a string exceeded only by the Mariners), in 2005, when they were a mediocre 89-win team that got easily swept by the White Sox in the World Series. The previous year was actually more brutal, as they blew a 3–2 NLCS lead to the Cardinals, including losing game 6 to a 12th inning walkoff by Jim Edmonds. But nobody remembers that series because of the 2004 ALCS, which was slightly more dramatic. (Here’s an analogy: Jets fans are to the 1998 conference championship games as Astros fans are to the 2004 championship series. Nobody else cares, because there was far more drama and heartbreak on the other side of the bracket.)
21. Tennessee Titans. They lose points because they’ve only been in Tennessee for 20 years. The Houston Oilers won the first two ever AFL titles over the Chargers in 1960 and 1961 and lost in double OT the next year. Their next painful moment was The Comeback (the Frank Reich game). After moving to Tennessee, the Oilers became the Titans and got revenge on the Bills for The Comeback with the Music City Miracle. They rode that wave all the way to the Super Bowl, where Kevin Dyson’s luck ran one yard short. But other than those highlights the Titans have been mostly irrelevant, and they haven’t been in their current city long enough to rank much higher on this list.
20. Atlanta Falcons. Their advantage over the Titans and Cardinals is that they’ve been in the same city for 50 years, but like those teams they’ve essentially been irrelevant other than a single expected Super Bowl loss in a season when they weren’t that great anyway.
19. Washington Capitals. The Caps have played 42 years without a Stanley Cup, but until recently they were the least relevant among the cursed NHL franchises, having made only made one Final (a 4–0 sweep in 1998). Behind Alex Ovechkin and a plethora of stars, the last decade has been the most relevant in the franchise’s history, and they’ve lost a game 7 in the playoffs in 2008, 2009, 2010, 2012, 2013 and 2015. If I had a recency bias they’d be in the top 10.
18. San Diego Chargers. Like the Titans/Oilers (see above) and the Bills (see below), the Chargers won an AFL title in the 1960s, but those are essentially meaningless. The Air Coryell Chargers lost consecutive AFC Championships in 1980 and 1981 and they lost perhaps the least competitive Super Bowl ever in 1994 (they were 19 point underdogs and still weren’t close to covering). In the Philip Rivers era they’ve been competitive, with several tough home playoff losses, all of which can be at least partially blamed on one man. In the 2004 Wild Card, they came back down ten to score the touchdown that sent the game to overtime with just 11 seconds left. They chewed up nearly the entire overtime clock with a 14 play drive that ended with a missed Nate Kaeding field goal, and then the Jets kicked their own game winning field goal with eight seconds remaining. In 2006 they were the best team in the NFL, and they led the Patriots by eight with under five minutes remaining in their divisional game, only for the Patriots to score 11 points to take the lead. With seconds remaining the Chargers drove the ball into field goal range, only for Nate Kaeding to miss another field goal. In the 2009 Wild Card, Kaeding missed three field goals in a game the Chargers lost to the Jets by three. Did we mention that Nate Kaeding was the most accurate (regular season) kicker in NFL history over the span of his career in San Diego? (He dropped to second thanks to a 1/3 finish to his career in Miami, and he’s now third among those with 200+ FGA.) Oh, and in 2010 the Chargers had the NFL’s #1 offense and #1 defense and still missed the playoffs. So why are they this low on this list? Because they’re generally ignored, even by their own fan base, which is why they’re looking to move back to L.A., where they started. The fact that you didn’t realize the Chargers originated in L.A. is evidence enough that this team has never merited enough attention to be higher up this list.
17. New York Jets. They won a Super Bowl in 1968 and since then have been generally mediocre. They have lost four AFC championships over the last 35 years, but they were underdogs in all of them (by a combined 22.5 points) and lost by more than the spread in all four (a combined loss of 45 points). They’ve only won more than 11 games once ever in the history of the franchise. The only reason they’re above the Falcons and the Chargers (especially the Chargers, since they’ve benefited themselves from so many Chargers playoff fails) is because I know a lot more whiny Jets fans than I do Falcons and Chargers fans. According to Akiva Wienerkur, the biggest Jets losses of his lifetime are (1) the 1998 AFC Championship, in which they were 9 points underdogs and lost by 13 (please — I know what’s like to have suffered a devastating loss that day); (2) a week 17 play-in game the previous year in which the Jets never scored after the first quarter and had a win probability of greater than 50% for a total of one play in the fourth quarter (and let’s say you win and sneak in as the second Wild Card — were you gonna pull off four straight road wins?); and (3) a 2004 overtime loss to the Steelers (the week after the Jets snuck by San Diego thanks to Kaeding’s miss) in which the Jets’ own kicker missed two potential game winning field goals in the final 2:02 of regulation (yes, this sucks, but turnabout is fair play — you won the previous week thanks to similar circumstances — and as even you admit, had the Jets won there was no way they were going into New England to beat the about-to-be-back-to-back Super Bowl champs who had already beaten them twice that season by a combined score of 36–14).
