The San Francisco 49ers will be trying to make history in the 2015 season. With Super Bowl 50 set to take place in Levi’s Stadium, the 49ers will try to become the first team to play in, and win, a Super Bowl on their home turf.
That’s right, despite having been played for almost half a century, none of the teams that play their regular-season games in the Super Bowl venue have even made the championship game, let alone won it. That has to be fairly improbable, right? Is there a Super Bowl venue curse that’s affecting these teams?
Excluding the seven Super Bowls that have taken place at non-affiliated stadiums—five at the Rose Bowl, one at Rice Stadium and one at Stanford Stadium—and including the fact the Giants and Jets share MetLife Stadium, there have been 43 chances for a team to play the Super Bowl on its home field. As the league increased from 24 to 32 teams, the odds of any one particular team doing it any one season dropped, but it’s still highly improbable that no team has ever done it.
In a 32-team league, all things being equal, a team has a one-in-32 chance of winning the Super Bowl. That means, of course, there’s a 31-in-32 chance that it wouldn’t win the Super Bowl—if you pick a team at random to go to the Super Bowl, you’re probably going to be wrong.
Even with the Super Bowl dating back to 1967, that’s not enough to overcome the sheer improbability of one specific team winning in a specific year. If you go back and do the math, you’ll see that, in a random system, there’s a 77.9 percent chance a home team should have won a Super Bowl by now. That means it’s more unlikely that no one’s done it, but it’s certainly well within the realm of possibility.
If we get to Super Bowl XCVI and no home team’s won it, then it’s time to start scratching our heads.
By now, however, you’d have expected a team to have at least played a home Super Bowl game. While the conferences haven’t always contained the same number of teams, we can still do a similar calculation to find the odds of that happening. In 43 tries, there is a 95.4 percent chance a team should have played the game in their home stadium.
Of course, teams do not have an equal chance of making the Super Bowl in any given year. The New England Patriots and Tampa Bay Buccaneers should not be considered equally likely to hoist the trophy in Levi’s Stadium in February. Nor are the Super Bowl sites randomly allocated; the NFL prefers having them in warm-climate areas or domed stadiums.
Those two facts go a long way toward explaining the lack of home teams in Super Bowl games. Of the 15 franchises to have hosted a Super Bowl, 10 have losing records in the Super Bowl era—the Buccaneers, Lions, Texans, Cardinals, Falcons, Saints, Jaguars, Jets, Giants and Chargers. Combined, these teams have 28 of the 43 potential home game Super Bowls, or more than 65 percent. By comparison, no Super Bowls have been hosted by Super Bowl-era powerhouses Pittsburgh Steelers, Denver Broncos or, yes, the San Francisco 49ers.
The 43 teams hosting a Super Bowl have had a 281-382-4 record, or a .424 winning percentage. Interestingly, this is significantly different than their records in the season before—315-399-4, or a .482 winning percentage. That’s probably just statistical noise, but it could be the effects of more pressure being put on the team, wanting to bring home a Super Bowl title in its home stadium.
Whatever the case, teams with a winning percentage of either .424 or .482 aren’t going to be winning many Super Bowls—this is a set of below-average teams.
When you take into account the relative quality of the teams that actually had the chance to go to the Super Bowl in their home stadium, the odds of it not happening suddenly become a little more understandable. Had the game consistently been held in top teams' stadiums, the odds that no one would have won the Super Bowl would be astronomical. As it stands, however, when you’re betting on the historic Saints and Buccaneers to win more often than not, you’re going to end up disappointed.
Still, 20 teams went into those seasons having enjoyed a winning record the year before, and 12 of them had winning records in the season in which the game was held. At least some of these teams were legitimate preseason contenders, if not the absolute favorites—these aren’t all the ’67 Dolphins, ’77 Saints or ’05 Lions. At some point, the sheer law of average starts coming into play for someone to at least reach the game.
