After Cleveland ended its 62-year drought without a championship, attention shifted to finding the new heartbreak city. We’ve ranked the top contenders among cities that have gone without a championship in the Big 4 sports (NFL, NBA, MLB, NHL) for 20 years or more based on their performance since 1960.
We’ve only considered cities that, at least at one point, had teams from 3 of the Big 4 sports. As a result no Milwaukee (if you include Green Bay they wouldn’t qualify since the Packers won) In North America’s Sports Heartbreak Cities #6-10 and North America’s Sports Heartbreak Cities #3-5 we ranked the trail of tears as follows:
Our top 2 heartbreak cities are Buffalo and San Diego, which we’ll compare sport by sport.
For both cities, football was their first major sports team in the modern era.
The Buffalo Bills were a founding member of American Football League. The Bills won the last two pre-Super Bowl AFL Championships over the San Diego Chargers by scores of 20-7 and 23-0 respectively.
After the AFL-NFL merger, there are only two eras for the Bills: the Marv Levy era and everything else.
During the Marv Levy era, only the San Francisco 49ers won more regular season games than the Bills. The Bills became the only team to make four consecutive Super Bowl appearances in 1991-1994. The city’s unique claim to heartache stems from the fact that they lost each one, but none is worse than the first.
In 1991, the Bills were 7-point favorites over the New York Giants in Super Bowl XXV. With the Giants ahead 20-19, quarterback Jim Kelly ran a two-minute drill that took the Bills from their own 10-yard line to the Giant’s 29-yard line with 8-seconds left. Bills kicker Scott Norwood attempted a 47-yard field goal that had the distance but was “wide right.”
The next year, the Bills faced one of the best Super Bowl teams of all-time – the 14-2 Washington Redskins with the league’s top offense and second-best defense. The Redskins opened up a 31-10 lead en route to a 38-24 win.
The Bills then played back-to-back Super Bowls against the Dallas Cowboys. In the first matchup, the Cowboys knocked the Bills’ star quarterback Jim Kelly out of the game in the second quarter and seized on 9 Bills’ turnovers (which remains a Super Bowl record) in a 52-17 blowout. In the rematch, the Bills had a 13-6 halftime lead only to watch the Cowboys score 24 unanswered second-half points in a 30-13 win.
Since Marv Levy retired in 1997, the Bills have been to the playoffs only twice. Bills fan have also endured 16 consecutive seasons without a playoff appearance – the longest in the league. Their last appearance is itself a legendary heartbreaker – the Music City Miracle – when an apparent 16-15 win evaporated with a wild kickoff return.
The San Diego Chargers also were a charter member of the AFL, moving to San Diego after their first year in Los Angeles. The Chargers played in five of the six pre-Super Bowl AFL Championships, winning only once in 1963 in a 51-10 rout over the Boston Patriots in San Diego.
In the last 50 years, they have made the playoffs only 13 times but have played in four AFC Championships. This includes back to back AFC Championship games losing at home to Oakland 34-27 in 1981, then losing to Cincinnati on the road 27-7 in the Freezer Bowl where the temperatures reached −37 °F with wind-chill. In 2008, they lost on the road to New England 21-12. Their sole win came in 1995 with a 17-13 win on the road in Pittsburgh. They were then blown out by Steve Young and the San Francisco 49ers 49-26 in Super Bowl XXIX.
Their most bitter losses came in the playoffs in 2007 and 2008 against the New England Patriots. In 2007, the Chargers had Super Bowl visions having had the league-best record at 14-2 led by MVP LaDainian Tomlinson. In the Divisional Playoffs played in San Diego, they took a 21-13 lead with 8:35 to go after a Tomlinson touchdown. The Patriots rallied back to go ahead 23-21 with 1:14, but Phil Rivers drove the Chargers to the Patriot 36 where Nate Kaeding missed a 54-yard field goal that would have won the game.
The next year, the 11-5 Chargers faced the undefeated Patriots in Foxboro. The Patriots won 21-12 as the Chargers’ three red zone drives yielded only 9 points.
Buffalo does not have a baseball team, although the Blue Jays are just two hours away by car.
The San Diego Padres stink. Since they joined the league, they have the lowest average wins per season of any team. In their 48 seasons, they have finished last 19 times, 20 or more games behind 22 times, below .500 35 times and have made the playoffs only 5 times. They did make it to the World Series twice in 1984 losing to the Tigers 4-1 and in 1998 when they were swept by the Yankees.
They are the only team in the league to never throw of no-hitter.
The Buffalo Bison, a 1946 team in the National Basketball League (which later merged into the NBA) are now the Atlanta Hawks. Basketball returned to Buffalo in 1971 when the NBA added the Buffalo Braves and Cleveland Cavaliers The Braves matched three consecutive 60-loss seasons with three consecutive winning seasons and playoff appearances from 1974-76. They had the Rookies of the Year in 1973 and 1974 with Bob McAdoo and Ernie DiGregorio and McAdoo was NBA MVP in 1975.