16. Buffalo Sabres. Their curse is compounded by sharing a city with the Bills. They’ve been around for 46 years with 29 playoff appearances and two Stanley Cup Final losses. The 1999 loss was brutal, and it must’ve been frustrating to ride Hasek’s incredible playoff runs so many times without finishing any of them.
15. Vancouver Canucks. They won their division five times in a row this decade, only to crash and burn in the Playoffs each time. They finally made the Cup Final in 2011, and they led Boston 2–0 and 3–2, only to blow those leads to lose game 7 at home. Allowing America’s Original Six teams to end their own droughts is a thing the Canucks do. They also lost the 1994 Final to the Rangers, also in seven games. (Their other Final loss is less noteworthy. They were a losing team in 1982 who got hot in the Playoffs until they ran into an Islanders team who is one of the greatest in history and was in the midst of four consecutive championships.) Part of the reason I have the Canucks this high is because they’re Canadian, so they care a lot more than most American fans do.
14. Phoenix Suns. They’re a consistent contender, always in contention but never going all the way. But they haven’t had that many heartbreaks. They’ve lost in the Conference Finals seven times, but only once did they stretch it to 7 games. Their loss in the 1976 Finals included the greatest game ever played (a three-OT game five loss), but they were a 42–40 team just happy to be there. Their only other Finals appearance was 1993, and even though they only lost game 6 by one point, Jordan’s Bulls always seemed to have control of the series. The mid-2000s Suns are one of the best NBA teams never to win a title, but ultimately they never had enough defense to get past the Spurs and Lakers. They lost the 2005 Conference Finals rather pitifully to the Spurs in 5. In 2006 they got one game further against the Mavs. But the most painful loss is probably the next year, when Amare Stoudemire and Boris Diaw were suspended for game 5 for leaving the bench after Robert Horry hip checked Steve Nash into the boards in game 4 in the second round. The shorthanded Suns still played great at home in game 5, leading the Spurs by 11 in the fourth quarter, only to see the Spurs come back and take a three point lead in the final minute. With six seconds remaining Nash missed a three to tie, and the Spurs won 88–85. Even with Amare and Diaw back the Suns were finished off in game 6. The Suns would make the Conference Finals once more in 2010, but they haven’t been relevant since.
13. Cleveland Browns. The Browns are overrated as a cursed franchise; it’s more a compounding effect of all three Cleveland teams. One demerit against the Browns ranking higher on this list is that they were once not just a great team but perhaps the greatest team ever. They played in ten consecutive championships through 1955, winning seven (including five in a row). They played for three more the following decade, winning their last in 1964. So any Browns fan who is 60 or older still remembers enjoying a championship team. Since then the Browns have mostly just been bad, other than in the 1980s, when they suffered consecutive stomach punch losses to the Broncos in 1986 (The Drive) and 1987 (The Fumble). Those losses were horrific, but at the time the Browns were within two decades of having won a title, so they weren’t quite yet “cursed.” Losing the franchise to Baltimore was obviously even a bigger stomach punch, especially when the new team won a Super Bowl so soon thereafter. But they got the franchise back very quickly, and now they’re just laughably bad.
12. Kansas City Chiefs. The Chiefs won a Super Bowl in 1969, around the same time as the Browns’ and Jets’ last titles. But whereas the Browns and Jets have been mostly bad (or absent) since then, Kansas City has been consistently competitive. They made the playoffs seven times in the 1990s, and another six times in the 2000s. Three times they have gone 13–3 and failed to win a playoff game, with two of those losses being truly devastating. In 1995 they were big favorites against a mediocre 9–7 Colts team that snuck into the playoffs. This is how each of the remaining Chiefs possessions ended after the Colts kicked a field goal late in the third to take a 10–7 lead: missed 39 yard field goal, interception, interception, missed 42 yard field goal. Two years later they lost at home to the hated Broncos, blowing a fourth quarter lead to trail 14–10, and this time they didn’t even get a chance to miss field goals, as they twice failed to convert fourth downs while in field goal territory. More recently, in 2013 they were winning 38–10 in the third quarter of the Wild Card and still lost. Last year the Chiefs finally won a playoff game, their first since 1993, which is incredible for a team that has been so consistently competitive.