The Miami Dolphins have come the closest with the most frequency as a result of hosting the game quite often. Seven teams put up double-digit wins in the season they hosted the Super Bowl, and the Dolphins are responsible for five of them—1970, 1975, 1978, 1994 and 1998.
The ’75 Dolphins missed the playoffs entirely despite coming in off six consecutive double-digit win seasons, including three Super Bowl appearances. The 1970 squad lost in the divisional round before going on to appear in the next three Super Bowls. The ’94 and ’98 teams also lost in the divisional round, while the ’78 team fell short in the wild-card round.
The only other home teams to make the playoffs were the Buccaneers of 2000 and the ’14 Cardinals, and they both lost in the wild-card round too. No home playoff team has ever reached the conference championship, and now we’re beginning to talk about highly improbable odds.
Four teams get to play in the AFC and NFC Championship Games every year, and the likelihood at least one team should have made it in 43 tries is about 99.8 percent. You can knock that down a bit because of the general lower quality of teams in our sample, but you’d still expect someone to have made it by now.
Even more strange is that two of the seven games in “neutral” stadiums have seen the local team play in the Super Bowl. Super Bowl XIV was held in the Rose Bowl rather than the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum, but the Los Angeles Rams made it. Super Bowl XIX was held in Stanford Stadium rather than Candlestick, but the 49ers won that one. Stanford’s actually closer to San Francisco than the 49ers’ current stadium.
In only seven tries, it’s not particularly likely that the closest team would win one of these neutral site games, or even appear in one, yet it’s happened twice.
Then you have the anecdotal evidence. The potential home team has ended up with the worst record in the NFL three times—the ’80 Saints, ’83 Buccaneers and ’11 Colts. That should be just as likely as winning the Super Bowl, yet it’s happened three times as opposed to never. 2011 was the one year the Colts have had since 1997 that they weren't quarterbacked by either Peyton Manning or Andrew Luck—it’s a strange coincidence that that was the one year in that stretch that they were scheduled to host the Super Bowl.
Similarly, the New Orleans Saints, from 2009 through 2013, put up four playoff seasons and a Super Bowl win. The one exception? The 2012 season, when they were reeling from Bountygate. The Super Bowl was held in New Orleans that season.
You can go on and point to odd occurrences all over the place. The 2014 Cardinals' top two quarterbacks went down with knee injuries over the course of the season. The 2010 Cowboys lost Tony Romo to an injury midway through the season. The 2009 Dolphins lost Chad Pennington halfway through the campaign. The list goes on.
What does all this mean? Is there some sort of force preventing home teams from performing well in their Super Bowl seasons? Is the added pressure of potentially playing the biggest game of the season in front of the hometown crowd suppressing win totals and causing teams to choke? Is a supernatural force breaking clavicles and tearing ACLs?
Well, no, that’s silly. What we have here is a statistically improbable, though not impossible, run of bad luck, backed up by the repeated selection of below-average teams to host the Super Bowl.
Had the teams in question made deep runs before falling short, there could be logical explanations—the NFL has to prepare the host stadium for the Super Bowl, so teams could be distracted by that as the game approaches. The fact that most teams don’t even come close to making the playoffs makes that explanation unlikely, however.
What we have here is an oddity that will eventually be corrected. It’s not substantially different from the fact no Super Bowl has ever gone into overtime despite multiple close finishes. It’s no more significant than the fact the NFC won 13 consecutive Super Bowls in the '80s and '90s—itself an incredibly unlikely feat. The fact that the 49ers won their first five attempts at Super Bowl is also an incredibly unlikely.
Those last two aren’t commented on any more because both streaks have been broken. The home-team curse lives on, yet both of those runs were arguably more surprising.
Eventually, someone is going to break through and win the Super Bowl while hosting it. It may not be the 49ers this year, but if they don’t, it’s more likely to be because of the offseason turmoil and question marks on the field than some mystical Super Bowl-hosting curse.
Bryan Knowles is a featured columnist for Bleacher Report, covering the San Francisco 49ers. Follow him @BryKno on Twitter.