Championship Hangovers

Does Winning a Championship Lead to a Slump?

Once a sports team seems to be on the rise, or better yet, has won a championship and hopes for a repeat the following year, it might seem logical to expect more greatness from them, right? Unfortunately, for fans of that particular team, that's not always the case.

In what has been deemed a "championship hangover," a team reaches the pinnacle of their sport and seems to plummet performance-wise the following year, either not making the postseason at all or exiting the playoffs earlier than they would prefer.

Let's take a look at the hangover effect after a team has won some hardware and see how a baseball statistical principle can be applied to other major sports in the U.S.

Nothing Worse Than a Hangover

hangover-effect-explained

While the Plexiglass Principle was defined for baseball fanatics by Bill James, baseball analyst and prolific author of several books on baseball analytics, the concept could easily be applied to other sports. Essentially, the Plexiglass Principle describes that when a team improves over the course of a season, they tend to fall off the pace the following season.

Above, we've shown the aggregated win percentage of all hangover years by league. While all leagues show an average win percentage the season after a championship (over 50 percent), the NHL certainly shows the largest hangover overall at 54.2%, followed by the MLB with 54.6%. The NBA and NFL are both well above 60% (66.7% and 67.5%, respectively).

The same could be said for those teams that go out and not only do well but also win their sport's championship – once that peak is attained, the team tends to backslide and doesn't perform as well the following seasons. Also known as the hangover effect, it's been observed in MLB teams for what seems like eons. It also doesn't necessarily reflect a team's overall improvement during their championship win season, either. We've taken it a step further here and applied the idea to other major sports leagues – the NFL, NBA, and NHL.

While this doesn't happen all the time (consider the multiple repeats and three-peats in the NBA), it does happen often enough that it bears analysis. Let's take a look to see which teams experienced the worst championship hangovers ever and find out the biggest differences in championship seasons.

Falling Off After the Big Game

nfl-championship-hangovers

First, we're looking at the top 8 championship hangovers on a team-by-team basis. The Washington Redskins claimed the dubious honor of nabbing the top spot here. The franchise has won three championships, and when we compared the average win percentage of their championship seasons with the following seasons, there was a pretty big drop-off – their aggregate win percentage of championship years was 83%, and their next seasons' aggregate win percentage was 63%, which represents a 25% change.

They are not alone here, however. The Denver Broncos experienced a 24% drop-off average after their three championship seasons, and the New York Giants were right on their tail with a 23% drop-off average after four championships.

When we break it down by single seasons, though, there are even bigger percentage changes. The San Francisco 49ers, for example, had a 59% drop in win percentage after their 1981 championship win, going from a 13-3 division-winning season directly to a paltry 3-6 in the strike-shortened 1982 season.

And check out the Broncos' championship hangover after they were repeat champions in '97 and then '98 – their win percentage during the 1988 season was 88%, which was followed by a 1999 season full of woe when their win percentage plummeted to 38% (a change of 57%). John Elway, starting quarterback for those two amazing seasons, retired following that second championship, leaving the franchise without his unique skill set and repeat trips to the Big Game, as they floundered in last place in their division in 1999.

NBA Finals and the Hangovers That Follow

nba-championship-hangovers

The NBA is not immune to championship hangovers, either. We checked the average win percentage from all championship years and compared that to the average win percentage of the years that came next to find out which team's drop-off was the highest – and found that the New York Knicks, with two championship wins, earned the top spot here with a 39% drop. The Philadelphia 76ers were next with a 37% drop-off, and the Detroit Pistons were right behind with a 34% change.

Next, we took a look at the biggest single-year hangovers. The Chicago Bulls had an enormous drop after their 1998 championship season. This was their third win in three seasons and sixth in eight total years. The difference in 1999? Superstar Michael Jordan retired, along with his six rings and legendary abilities. While their win percentage plummeted from one season to the next (a 66% difference), the 1998-99 NBA season was unusual in its own right, as it was shortened due to a massive lockout that lasted months. The two factors (Jordan's retirement and the lockout) surely contributed to the Bulls' eighth-place finish.

The next team with the biggest decline in performance was the Boston Celtics. They won the finals in 1969 and did not repeat the following year, suffering a 29% change in win percentage. This was their last finals win during this time over an enormous stretch of repeat after repeat (after repeat) – over 13 seasons, they brought home 11 championships.