11. Cincinnati Bengals. They lost two Super Bowls to the Niners in the 1980s, the second thanks to epic performances by Joe Montana and John Candy. Since then they’ve won a grand total of one playoff game, despite becoming an annual playoff team over the last decade. Last year’s loss to the Steelers was far and away the worst since the Super Bowl. The entire sequence is too fresh in our minds to need recapping, but I’ll simply note that with 32 seconds remaining the Bengals’ win probability was 85%.
10. St. Louis Blues. The only one of the original NHL expansion teams not to win a Cup (the Maple Leafs also haven’t won since that time), they’ve always been good (playoffs in 40/48 seasons) but they haven’t even made the Final since their first three seasons (each of which ended in a Final loss). I’m not a big enough hockey fan to remember any particularly brutal playoff losses (other than Yzerman’s double OT goal in 1996), but to be good for that long and not even make the Final is heart wrenching. They haven’t lost a game 7 since the Yzerman goal, but they did lose game 7s in 1984, 1986 (in the Conference Finals), 1990, and 1993.
9. Sacramento Kings. They haven’t been back to the Finals since their 1951 title, but they have been in Rochester, Cincinnati, Kansas City, Omaha and Sacramento. They’ve only been in Sacramento for 30 years, and they haven’t usually been good, but they were great in the early 2000s, and they only lost the 2002 Western Conference Finals because the league conspired against them. That series alone vaults them up this list.
8. Toronto Maple Leafs. Their fans care more than any other hockey fans, and they haven’t won a title since 1967, the last season of the NHL’s Original 6. In fact, they haven’t even made it to the Final since then. They’re the Cubs of hockey. They’re mostly terrible (just one playoff appearance in the last decade, worst in the NHL) and they still make tons of money thanks to a passionate fan base in a massive market.
7. Texas Rangers. The Rangers spent their first several decades in existence completely irrelevant, but in the 1990s they became good thanks to an incredible offense built around Juan Gonzalez, Rafael Palmeiro, Ivan Rodriguez, and buckets of steroids. But they never had a sniff of postseason success until 2010, when they finally made their first World Series. The next year they made it back, losing a brutal World Series in which they led 3–2 and blew two-run leads in the bottom of both the 9th and 10th innings of game 6, eventually losing in the 11th on David Freese’s home run and Joe Buck’s crib of his dad’s famous Kirby Puckett call. Since then they’ve stayed competitive without a title to show for it. It seems likely that in the next few years they’ll move either up or off this list, depending on whether their success ends with a ring or not.
6. Detroit Lions. They were good around the same time as the Browns, winning three titles in the 1950s behind Bobby Layne. Then they traded Layne after the 1957 title, and he cursed them not to win again for 50 years. Now we’re a decade past that, and they’ve won just a single playoff game in 60 years. They’re so depressing they drove Barry Sanders and Calvin Johnson to early retirement. The only reason they’re not higher is because they’ve been so bad as to just be irrelevant.
5. Utah Jazz. The Jazz only moved to Utah in 1979 (and only came into existence in 1974), so they technically don’t qualify for this list. But from 1984–2003 they made the playoffs an incredible 20 years in a row behind two of the top 30 players of all time. There are other players (Barkley, Ewing) and franchises (Suns) that had titles stolen by MJ’s run of dominance, but none more so than the Malone/Stockton Jazz. They were the best team in the league over a six year span in the late 1990s. In 1994 they lost in the Conference Finals to the Rockets. In 1995 they had terrible luck as the Rockets started slow and ended up as a low seed, so they were matched up with the 60-win Jazz in the first round. But by then the Rockets had added Clyde Drexler and were even better than the previous year’s championship team. The Jazz took a 2–1 lead in the series, only to blow games 4 and 5. In 1996 the Jazz lost the Conference Finals to the Sonics in 7, their final two losses coming by a combined 6 points. The next two years they famously lost to the Bulls in the Finals, each time getting closer than anyone else ever did against MJ in the Finals. Finally in 1999 MJ was out of the league, but a lockout resulted in a truncated 50-game season. Yet again the Jazz were the best team in the league, but a team whose best three players were all turning 36 or 37 by the playoffs ran out of steam in that prestissimo schedule.
