Anyone who has supported a team that falls short year after year knows how frustrating and disheartening it can be. There are many fan bases that have struggled with this heartbreak for years. We’ll take a look at the longest playoff droughts across the Big 5 team sports leagues and assess who has the best chance at bringing some long-awaited relief to their hard-pressed supporters.
Major League Soccer – 3 Years
Major League Soccer is still a very young league with a fairly high percentage of teams that qualify for the playoffs. As a result, there aren’t any exceptionally long droughts. However, there are a couple of young teams that have yet to qualify for the postseason at all.
With an expanded playoff group last year, there were only eight teams out of the 26 active clubs that missed out on the playoffs. Of those eight teams, half of them had been to the playoffs the previous season. Three of the four remaining teams are tied for the longest drought in MLS. The Chicago Fire, Houston Dynamo, and Vancouver Whitecaps all last appeared in an MLS postseason game back in 2017.
The other team, FC Cincinnati, has never made the playoffs but did not enter the league until 2019. Austin FC enters MLS this season and joins Cincinnati as the only team never to make the playoffs, although they could potentially go on their first attempt.
While a three-year playoff drought is hardly worth writing home about, if you look at the longest drought without a playoff round win, the numbers get a little sadder for some teams. In particular, for the Chicago Fire.
There are three teams who have never won a playoff game. However, since those teams are Austin FC (joined the league in 2021), Inter Miami CF (joined the league in 2020), and FC Cincinnati (joined the league in 2019), it is hardly a dark mark upon any of these young clubs. The Chicago Fire, on the other hand, won their last playoff round back in 2009, leaving them with an 11-year winless drought.
Making the playoffs in 2021 will prove a bit more difficult, with only 14 of the 27 teams advancing down from the 18 of 26 teams that qualified in 2020. None of the three teams riding a three-year drought is getting much love from the oddsmakers this year.
However, since there is often a surprise team or two every year, it seems likely that at least one of these teams could make a playoff appearance this season. All three making it into the competition seems highly unlikely, though. The MLS playoff drought likely grows to four years at the season’s end.
The National Hockey League – 9 Years
The Buffalo Sabres is one of the tough luck teams in the NHL at the moment. This position is nothing new for the fanbases of Buffalo-based franchises. The Sabres last appeared in the playoffs back during the 2010-11 season.
While it is difficult to be a Sabres fan at the moment, it might be an even bigger challenge to be a fan of the Florida Panthers. In their third year since joining the league, they advanced all the way to the Stanley Cup Finals before getting knocked out. That appearance was back in 1996. They haven’t won a single playoff series since. With the NHL lockout for the 2004-2005 season, that makes 23 years without a playoff series win.
There are no NHL teams that have never won a playoff series. The newest expansion team, the Vegas Golden Knights, went all the way to the Stanley Cup Final in their inaugural season and have been a playoff team every year of their existence. They have set a mighty high bar for the Seattle Kraken when they join the league next season.
Folks are hopeful in Florida, with the Panthers currently sitting in a healthy playoff position. However, things don’t look so sunny in Buffalo, where the Sabres are rattling around at the bottom of their division with the worst record in the league. It appears that they will almost certainly extend their drought to at least a 10th year.
The National Football League – 10 Years
The New York Jets are definitely one of the top punching bag franchises of the league. They typically not only find a way to lose but manage to look particularly bad while doing so. They continued to do so in 2020, first looking like they were going to join Cleveland and Detroit among the teams to have gone 0-16 in a season, then managing to lose in another fashion by somehow winning two games and missing out on the top draft pick.
The last time that the Jets appeared in a playoff matchup was following the 2010 season.
While the Cincinnati Bengals have made five postseason appearances since the Jets last appeared in the competition, they have failed to secure a win. In fact, they haven’t recorded a playoff win in their last seven playoff appearances. To find the last time that the Bengals did put up a W in a postseason game, you have to travel all the way back to when Bush was in the White House.
That’s right. The last time that the Bengals won a postseason game was following the 1990 season. Half the players in the league hadn’t even been born yet. Yikes.
Neither of these teams seems likely to make a playoff push next season. However, if one were to sneak in, the Bengals seem the more likely of the two. Of course, if the Bengals do find themselves in a postseason game next year, it seems quite likely that they will once again be immediately bounced from the tournament.
