Who holds the title ‘City of Champions’ in North American sports?

By: Stephan Teodosescu

It’s hard to argue against this summer being one of the most fun in recent memory for sports fans. After one of the toughest years of people’s lives in 2020, American sports — and even European ones, if you’re into soccer — offered a welcome reprieve in 2021. With the NHL and NBA Finals wrapping up this month we’ve crowned two new champions. The Tampa Bay Lightning won their second consecutive Stanley Cup while the Milwaukee Bucks captured their first NBA championship in 50 years.

Neil Paine at FiveThirtyEight wrote a fantastic article earlier this month about how this year’s NBA title was going to bring a championship to a cursed, smaller market city, which cuts against the grain of the past few decades. Most successful NBA franchises have come from large markets like Los Angeles and Chicago, but the Bucks turned that trend on its head after beating the Phoenix Suns in six games on Tuesday night.

I did a similar analysis to investigate additional questions that came to my mind after reading Paine’s article. If looking at the past 30 years, what cities have been the most successful (my hunch before looking at the numbers is Boston with all those Tom Brady-led Patriots championships)? How many outright championships have they won? What share of the available league titles to them did they capture? How does that compare to what they would have been expected to win given the profile of teams in those cities?

The methodology and assumptions I employed to answer those questions is as follows:

  • I looked at the metropolitan areas where championships were won in the four North American men’s professional sports leagues — the NFL, MLB, NBA and NHL.
  • I used 1991 as the starting point because 1) it’s an even 30 years of data making for a decent sample size 2) that was the year I was born.
  • I’m defining teams’ markets as the metropolitan areas in which their fans are typically found. For example, I’m lumping all of Wisconsin’s major professional sports teams into the greater Milwaukee area because the Green Bay Packers, who play their home games two hours north at Lambeau Field, called Milwaukee home for a portion of their games through the 1990s and are effectively the entire state of Wisconsin’s team. Similarly, the Golden State Warriors, who won multiple NBA titles while based in Oakland, Calif., would be considered part of the San Francisco Bay Area.
  • The New York Giants and New York Jets are included as New York City teams, despite the fact both teams play in New Jersey. The NHL’s New Jersey Devils are the lone Jersey team in this analysis.
  • An important call out is we are assuming every team in a league has an equal chance of winning a championship each season, a fact we know isn’t true in practice. Those chances vary across different sports as well. The NBA, for example, is much more deterministic than a sport like hockey — hockey is inherently random given the units of success (goals) don’t happen very often, unlike in basketball where 100+ points scored is the norm in an NBA game. That means luck and variance play an outsized role in the outcome of the games; like Daniel Kahneman outlined in his book Thinking, Fast and Slow, extreme outcomes are much more likely to be observed in small samples. Nevertheless, we’re making the simplifying assumption that all teams in a league have an equal shot at a title each year.

Since 1991 there have been a total of 116 available titles in the Big 4 sports leagues (the current MLB season is ongoing and the 2021 NFL season starts in the fall, plus we aren’t counting the 1994 and 2005 strike seasons for the MLB and NHL, respectively).

So what do we find? Boston indeed has captured both the most pro sports championships AND the most titles over expected in that timeframe. They’re followed by Chicago, Los Angeles, San Antonio, Pittsburgh and the San Francisco-Bay Area, all with nearly three or more championships than they would have been expected to win since 1991. The Lightning’s recent Cup pushed them passed St. Louis for the seventh-most titles over expected with +2.23 since 1991.

Boston’s success has been catapulted by the New England Patriots’ dynasty that captured six Super Bowl rings since 2001, four World Series titles for the Red Sox since 2004, and a title apiece for the NHL’s Bruins and the Boston Celtics of the NBA. If we constrained this analysis to just the 21st Century Boston’s accomplishments would look that much more impressive since all 12 titles have come since 2001. What used to be one of the most title-starved, and some would say cursed, cities has become the epitome of championship success in North American pro sports. Boston’s 12 championships are nearly eight more than what we would expect it to have given the amount of pro teams (four) in the city. That means they’ve captured 10 percent of all the available titles to them in that time horizon.

Chicago also benefitted from having the Michael Jordan-led Bulls dynasty of the 1990s as well as the more recent Blackhawks teams that won three Stanley Cups in the span of five years. The Chicago Cubs broke their own curse with the franchise’s first World Series championship since 1908 in 2016. And don’t forget the White Sox won one too.

San Antonio is remarkable for its share of available titles they’ve taken home. The Spurs are the city’s only major professional franchise and have won five NBA titles since 1991, which translates to 17 percent of all its available championships, and four more than the four it was expected to have at this juncture. This fact alone has to make head coach Gregg Popovich one of the best coaches of all time.

The Lightning took home their third title in franchise history after beating the Montreal Canadiens in the Stanley Cup finals. That moved the Tampa/St. Petersburg metro area from eighth on the list (1.23 championships over expected) to 2.23. The MLB’s Rays have looked threatening in recent years as well, especially last season, where the notoriously analytics forward franchise took the Dodgers to seven games before ultimately losing the decider following some questionable managerial decisions.

With the Buccaneers coming off their Super Bowl win from last season, Tampa is poised to make a run at Boston’s Titletown, USA moniker if the aforementioned Brady can still defy Father Time and the area’s other franchises continue their winning ways.

The Bucks’ championship gave the Wisconsin area its third title in the past 30 years, which puts it right on par with how many it would be expected to win. When title-starved, mid-markets like Milwaukee win championships it gives us scenes like what you saw outside the arena in Milwaukee’s Deer District on Tuesday.

On the flip side of success are those cities that can’t seem to catch a break in the title department. Buffalo and San Diego are considered the biggest underachievers as they’ve collectively garnered 0 rings despite an expectation of 2.0 and 1.8, respectively, while Minneapolis, Phoenix and Atlanta have disappointed the most among cities that have at least one championship.

Atlanta’s struggles have been well documented, from the ’90s Braves teams that underachieved World Series expectations to the heartbreaking Falcons who famously had a 28-3 lead in Super Bowl LI before losing to the Patriots. And a Suns championship win would have moved Phoenix about four spots up the list just behind Seattle, but they choked away a 2-0 series to Giannis Antetokounmpo and the Bucks.

So the debate is settled, and what everyone outside of New England feared is true: Boston has been the true City of Champions the past three decades. But a few other cities are knocking on the door of making booze-soaked parades a norm in their town.

***

Code for the above plots can be found on GitHub. I’ve provided the data I collected from Sports Reference and various Wikipedia sites as well as the R script for the table, thus the entire analysis should be reproducible. Please reach out if you are having a hard time arriving at the numbers I’ve calculated.

The header photo of one of many Boston Red Sox parades is licensed under the Creative Commons Attribution 2.0 Generic license.

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