4. Philadelphia Eagles. After winning a dramatic title in 1960 they were the worst team in the NFL for the next two decades. But over the past 40 years the Eagles have been the most consistently competitive team not to win a Super Bowl other than the Vikings. They’ve lost two Super Bowls (though they weren’t really expected to win either) and four NFC championships, including three in a row during the McNabb era.
3. Buffalo Bills. They won the final two AFL title games that existed before the Super Bowl, so they just missed a shot at an early Super Bowl. Then they never got that close again until the 1990s, when they lost their historic four Super Bowls in a row, although Wide Right was the only one that was close. After the Super Bowl run they stayed competitive in the late 1990s, losing several first round playoff games. In 1996 they were leading the Jaguars 27–20 in the fourth. After the Jaguars tied it, Jim Kelly got strip sacked on the ensuing possession. Worse, he was injured and had to come out of the game. The Jaguars kicked a field goal to take a 30–27 lead. Here is a list of Bills’ offensive plays once Todd Collins came in for Kelly: sack, incompletion, incompletion, punt; 7-yard completion, incompletion, strip sack turnover to end the game. The 1999 season ended, of course, with the Music City Miracle, and since then the Bills have just been terrible, with no playoff appearances this millennium.
2. Minnesota Vikings. The gap between every other team and the top two is enormous. The only teams on this list who come close to the Vikings’ level of consistent competitiveness over the decades are the Blues, Jazz and Suns. But none of those teams have had as many shots at a title. The Vikings have lost four Super Bowls (no franchise has lost more) and five Conference Championship games (only the Cowboys, 49ers, Steelers and Raiders have lost more, but they’ve also won a combined 19 Super Bowls). And no team has had as many stomach punch losses as the Vikings. I don’t even need to discuss the Super Bowls or the (original) Hail Mary in 1975, or the Darrin Nelson drop in the 1987 NFL Championship, because those all happened before my time as a Vikings fan. Just in the last 20 years, the Vikings lost the Gary Anderson game (as — at the time — the greatest offense and possibly greatest team in history), the 41–0 debacle (as road favorites in the NFC championship), the Nate Poole game (the first time in history a team led the division for the entire season yet failed to make the playoffs, leading Green Bay to award Nate Poole a key to the city), Twelve Men on the Field (or the Brett Favre game, or the game that led the NFL to change its overtime rules, or the first time my wife saw me cry, or whatever you wanna call it), and last year’s Blair Walsh miss. Kill me now.
1. Cleveland Indians. So why don’t I have the Vikings #1? Well, part of it is recency bias, with the Indians just losing this week. And part of it is because of the difference between baseball and football. In baseball tension builds with every pitch. Also, with the Cubs winning, every other baseball team has ended their drought. The gap between the Indians and the next most cursed baseball team is bigger than the gap between #1 and #2 in any other sport. On the other hand, the Vikings have never won. At least an 80-year-old Indians fan remembers what a championship feels like. The Indians last won the World Series in 1948. In 1954 they had a historically good team (111–43) yet got swept in the World Series by the Giants. From the 1970s through the early 1990s the Indians embarked on a run of incompetence, but they emerged in the 1990s as an incredible team. They ended up making the playoffs six times in seven years, including two World Series, the latter being the devastating 1997 loss, in the 11th inning to a silly expansion team wearing teal in Miami. In 1999 the Indians blew a 2–0 ALDS lead to the Red Sox, losing by the comical football scores of 9–3, 23–7 and 12–8. (At one point during those three games the Red Sox scored 40 runs in 16 innings!) In 2001 they again blew a 2–1 ALDS lead, although this time it was as huge underdogs to the 116-win Mariners. But everything culminated in the just completed World Series, in which they blew a 3–1 lead, the game 7 loss coming in brutal extra innings.
That said, I’m open to an argument for swapping #1 and #2. Cleveland as a whole was far and away the most cursed city, with all three of their teams appearing high on this list until LeBron ended that this summer. That actually leaves Minneapolis with the longest title drought for cities with at least three times. But fans over 30 still remember the Twins’ championships in 1987 and 1991. All I can say in conclusion is a message of hope to fans of the teams on this list: Watch the videos of Cubs fans over the past week. One day that can be you. And when it is, all the suffering will have been worth it.