The Braves by this point were a modest success, both on the court and off; the team was drawing close to the league average in fans, had solid broadcasting ratings and was turning a consistent profit. Even so, by 1976 [owner Paul Snyder] was facing severe pressure to sell the team and get it out of Buffalo.
Snyder blamed competition with Canisius College and the Buffalo Sabres for favorable dates at Buffalo Memorial Auditorium. Snyder sold the team to future Kentucky Governor and former Kentucky Colonels owner John Y. Brown in 1976, who proceeded to dismantle the team trading future Hall of Famers McAdoo and Moses Malone. Eventually Brown swapped franchises with Celtics owner Irv Levin who then brought the Braves to San Diego after the 1978 season.
In 1995, the Toronto Raptors began playing for the NBA. The Raptors, however, have had limited success advancing past the first round only twice, with only one visit to the conference finals.
The San Diego Rockets entered the league as an expansion team with the Seattle Supersonics for the 1967-68 season. The Rockets struggled at the gate and on the court and moved to Houston after the 1971 season. The San Francisco Warriors, seeing an opportunity, renamed themselves the Golden State Warriors with an intention to combine their new home base in Oakland with games in San Diego – although only a handful of games were played in 1972 and 1973.
The American Basketball Association’s San Diego Conquistadors stepped in from 1973-1975. They had hoped to make a splash by signing Wilt Chamberlain as a player-coach but the Lakers went to court to block from him playing. The team folded 11 games into the 1976 season – the ABA’s final year.
In 1978, the Buffalo Braves moved to San Diego and were rebranded as the Clippers. Things look promising when the Clippers acquired hometown hero Bill Walton for the 1980 seasons, two seasons after he had won the MVP Award. Walton looked sharp in impressive pre-season win over the Lakers only to find out he had another stress fracture in his foot. He would play only 14 games that season and miss the next two. The Clippers were dismal and sold to developer Donald Sterling who moved them to Los Angeles over league objections in 1984. Walton still blames himself for the failure of the Clippers in San Diego.
The Buffalo Sabres joined the NHL in 1970 along with the Vancouver Canucks. They have missed the playoffs only 14 times (although they have missed the last 5 seasons). The Sabres reached the conference finals six times, advancing to the Stanley Cup Finals twice. They lost to defending champion Philadelphia 4-2 in 1975 and to the Dallas Stars 4-2 in 1999. The Stars won Game 6 in triple overtime on a controversial goal by Brett Hull, with Buffalo fans contending that Hull’s goal should not be allowed.
From Wikipedia: On this play, Hull kicked the puck with his left skate (while still outside of the crease) into a shooting position. Others have pointed out that similar plays were called differently during the regular season. Many Buffalo fans felt that this call was incorrectly made and the term “No Goal!” became their rallying cry. Shortly after, the rule that led to this controversy was removed from the NHL rulebook.
San Diego has only had minor league hockey teams.
Buffalo has not had a major league soccer team, but the North American Soccer League had teams in nearby Rochester (74 miles away) and Toronto (99 miles). The Rochester Lancers were NASL runner-ups in 1968 and champs in 1970.
The Toronto Blizzard lost consecutive NASL Championships (1983-84), but Toronto Metro-Croatia won the 1976 Soccer Bowl.
San Diego had two NASL teams – the San Diego Toros which played only one season and the San Diego Sockers (who were initially known as San Diego Jaws). The Toros won the NASL title in its only season. The Sockers had a longer run from 1974 until the NASL folded in 1984. The Sockers, however, were not as lucky as the Toros, losing 4 conference finals and/or semifinals over a five year period from 1979-1984.
The Verdict: It’s Buffalo
Both cities have a clear history of sports futility, but Buffalo stands out in terms of heartbreak because of its prominent near misses. San Diegans have plenty of sports disappointments, but no “wide right” or “no goal” moments to lament.
Or is it?
The premise of this series was that with the Cavaliers giving Cleveland its first title since 1964, the city was no longer the heartbreak capital of sports. But is one win enough to take the sting of the Indians’ failure to win a World Series since 1948 that includes getting swept by the Yankees in 1954 after a 111-win season (still the 4th best of all-time) or losing to the Marlins 4-3 in 1997 after being only 4 strikes from winning?
Don’t forget the Cleveland Browns who have not won since 1964. Browns fans not only endured heartbreaking losses to Denver in 1986 and 1987, but had their team taken from them and replaced with the worst team in the NFL since 1999 by far (with only two playoff appearances).
But the Cavaliers’ one championship is still one more than Buffalo has had.