The 20 Unluckiest Franchises in Sports

Geoff Ratliff@@geoffratliffContributor IIIJuly 31, 2012

The 20 Unluckiest Franchises in Sports

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    For every dynasty that rules its respective league for years on end, there’s at least one franchise in the same sport that is equally inept. 

    No franchise rules the sports landscape indefinitely—even the Boston Celtics and New York Yankees have their down years—but the most successful organizations in team sports always find a way to return to the mountain top.

    And just as winning appears to be in the DNA of certain franchises, some teams are simply born to lose. Be it a history of heartbreaking playoff failures, cursed draft picks or any other combination of strange events, these teams just can’t seem to make it into the circle of champions.

    Far from being poorly run, these 20 franchises are just plain unlucky win it comes to winning.

Atlanta Braves

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    The Atlanta Braves were arguably the most successful MLB franchise during the 1990s and early 2000s, winning a record 14 consecutive division titles from 1991-2005 (the strike-shortened 1994 season notwithstanding).

    Despite advancing to five World Series during their era of dominance, the Braves only managed to win one World Series in all those years, beating the Cleveland Indians in six games in 1995. But that was against Cleveland so it almost doesn’t count (more on that later).

Baltimore Orioles

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    It’s been nearly 30 years since the Baltimore Orioles won the 1983 World Series, and the franchise hasn’t had much good happen to it since, outside of Cal Ripken’s record-breaking reign at shortstop and third base. 

    The Orioles haven’t been back to the World Series since ’83, and have only made the playoffs twice since then (1996 and 1997). Some believe that this is due to the Curse of Jeffrey Maier, which supposedly began after the ’96 American League Championship Series.

    Since 1983, the Orioles have had a major league record 21-game losing streak (1988) and endured an epic collapse in 2005 that saw a 42-28 start morph into a historically bad 32-60 finish that left them 21.5 games out of first place in the AL East.

Buffalo Bills

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    The Buffalo Bills hold National Football League records for team success and futility. Despite being the only team in NFL history to win four consecutive conference championships and play in four consecutive Super Bowls, they are also the only team to lose four consecutive Super Bowls (following the 1990-1993 seasons).

    Apparently the football gods have had enough since the Bills have only made four playoff appearances since 1993, and none since the 1999 season.

Chicago Cubs

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    The Chicago Cubs have the honor of holding the record for the longest championship drought in professional sports history at 104 years and counting. Their nickname as the “lovable losers” has been well earned over the years.

    The Cubs have had chances to break the streak of futility. But even when things seem to be going well, their own fans literally get in the way of their performances, proving that the "Curse of the Billy Goat" lives on.

    New team president Theo Epstein has already saved one previously cursed franchise (Boston Red Sox), so I wouldn't bet against him ending the Cubs' reign of futility.

Cleveland Cavaliers

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    The Cleveland Cavaliers have gone through a couple of notable streaks of misfortune throughout their franchises existence. 

    Despite having some terrific teams during the early and mid-nineties, Michael Jordan broke their hearts on a few occasions, none more memorable that this series-winning shot during the 1989 Eastern Conference playoffs. 

    Luck finally appeared to be going Cleveland’s way when they landed the No. 1 pick in the 2003 NBA Draft, giving them the chance to select hometown hero LeBron James out of Akron’s St. Vincent St. Mary’s high school. 

    James rewarded the Cavaliers with five consecutive playoff appearances between 2006-2010, including a 2007 trip to the NBA Finals. But he broke Cleveland’s heart with The Decision following the 2010 season, and turned the dagger by winning his first NBA title with the Miami Heat this past season.

Cleveland Indians

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    The Cleveland Indians have long been one of the most miserable franchises in all of professional sports. They haven’t won a World Series since 1948, and were so bad for so long that they inspired the famous sports-comedy movie Major League.

    While a lot of the franchise’s failures can be directly attributed to bad management, over the last 20 years they’ve just been plain unlucky.

    They lost both of their World Series appearances since ’48 (1995 and 1997) to the Atlanta Braves (almost as unlucky) and the Florida Marlins—arguably the most incompetent professional franchise to back into two championships—the second of which happened in heartbreaking fashion (MLB Network).

    Since then, the Indians have made disastrous trades (giving away future All-Stars Brandon Phillips and Cliff Lee) and been unlucky with franchise cornerstones succumbing to career-threatening injuries (Grady Sizemore and Travis Hafner).

Houston Rockets

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    Some might consider the Houston Rockets to be one of the luckier franchises in sports since they managed to win back-to-back NBA titles during Michael Jordan’s first retirement. But the franchise has been otherwise snake-bitten by devastating injuries to major stars. 

    It all began with center Ralph Sampson—one of the most dominant big men to ever play the game—having his career cut short by bad knees in the mid-1980s.

