Does first place matter?

I’ve decided to take a look at the historical champions for all 4 major sports leagues. I want to see what sort of trends emerge when plotting these teams by their final standing. Lets start with the NHL, I will explain some of my methodology as I go along.

NHL Stanley Cup Champions

NHL Champions by standingI went back to the 1926-1927 season as this was the first time the NHL used a playoff system with more than 3 teams (and also the first season with multiple divisions). I used overall record to determine standing, which is why you’ll see many seasons in which lower-ranked teams made the playoffs over higher ones. In the second chart I compare the actual total of champions by standing to the expected number assuming 50/50 win rates. This means that in a season from the 50’s with 4 playoff qualifiers, each is assumed to have a 1/4 chance of winning the cup. Similarly, in a modern season with 16 playoff teams, each is assumed to have a 1/16 chance of winning. The curve of this line is not due to higher placed team having a higher likelihood of winning, but is actually due to the fact that past seasons had fewer playoff teams, meaning that lower ranked teams may have had no chance of winning at all. This is why the top 4 teams all have equal expected numbers; the top 4 teams have always qualified to the playoffs.

So, what does the actual data show? It is pretty clear that 1st place teams have won a highly disproportionate number of championships over the years. If winning was truly random, we’d expect about 12.2 1st place champions, but in fact we have had 39 of them. Conversely, we see that every other position but 2nd has had fewer championships than expected. This seems to indicate that the best team during the regular season really does have a higher chance of winning it all. The dominance of 1st place team may stem from a rich history of dynastic teams, especially during the “original six” period. This conclusion may seem rather obvious, but lets see if it holds for the other leagues.

NBA Champions

NBA Champions by standing

The history of NBA champions seems pretty similar to the NHL’s, with one notable exception. In this league, both 1st and 2nd place teams have won many more times than expected. We’d expect to see about 6.7 championships for both 1st and 2nd place teams, but there have actually been 30 and 19, respectively. This trend can be attributed in part to the legendary rivalry between the Celtics and Lakers, which often faced off as the top two teams in the league. 12 of the Celtics’ 17 championships were won as the 1st ranked team in the regular season. 8 of the Lakers’ 16 championships were won as the 2nd ranked team. Overall, however, we still see the top teams well ahead of the expectation curve. Lets see if this holds for football.

NFL Superbowl Champions

NFL Champions by standing

This data set should probably be taken with a grain of salt, as the NFL’s short season means that there are very often teams with identical records at season’s end. As such, I had to simply round teams up or down (for example, determining which of 4 teams with a 12-4 record was technically first). Regardless, there is a similar trend once again. The top 2 teams win most consistently with the top team overall winning 21 championships, compared to an expected 5.7. This is getting pretty repetitive, isn’t it? Well, then there’s baseball.

MLB World Series Champions

MLB Champions by standing

Well, look at that. MLB champions seem to line almost perfectly with the expected line. Beginning in 1969 – the first year with a true playoff structure – baseball has had a very “random” pattern of champions. There really appears to be no consistent trend, with only 2 occurrences of the top team winning consecutive world series. This is probably due to the fact that baseball has the greatest disparity between season length and playoff length. Fewer playoff series could allow lower ranked teams to “steal” a championship more often than other, more rigorous post-season structures. Then again, the NFL has a similarly short post-season (and single elimination games to boot), and its results seem less sporadic. Perhaps this indicates that the MLB’s 162 game season allows teams to build up such leads that they win the regular season by mid-summer and enter the playoffs on a cold streak or plagued by injuries, whereas other leagues with their shorter seasons would see teams in similar situations quickly drop down the ranks.

Final thoughts – where have all the dynasties gone?

While focusing on individual leagues, I did not touch on another interesting trend they all have in common. There is a very noticeable dichotomy in the NHL, NBA, and NFL when it comes to 1st place champions. Since the 1990’s, there have been very few such teams. Since 2000, of the 51 champions across all 4 leagues, only 8 finished the regular season 1st overall (about 16%). Since 2005, its been only 3 of 31 (less than 10%). Ironically, these numbers are much closer to the expected rates with random winners (the NFL and MLB would have 12.5% per team and the NHL and NBA would have 6.25%, if winning was always 50/50). This is a clear illustration of the impact of the salary caps and luxury tax introduced over the past couple of decades.

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