Monday, November 19

Tough luck

The hard-to-take football losses by the Browns and Buckeyes last weekend (since avenged) provide me with a convenient backdrop to look into the numbers and analyze just how disappointing Cleveland sports have been in my lifetime. So much has been written about Cleveland's run of bad professional sports over the last 20 years, especially their legendarily epic defeats in big games, that I don't think I need to go too in-depth to impress them upon you. If you’re actually reading this website, you’re well aware of these events. The city’s struggles actually extend back twice that far, as we’re reminded by television networks every single time one of our clubs makes the postseason, but this article concerns my lifetime as a sports fan, so we'll use 20. Here's what we've got since 1986, just to recap:

Browns: Have never even played in a Super Bowl, losing 3 AFC Championship Games
Cavs: Claimed their first Eastern Conference title in 2006-07, losing in the Finals; also made the Conference Finals in 1992
Indians: Lost World Series in 1995 and 1997, making it to the 1998 and 2007 ALCS as well.

Overall, that’s pretty bad - you could make a strong case that Cleveland has had it rougher than any city in the US when it comes to pro sports history, which is exactly the conclusion ESPN reached a few years ago. Factor in the painful nature of many of their postseason near-misses (which I do not care to rehash), and it's been pretty bad for C-Town.

But has it, really?

Let's consider the three teams’ results from the standpoint of probabilities and expected values. I've been watching sports for roughly 20 years now, so let's say I've cheered for the Browns, Indians, and Cavs 20 years apiece. Yes, I know there was no Browns team for a few years; so let’s make it 21, 21, and 18 seasons, dating back to 1986. That makes a total of 60 seasons.

Each league (NBA, MLB, NFL) has typically had approximately 30 teams over this time period; sometimes more, sometimes less, but this is a good approximation and a convenient number given my 60-season career. In a first analysis, let's assume that every team in each sport has had an equal probability of winning the championship each year: 1/30. Likewise, each team has a 1/15 chance of simply appearing in the sport's championship game/round, and somewhere around 1/5 of claiming a division title each year (except for those absurd eight-team Centrals the Cavs used to compete in).

So, given 60 seasons over the last 20 years, my entire career as a fan, assuming 1/30 title odds, 1/15 finals appearance odds, and 1/5 division odds, Cleveland fans like myself should have expected to celebrate two championships among their clubs' four Finals/World Series/Super Bowl appearances, picking up twelve division titles along the way. To hear people decry Cleveland sports history, you’d think we were a lot farther away from these expected outcomes than we actually are. In the interest of accuracy, I went through and corrected my approximations with the actual number of teams in the Cavs’, Browns’, and Indians’ divisions, conferences, and leagues over the years. Still giving every team an equal shot to win (even the ’99 Browns), here’s what we have:

Expected Division championships: 11.1
Actual: 10

Expected Conference championships: 4.2
Actual: 3

Expected Championships: 2.1
Actual: Um...0

You know, suddenly things don’t seem so bad, despite that final value. Honestly, we’re really not too far off the expected values here. It’s true that the Indians are propping up the other two clubs – they’re responsible for seven of the division wins and two of the championship appearances. The Cavs have not managed to win the Central since before I even existed, and the Browns last claimed a division some 18 years ago, so the football and basketball sides of things haven’t been too great. Still, as a city, it’s not such an awful history – all it would take is for one club to win their division on the way to a championship and we’d be very, very close to our expected outcome at all levels.

The one thing that I think this analysis makes clear is just how difficult it is to win a major sports championship – we’ve not had one in my time, but on average we should only have expected two.

I think there are three factors that make the Cleveland sports experience seem more miserable than it is. One is, obviously, the big donut in the overall championship category. The psychological difference between even ONE title and our current zero weighs heavily on our minds. I know we all appreciate the late-80’s Browns, the great Tribe clubs of the ‘90’s, and the playoff runs the Indians and Cavs posted in 2007, but that zero just won’t budge. A second factor is the devastating nature of some of Cleveland's legendary playoff flops. Here, the numbers don’t provide proper insight – most of the later-round exits taken by the teams (other than the 2007 NBA Finals) have been rather painful and those memories tend to stick. The third is that it is the Browns who have been the biggest laggards, especially in more recent years. There’s no question that football rules Ohio, and Cleveland is always a Browns Town. You wouldn’t even have heard of the Cavs if the Browns had notched a couple of Super Bowls – the success of the Brown and Orange means far more to Cleveland fans as a sporting body than do the other clubs.

I’m not going to do it right now, but it would be interesting to perform similar analyses for other major cities and see who the numbers favor. There have to be some other below-average cities, numberwise, especially with the one-sport spurs gobbling up NBA Finals appearances and victories and with Boston claming championships left and right. If even poor Cleveland isn’t far off the pace in terms of division, conference, and league wins, then which sad-sack cities are sitting far below their expected wins?

Again, the good news is that we’re just one magical run away from respectability when you evaluate the history of the past 20 years from a probability standpoint – consider how the Tribe squeaking by the red socks in this year’s ALCS and breezing past the Rockies would have impacted the table presented earlier. Let’s hope our teams can raise a few more banners sooner rather than later and get ourselves back to equilibrium.

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