    The trend continued with Steve Francis (knee), Tracy McGrady (knee) and Yao Ming (foot) all suffering injuries that derailed All-Star careers.

    The Rockets have also been devastated by failed trade attempts over the last two offseasons. 

    NBA commissioner David Stern first burned Houston when the league voided the three-team deal (CBS Los Angeles) that would have netted them Pau Gasol last winter. The Rockets struck out again this past spring when they went all-out to acquire Orlando center Dwight Howard, only to be stuck with a bunch of first round picks that they were unable to move.

Kansas City Royals

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    The Royals were one of the American League’s best teams during the 70's and 80's, appearing in two World Series (1980 and 1985) and winning one (’85) against their cross-state rival St. Louis Cardinals. But it’s been all down hill since then. 

    Despite having a number of perennial All-Stars begin their careers in Kansas City—David Cone, Kevin Appier, Johnny Damon, Carlos Beltran and Jermaine Dye to name a few—the Royals consistently traded their best players to avoid paying them during their prime years.

    The organization could only watch as these players continued to build Hall-of-Fame-worthy careers and win World Series titles.

    While some of that could be attributed to poor management rather than bad luck, the Royals—a team that has traditionally been very good at identifying great prospects—somehow managed to miss out on Albert Pujols, a player that grew up in their own backyard.

    To make it worse, the Royals could only watch as Pujols had arguably the best 11-year start to a career in MLB history and won two World Series with—guess who—the St. Louis Cardinals.

Madden NFL Football Video Game

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    OK, so the EA Sports Madden NFL football video game is not a professional sports team. But it is definitely a sports-related franchise and an extremely lucrative one at that. It is also unquestionably unlucky, at least for the NFL players that have graced the cover.

    Since former Oakland Raiders coach and legendary announcer John Madden stopped being the cover boy for his own video game after the 1999 edition, the list of those touched by the Madden Curse (Time) is a long and notable one.

    Eddie George, Daunte Culpepper, Marshal Faulk, Michael Vick, Ray Lewis, Donovan McNabb, Shaun Alexander, Vince Young, Brett Favre, Troy Polamalu, Drew Brees* and Peyton Hillis have all suffered either a major injury or some other notable indignity during the same season that they appeared on the cover.

    Here’s hoping that Megatron aka Detroit Lions wide receiver Calvin Johnson is the one to end the curse. 

    Interestingly enough, Arizona Cardinals wide receiver Larry Fitzgerald—the only other wide receiver to appear on the Madden cover—avoided the curse in 2009 when he shared the honor with Polamalu. Who knows if it was the shared cover or his position that did the trick?

    *Brees’ inclusion on this list is a hotly debated issue that you can read more about in this Bleacher Report article from 2011. He threw for more than 4,600 yards and 33 touchdowns in 2010, but he also threw a career-worst 22 interceptions. 

    His New Orleans Saints also suffered one of the most embarrassing playoff losses in NFL history as the defending Super Bowl Champs fell to the 7-9 Seattle Seahawks in the NFC Wild Card Round.

Miami Dolphins

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    The Miami Dolphins are still the only NFL team to win the Super Bowl following an undefeated regular season. They defeated the Washington Redskins in Super Bowl VII, finishing with a perfect 17-0 record (14-0 regular season and three playoff games). 

    It’s been 40 mostly miserable years since then.

    The Dolphins had some success during the Dan Marino era, but even then they only managed to make it to one Super Bowl in his 17-year career despite ten playoff appearances.

    While a lot of the Dolphins’ failures can be directly attributed to poor personnel decisions, particularly as it relates to finding Marino’s long-term replacement, Miami also has the misfortune of playing in the AFC East. 

    That division is home to two AFC dynasties (the Buffalo Bills and New England Patriots) that have made a combined 10 Super Bowl appearances since 1991. Throw in three AFC Championship Game appearances by the New York Jets (1998, 2009 and 2010) and you can see that the Dolphins haven’t had it easy.

Minnesota Vikings

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    The Minnesota Vikings were the Buffalo Bills 15 years before the Bills made it cool (OK, not really) to start losing Super Bowls in bunches. The Vikings appeared in four Super Bowls from 1970 through 1977 but lost each one. They haven’t been back to the NFL’s championship game since. 

    It’s not that Minnesota has been a bad team since their run of Super Bowl appearances. They went 15-1 in 1998—one of only six NFL teams to ever achieve that feat—but became the first of those teams to not reach the Super Bowl.

    The Vikings reached the NFC Championship game after the 2000 regular season, but suffered the worst playoff loss in franchise history in a 41-0 debacle against the New York Giants.

    Since that loss, they’ve watched star running back Robert Smith abruptly retire after rushing for a franchise-record 1,521 yards in 2000. They lost All-Pro quarterback Daunte Culpepper to a season-ending knee injury midway through a miserable 2005 season.   

