Now that the Texas Rangers have won the World Series, only 38 major professional sports franchises remain without a championship. The NFL has the highest number of lovable losers with 12, followed by the NHL (11), the NBA (10), and finally, MLB (5).
Even though the Arizona Diamondbacks lost to the Rangers in our most recent Fall Classic, the D-backs hold the distinction of being the quickest MLB team to win a championship. Arizona won the World Series in 2001, after just four seasons in the league. The Milwaukee Bucks are the only major sports franchise to win more quickly than the Diamondbacks, having won an NBA title in 1970-71 after three seasons.
The Baltimore Ravens (relocated from Cleveland) won their first Super Bowl in 2000, after spending five seasons in “Charm City”. In the NHL, the Las Vegas Golden Knights are the speediest expansion team to hoist a Stanley Cup, winning this year after six seasons. These four franchises have shown that it is possible to cultivate a winning culture forthwith, but what about the organizations that have never won a league title?
Here are two teams from each major professional sport which appear to be on the cusp of a breakthrough into the hallowed Titletown territory:
NFL: Cincinnati Bengals and Detroit Lions
The Bengals (5-4) are currently in the basement of the bruising AFC North, but Joe Burrow is the real deal. When Burrow is healthy, Cincinnati is always a threat to go deep into the playoffs and take a run at the Vince Lombardi Trophy. The Bengals barely lost Super Bowl LVI to the L.A. Rams by the score of 23-20 in 2022. The following season, Cincinnati slipped up against the Kansas City Chiefs in the 2023 AFC Championship game, losing by the exact same score. Two narrow misses for a great Cinci squad.
Cincinnati flirted with back-to-back Super Bowl appearances, and has a tremendously talented team on both sides of the ball. The Bengals are still a legitimate contender, and with Burrow’s record-breaking five-year deal a couple of months ago, their window should be wide open for at least that long. In their history, Cincinnati has played in and lost three Super Bowls, losing to the Rams once and the San Francisco 49ers twice.
The Detroit Lions have never reached a Super Bowl, coming closest when they were demolished in the 1991 NFC Championship game 41-10 by the Washington Redskins. However, head coach Dan Campbell has the Lions (7-2) roaring atop the NFC North. Quarterback castaway Jared Goff is revitalized and relevant in Detroit, and playmakers like WR Amon-Ra St. Brown and RB Jahmyr Gibbs have been sizzling on the gridiron.
The Lions’ offense can certainly put points on the board, so if the defense can continue to improve there is no reason to doubt that Detroit will be making noise in the postseason. Campbell signed a six-year deal in 2021, and this team is young, gritty, and hungry, with a lot of open field ahead of them. Lions vs Bengals in Super Bowl LVIII?
NHL: Vancouver Canucks and Florida Panthers
Head coach Rick Tocchet is enjoying his first full season of calling the shots for the Vancouver Canucks. Goalie Thatcher Demko has been formidable between the pipes, centers Elias Pettersson and J.T. Miller are scoring machines, and only one player on the team currently has a negative +/- rating. The Canucks are 11-3 and only trail the Stanley Cup champions Golden Knights in Western Conference standings.
If Vancouver stays healthy and plays up to its potential, the sky's the limit. The Canucks have reached the Stanley Cup Finals three times. In 1982 Vancouver got swept 4-0 by the N.Y. Islanders, in 1994 the N.Y. Rangers beat the Canucks in seven games, and in 2011 Vancouver lost another seven-game Stanley Cup showdown to the Boston Bruins.
The Florida Panthers have been on a wild up-and-down ride the last several seasons, with their most recent campaign ending with a loss to Las Vegas in the Stanley Cup Finals. Florida’s Cinderella season surprisingly and abruptly turned into a pumpkin once the series with Las Vegas began. The Panthers went flat when all the chips were on the table, but they still have that same quirky capability to shock you that the Canucks have.
It’s up to Florida to prove that last season’s run wasn’t a fluke. Forward Sam Reinhart has been playing impassioned hockey, and the Panthers are 9-4, riding a four-game winning streak. In the Eastern Conference, only the Bruins and Rangers have more points than the Panthers. Florida has appeared in two Stanley Cup Finals, and in both cases it would be the other team that won their first-ever Cup: The Colorado Avalanche swept the Panthers in 1996, and in 2023 the Golden Knights gutted them in five.
NBA: Phoenix Suns and Memphis Grizzlies
The new-look Phoenix Suns are only 4-6 to start the season, but superstar Devin Booker (calf) has started in just two of those games. PG Bradley Beal (back) has been sidelined for most of the young season as well, but both Booker and Beal are now back in action for the Suns. Phoenix’s Big Three of Booker, Beal, and Kevin Durant are a deadly trio when healthy, and that’s why the Suns (+750) currently have the fourth-best odds to win the NBA Finals this season.
Booker has already tasted defeat on the biggest of basketball’s stages once, when he and his Suns lost to the Milwaukee Bucks in six games. Phoenix also lost in six games the other two times it reached the NBA Finals (1976, Boston Celtics and 1993, Chicago Bulls), giving the Suns a spread out sort of mark of the beast. Phoenix is overdue for a championship parade, and this group can certainly provide it. When this Phoenix squad is healthy and clicking, it has the potential to stomp out any team in the NBA.
The Memphis Grizzlies are an intriguing team. The Grizz finished with the second-best record in the Western Conference last season (only slightly behind the eventual world champion Denver Nuggets), and did this despite being without Ja Morant for chunks of the season. Memphis was unceremoniously bounced by the Golden State Warriors in the second round of the playoffs, but the Grizzlies had proven their potential.
With the addition of veteran PG Marcus Smart, to help mentor Morant, the Grizzlies may have found the missing piece to their championship puzzle. The closest the Grizzlies have come to the NBA Finals is when they lost the 2013 Western Conference Championship to the San Antonio Spurs, 4-0.
MLB: Tampa Bay Rays and San Diego Padres
The Tampa Bay Rays have been knocking on the championship ring door for the five seasons or so. With a plethora of homegrown talent, solid pitching, and the lineup’s general ability to get on base, Tampa has been quite successful over recent years. Last season, the Rays finished with a 99-63 record, sporting the sixth-lowest team ERA (3.87) and the fourth-best OPS (.776) in the league.
With Yandy Diaz leading the way, Randy Arozarena slashing and dashing, and a balanced pitching staff, these stats project to hold steady heading into next season. Tampa has been rather inept in the playoffs the last few seasons, but one has to imagine that switch will eventually flip. The Rays reached the World Series in 2008 and 2020, losing to the Philadelphia Phillies and the L.A. Dodgers, respectively.
With a stacked, star-studded squad, the San Diego Padres and their fanbase had high hopes entering last season. In the end, the Padres did not get the results they expected, but we shouldn’t rush to overreact and pronounce them dead. San Diego’s front office is clearly committed to investing in the team, and a lineup with players like Juan Soto, Manny Machado, Xander Bogaerts, and Fernando Tatis Jr. is capable of doing a great deal of damage with their bats. If the Padres firm up in the pitching department, it wouldn’t be surprising to see them playing into late October / early November next year.
San Diego has only ever won a single World Series game across two appearances. The Padres lost to the Detroit Tigers 4-1 in 1984, and were swept by the New York Yankees in 1998.