You play to win the game, right?
In professional sports, winning championships is always the bottom line. Championships define success. While dynasties dominate the headlines, it’s incredibly difficult to win consistently in any sport. It takes the right balance of talent, hard work, chemistry, coaching and execution.
It’s never easy to win a championship, but it can be considered harder in some sports than others. Which of the four major professional sports championship is most difficult to win?
NFL – Super Bowl
Among the four major pro sports, the NFL has the most franchises that have never won a championship. 12 teams have never claimed the Lombardi trophy. Since the NFL currently has 32 teams, this means a whopping 38% of the teams have never been champions. This stat tells you how hard it is to win it all in the NFL. Also, with those 32 teams, the NFL has the most teams of any of the four major pro sports, making it statistically more difficult to win it all.
The overall number of players in the NFL is probably the simplest explanation for why it’s so difficult. NFL teams have roughly 53 players per roster. In a typical lineup, teams will start 22 different position players, not including special teams. This high number of starters means that superstar players generally have less of an impact on the overall game. If you acquire a superstar, it does not necessarily translate to immediate wins like it does in the NBA. This reason alone allows football to be argued as the most difficult sport to win a title in.
Another reason has to do with the longevity of player careers in the NFL. Star players in the NFL usually have the shortest primes. In the NBA and MLB (and NHL to some extent), it’s common for superstar players to dominate the league for 10-15 years. With the exception of Tom Brady, this does not happen in the NFL. In fact, the opposite happens quite often, where all-time great players retire before their prime is over. Players such as Jim Brown, Bo Jackson, Barry Sanders, Calvin Johnson, and Robert Smith (not a household name, but he retired at age 28 after a Pro Bowl season with over 1500 rushing yards) were dominant stars who retired early due to the physical stress of the game.
How does this tie into the difficulty of winning a championship? Well, teams generally don’t have the services of their star players for as long as in other sports.
Additionally, NFL football is the only major professional sport whose postseason is a single elimination tournament. The MLB, NBA and NHL all have extended postseasons that feature best-of-5 and best-of-7 series. This postseason format makes the NFL playoffs the most suspenseful, and ensures that the best teams don’t always win.
We all remember the 2007 undefeated Patriots who lost the championship to the 10-6 Giants. On the contrary, the 2010-11 Packers snuck into the playoffs as a 6 seed and ended up winning the Super Bowl. Likewise, because of single elimination, the NFL has only had 6 repeat champions in its history, far less than the NBA and NHL.
MLB – World Series
Similar to the NFL, it’s incredibly difficult to win a championship in the MLB because of the number of players on a team. In the NFL, NBA and NHL, winning a game pretty much comes down to offense and defense. In the MLB, it’s so much more than that. All facets of a team, including starting pitching, the bullpen, base running, hitting, fielding, and coaching, must be elite in order to win a title. A glaring flaw in any of these factors of the game will cause other teams to take advantage and make it difficult to win.
Furthermore, baseball has, by far, the highest number of total games. It’s not uncommon for a team to have to grind through over 200 total games in a season in order to capture the championship. While the physical demands may not be as great as other sports, the mental and emotional sides of the game wear teams and players down throughout the year.
Since baseball is such a low scoring game, the margin of error for teams is almost nothing, similar to hockey. Painting the corner of the strike zone for a called third strike. Beating a tag by a hair on a stolen base or at home plate. Reaching into the stands to snag a foul ball or home run. All these baseball plays come down to a matter of inches, and each play can be a defining moment in any game.
NBA – NBA Finals
A lot of people would probably say basketball is the easiest sport to win it all. However, the difference between a team winning and not winning a championship is often due to the front office as opposed to the individual players. I’ll explain.
These days, basketball is such a superstar-driven league. Unlike at any other point in NBA history, it’s becoming common for one move to completely shift the balance in the league. We just saw it a couple months ago with the Raptors winning the title. They were nowhere near contenders 13 months ago before they acquired Kawhi Leonard. Sure, they were a good team, but they weren’t winning a title without Kawhi. The same can be said this year with Kawhi and the Clippers. The NBA front offices, more than in any other sport, make or break a team’s chances to win
This logic makes it seem like it’s easy to win a championship; all you have to do is acquire a superstar player. That’s wrong for two reasons.
First, it’s incredibly difficult to acquire a superstar player. Look at the Knicks for the last few years. Seemingly every year they were rumored to be getting a superstar player. They struck out every year. Even worse, the Bulls haven’t even had these rumors; they’ve simply been abysmal for many years. The Bulls’ front office is so bad that superstars won’t even consider Chicago at all. Both teams are in huge market cities that should be drawing talent.
Second, acquiring one superstar player is no longer enough to win a championship in today’s NBA. As if getting one superstar was difficult enough, it now usually takes at least two superstar players to win a title (yes, I understand the Raptors were an exception this year, but we all know that series would have gone differently if the Warriors were healthy).
NHL – Stanley Cup
The NHL recently had a repeat champion in 2017 with the Pittsburgh Penguins.
However, don’t let this fool you into thinking that winning in the NHL isn’t difficult. The NHL is similar to the MLB in that small mistakes are magnified to an extreme. A missed save or an errant pass can be the difference between winning or losing games in the NHL playoffs.
I’m not a hockey fan at all and I usually don’t follow the sport until the Stanley Cup Finals. However, I recognize, and somewhat agree, that postseason hockey is the best postseason to watch. Every game is suspenseful. Winning a title takes an incredible amount of nonstop focus and perseverance. Because of the low scoring nature of the game, postseason overtime games are common. I don’t think a lot of people realize how much stamina and energy it takes to compete at a high level in consistent overtime hockey games. The physical demands of the sport, especially in the postseason, are insane.
Like the NFL, it’s easier to neutralize star players throughout a game. This means that Stanley Cup winning rosters must be strong from top to bottom. There can be no weak spots on a team and the players must be consistently dominant.
There are so many factors that go into this debate. It’s so much more than the talent on a roster. The coaching, chemistry, and execution has to be nearly flawless to win a title in any sport. There have been countless examples in all of these sports of stacked rosters that could not win a title.
With all of this in mind, I think it’s most difficult to win the Super Bowl. The main reasons for this are the short primes of star players and the single elimination format. Like most people, I am a huge fan of the single elimination format. It’s what makes March Madness the most fun sporting event of the year. However, this format makes it incredibly difficult to win, and one small mistake can cost a team a title chance (Dee Ford this past year).
If you lose a postseason NFL game, there’s not another game to make adjustments and fix your mistakes. Outside of home field advantage, dominance in the regular season means almost nothing. It all comes down to 3-4 games where you must be at your best.
What do YOU think? Which major pro sports championship is the most difficult to win?
NBA expert and IU grad. '96 Bulls > Warriors. #FireGarPax