Third, we have the Dallas Mavericks, who experienced a 22% change from their championship season in 2010-11 to the following year. Another lockout dimmed that next season, and several players were released as well, including Tyson Chandler, DeShawn Stevenson, and J.J. Barea. While the Mavs made it back to the playoffs the following year, they didn't get past the first Western Conference round.

Just Can't Swing a Repeat

mlb-championship-hangovers

Here, we're looking at how teams in the MLB fare after winning a best-of-seven World Series. The Florida Marlins come out on top here with a 25% change from the combined average of their championship years (they've had two) and the succeeding years. The Detroit Tigers weren't far behind with a 19% difference between the combined average of their four WS wins and the seasons that came next.

Just like with the other sports, it's easy to find even bigger differences when you look at seasons on a one-by-one basis. The 1997 Marlins, for example, enjoyed a great season and won 92 games before beating the Indians 4-3 in the World Series. The following season, they plummeted to last place in their division after eking out only 54 wins, which was a 41% difference. Their uninspiring performance on the field was likely due to a massive "fire sale" after the World Series when the franchise traded a ton of their most notable players.

The next team on this list didn't suffer nearly the hangover the Marlins did after their first World Series win, but after the Boston Red Sox won it all in 2013, they did have a 27% change in their win percentage the following season – going from first in their division to last. Interestingly, they were also in last place the season before this World Series win, so they went from worst to first to back again, all in the space of three years.

The Los Angeles Angels (then known as the Anaheim Angels) also experienced a similar drop-off after they won it all in 2002. That year, they almost won 100 games (99-63) and beat the San Francisco Giants 4-3 to win the World Series. In 2003, though, they didn't have a winning record and would miss the playoffs entirely.

Your Winning Season Is Now on Ice

nhl-championship-hangovers

Finally, let's take a look at the NHL. The Los Angeles Kings nabbed two championship wins but wound up on top of our list here, along with the New York Rangers and the New Jersey Devils, because the average win percentage of those winning seasons was 13% higher than the seasons that followed.

However, we saw much bigger declines when we compared season by season. The Detroit Red Wings, for example, had a 52% change in their winning percentage following their 1937 Stanley Cup season. This was their second championship (and second in a row) and third final appearance in four seasons – and they went from a first-place finish to fourth and missed the playoffs entirely.

Next on this list of questionable distinction, we find the Toronto Maple Leafs. Their downturn wasn't as harsh as the Red Wings, but they still suffered a slump (a 31% difference) following the 1948 Stanley Cup Final. The following year, though, wasn't a total loss for the franchise as they lost in the semifinals, and the season after that saw them hoisting the Stanley Cup yet again as champions.

Watching It All Unfold …

Once a sports team has attained glory, it's not always easy to keep a stranglehold on it. Teams are affected by many factors as seasons play out, including injuries, retirements, salary caps, strikes, and the Plexiglass Principle. While being a repeat champion is possible, it's not necessarily a guarantee once a franchise has peaked during a season. It's certainly fun watching how each season plays out, though!

Methodology and Limitations

For this analysis, we pulled historical championship data from sports-reference.com for the four major sports leagues in the United States (NFL, MLB, NBA, and NHL) on Jan. 22, 2019. We examined NFL championship records since 1970; NBA championships since 1950; MLB World Series since 1969; and NHL Stanley Cup victories since 1937. To determine the worst championship "hangovers," we averaged win percentages of all seasons following the championship victory and ranked them from lowest to highest. Only teams with at least two or more championship wins were included in these rankings. The most current team name is used to represent each club throughout their existence.

The main limitation of this study is that the data provided from the source may be incomplete or missing. Additionally, shortened seasons were not excluded from this analysis; therefore, circumstances (like a player lockout, for example) may affect the rankings. Another limitation of this study is that championship "hangovers" are subject to change as time passes, which could impact the highest championship "hangover" rankings among the teams in their respective leagues. This content was created for entertainment purposes only.

Sources

Fair Use Statement

Whether you've got a championship hangover, if you'd love to share our findings, you're more than welcome to do so (for any noncommercial purposes, of course). If you do, please link back to this page so that our contributors get the credit they deserve.