    More recently, the Vikings have had their 2010 season sabotaged by the brief return of Randy Moss and watched the 2011 campaign come undone by the bad play of Donovan McNabb and the knee injury suffered by All-Pro running back Adrian Peterson.

The Netherlands National Football Team

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    The Netherlands National Football Team has historically been one of the most successful national teams in international football. They also hold the unfortunate distinction of appearing in the most World Cup finals (1974, 1978 and 2010) without a championship.

    The 1974 loss was a particularly difficult one for the Dutch to endure. The Netherlands advanced to the finals on the strength of a ”carousel” style of play that was unprecedented and essentially changed the way that soccer was played internationally. But that pioneering style, while universally praised, still resulted in a 2-1 loss to the West Germans.

New York Mets

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    The New York Mets, much like the NBA’s Houston Rockets, are a franchise that, on the surface appear to be one of the luckier organizations in team sports. The “Miracle Mets” won the 1969 World Series and the 1986 team received a gift from Boston Red Sox first baseman Bill Buckner that opened the door for another World Championship.

    But whatever good fortune the Mets had saved up must have all been used on those two teams, because its been 25 years of living in the shadows of the New York Yankees ever since. That burden was best epitomized in 2000 when they lost to the Yankees in the World Series in five games. 

    The Mets have had historically bad collapses that cost them playoff appearances (2007 and 2008), fallen just short of another World Series appearance (2006), and had some terrible fortune with star free agent signings (Jason Bay and Carlos Beltran) and at least one major trade (Johan Santana). 

    To make matters worse, Mets majority owner Fred Wilpon had the misfortune of being one of the more notable victims of the Bernie Madoff pyramid scheme, which has financially crippled the franchise.

Orlando Magic

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    For such a young franchise, the Orlando Magic’s existence has to seem more like they’ve been curse with a bad spell.

    Orlando blew their best shot at their first championship when Nick Anderson missed four free throws in the closing seconds of Game 1 of the 1995 NBA Finals. The Magic then lost All-Star center Shaquille O’Neal to the Lakers via free agency after the following season.

    They watched the promising career of All-Star guard Penny Hardaway get cut short by a crippling knee injury and now appear well on their way to losing another young center on a Hall of Fame career path as Dwight Howard has repeatedly asked to be traded out of Orlando. 

    How much more suffering can this franchise endure before someone suggests a name change?

Philadelphia Eagles

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    The Philadelphia Eagles were one of the most successful NFL teams during the 2000s, making five NFC Championships in a decade, including four in a row from 2001-2004. However, the Eagles have yet to win a Super Bowl, or an NFL title of any kind since the 1960 season.

    Philadelphia only made it to one Super Bowl during their dominant run last decade, falling to the New England Patriots in Super Bowl XXXIX. That loss also marked the ugly end to the Terrell Owens era, breaking up one of the NFL’s best quarterback-wide receiver combos.

    The Eagles entered the 2011 NFL season with “Dream Team” hype, but they stumbled to a 4-8 start that derailed any Super Bowl hopes. What’s worse is that they had to watch as their NFC East rival New York Giants won their second NFL title in the last four years.

Portland Trailblazers

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    The Portland Trailblazers would make this based solely on their selection of Sam Bowie over Michael Jordan with the No. 2 pick of the 1983 NBA Draft. However, that historically bad decision is just one of two franchise changing draft picks that worked against the Blazers.

    Portland compounded the Bowie mistake by completely ignoring their franchise’s bad luck with injured big men (Bill Walton anyone?) and selected Ohio State center Greg Oden with the No. 1 pick of the 2007 NBA Draft almost exactly 25 years after the ’83 debacle.

    Wanna know who they passed up to select Oden? Three-time NBA scoring champ Kevin Durant, the NBA’s second best player. 

    All-Star guard Brandon Roy’s early retirement due to degenerative knees was just another crushing blow to the Trailblazers; and now he’s rubbing it in their faces by attempting a comeback with the Minnesota Timberwolves.

Portuguese National Football Team

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    Like the Dutch, Portugal is another international football power that has yet to turn incredible talent into any type of notable success. The Portuguese team has failed to reach a FIFA World Cup Final in five tournament appearances (1966, 1986, 2002, 2006 and 2010). 

    Portugal has produced some of the greatest footballers of all time, including Eusebio, Luis Figo, Rui Costa and Cristiano Ronald who, along with Argentina’s Lionel Messi, is currently considered the best player in the world. Unfortunately that talent hasn’t resulted in team success in either the World Cup or the UEFA Euro tournament. 

    The closest they’ve come is a heartbreaking loss to Greece in the UEFA Euro 2004 final.

San Diego Chargers

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    Like the Philadelphia Eagles in the NFC, its tough to imagine and AFC team accomplishing less with more talent than the San Diego Chargers. 

    Despite having All-Pros like Shawn Merriman, Philip Rivers, Antonio Gates, LaDanian Tomlinson and the recently deceased, Hall of Fame linebacker Junior Seau, the Chargers have appeared in just one AFC Championship game since losing the Super Bowl after the 1994 season. 

    San Diego has received much criticism for underachieving going back to the Bobby Ross era of the early 90s, but how much of their failure is just being a very good team in the wrong era? 

    The Chargers lost Super Bowl XXIX to the San Francisco 49ers who were led by Steve Young and Jerry Rice. Since then, they’ve had the misfortune of playing in an AFC that was dominated by the New England Patriots and Indianapolis Colts for almost 15 years. Those two teams have won a combined four Super Bowls since 2001 and made a total of seven appearances in the NFL’s championship game.

    Much of that elite talent still exist in San Diego, but head coach Norv Turner continues to carry the label of a guy that just can’t get the Chargers over the hump.

St. Louis Blues

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    The St. Louis Blues are quietly one of the most successful NHL franchises in the league’s long history. In fact, they may be the most successful NHL team to never win the Stanley Cup.

    The Blues made the NHL Stanley Cup Finals in each of their first three years of existence (following the 1967-68, 68-69 and 69 70 seasons), but lost to original six franchises (Montreal twice and Boston) all three times.

    After some down years during the 70s, the Blues made the NHL playoffs in 25 consecutive seasons from 1980-2004, the third longest streak in the history of North American professional sports leagues.

    The Blues’ biggest problem seems to be their inability to capitalize on elite talent at the right times in their careers. Legendary coach Scotty Bowman best epitomizes that misfortune as he went on to lead the Detroit Red Wings dynasty of the 90s and early 2000s to three Stanley Cup titles from 1997-2002.

    In addition to the Hall of Fame coach, the Blues have employed a number of players that experienced NHL championship glory either before or after their time in St. Louis. Wayne Gretzky, Brett Hull, Brendan Shanahan and Chris Pronger are four of the most notable players that were unable to bring the Cup to St. Louis.

Toronto Maple Leafs

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    The Toronto Maple Leafs, one of the NHL’s “original six” franchises, has won 13 Stanley Cup championships in their illustrious history, second only to the 24 won by the Montreal Canadians. Unfortunately they have won none since 1967, the longest drought of any of the “original six” teams.

    After some down years in the late 70s that continued through the 80s and early 90s, the Maple Leafs returned to prominence in the 1993 season. But they lost the first of back-to-back conference championships that year to the Los Angeles Kings before falling to the Vancouver Canucks in 1994.

    The tough luck continued when Toronto lost to the Buffalo Sabres in the 1999 Eastern Conference Finals and then fell in the second round in each of the next two years to the New Jersey Devils, a team that advanced to the Stanley Cup finals both years, winning it in 2000.

    After one more playoff appearance in 2003, the Maple Leafs have failed to make it back to the postseason every year since.

Honorable Mention

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    Cleveland Browns: While the City of Cleveland can easily call them selves the most cursed sports city in the history of professional sports, the Browns are greater victims of bad ownership than they are bad luck.

    Dallas Cowboys: After firing head coach Jimmy Johnson after the 1994-1995 season, Cowboys owner Jerry Jones has been on a never-ending quest to prove that he’s just as smart as his former University of Arkansas teammate.

    Los Angeles Clippers: When 2009 No. 1 overall draft pick Blake Griffin blew out his knee in a summer league game, causing him to miss the entire 2009-2010 NBA season, one could have argued that it was more of the Clippers just being the Clippers.

    But their fortunes have turned around drastically since then with Griffin recovering to become one of the NBA’s most dominant players and the NBA opening the door to a trade that allowed Los Angeles to acquire Chris Paul from the New Orleans Hornets before last season.

    New York Knicks: The New York Knicks are primarily victims of their own bad management (Isiah Thomas) and ownership (James Dolan). But even guys that incompetent should be able to get it right every once in a while. Not so.

    Oakland Raiders: The Oakland Raiders have fallen on hard times since their golden days of the 70s and 80s.

    Despite evidence—such as the “Tuck Rule Game” and losing the Super Bowl XXXVII to their former coach Jon Gruden and the Tampa Bay Buccaneers—that would suggest that the Raiders are cursed, the bulk of their misery was caused by mismanagement of the team by former owner Al Davis, who refused to acknowledge that the game had passed him by as he got older.


    Vancouver Canucks: The Canucks have suffered back-to-back playoff let downs after winning the Presidents Cup each of the past two years. I’m not sure that’s a long enough track record to consider them unlucky, but they are definitely knocking on the door.