The National Basketball Association – 14 Years
You would think that in a league where over half the teams make the playoffs every season, there would not be any teams with significant playoff droughts. However, the Sacramento Kings exist to prove that long playoff droughts can exist even under these conditions. The last time the Kings appeared in a playoff competition was back in 2006.
This poor showing probably played a large part in the rumors that the team might relocate to Seattle a few years back. The team stayed put, though, and continued to fall short year after year.
For the longest streak without a playoff win is a bit more confusing. Both the Kings and the Minnesota Timberwolves last won a playoff series in 2004. Then there is the Charlotte Hornets. The Hornets were originally formed in 1988 and played in Charlotte until 2002 when they moved to New Orleans. While they kept the Hornets name, they did not keep the team history.
When an expansion team came back to Charlotte in 2004, they called themselves the Bobcats. However, they adopted the history of the old Hornets team as their own. Eventually, New Orleans would change their name to the Pelicans, and the following year, Charlotte would reclaim the Hornets name.
Since rejoining the league, the Charlotte Hornets have not won a single playoff series. However, in their final year before moving, they did win a series at the end of the 2001-02 season. That means that Charlotte’s streak technically goes back to 2002. Since there was no team in the city for two seasons, though, they match the Kings and Timberwolves with having missed the playoffs for 16 total seasons. Did you follow all that?
This season seems like the year to break some streaks in the NBA with expanded playoffs. Instead of the usual 16 teams advancing to the postseason, there will be 20 participants with four play games to set up the final bracket of 16.
Unfortunately, things are not looking too good for two of our teams hoping to break playoff droughts. Minnesota is currently in the basement of the Western Conference. Meanwhile, Sacramento is a few spots up but still below the line. They could still make a push, but things are not looking good. It seems quite likely that the playoff appearance drought will extend to 15 years.
Charlotte, however, is in the middle of the playoff pack in the Eastern Conference, so the chance to break their winless streak is well within their grasp. You can follow their progress the rest of the season with a live sports stats API and judge for yourself if they have what it takes to end their drought. [See More Info]
Major League Baseball – 19 Years
The Seattle Mariners hold the unfortunate distinction of being the team with the longest-running playoff drought in all U.S. professional sports. The last time the Mariners appeared in the playoffs was back in 2001, following their record-tying 116 win season. A season in which they still failed to make it to the World Series.
As for the longest winless streak in the playoffs, it has gotten a bit tricky in recent years since the introduction of the Wild Card Game. Many people do not feel that winning the one-game playoff counts as a series win, so we’ll look at the streaks both with and without this matchup. Then you can throw in the added wrinkle of the best of three wild card series in 2020.
If you count the one-game wild-card playoff as a series, then the Mariners hold a double drought title, with their last series win coming back during their last playoff appearance, in 2001.
However, if you discount both the one-game playoff and the best of three series, there are two streaks longer than theirs. The Padres won a best of three Wild Card Series last year, and the Pirates won a one-game Wild Card Playoff back in 2013.
If you were to discount San Diego’s series last year, you would have to go all the way back to the 1998 season to find the last time that they won a playoff series. That doesn’t seem so bad, though, when you look at the Pirates. Although they have made it to the NLCS a couple of times since their last series win, that was before the Division Series was first played.
The last time the Pirates won any playoff series beyond a single game was 1979. That year they claimed their seventh World Series title and since then have rarely threatened. From 1990-92 they appeared in three straight NLCS, losing each time, then they followed that up with 20-straight losing seasons before winning the Wild Card Game in 2013.
While the Mariners’ 19 game stretch of not missing the playoffs is tough, it can’t hold a candle to those 20-straight losing seasons put up by Pittsburgh. At least the Mariners had a winning record seven of those seasons. They even entered the final day of the season in 2014, needing a win and an Oakland loss in order to get the 2nd wild card spot, and they did their half of the job.
The other noteworthy, notorious playoff streak in baseball belongs to the Minnesota Twins. After getting swept by the Astros in a best of three series last year, the Twins extended their playoff losing streak to 18 consecutive games since going up one game to none on the New York Yankees in the 2004 ALDS.
So, what are the chances for the various hard-luck teams of MLB in 2021? The Padres were one of the most heavily favored teams in MLB coming into the season and have played like it in the early going. Minnesota is also a heavy favorite to at least reach the postseason and they have come out of the gate looking like a team with the pieces to make a run. Of course, their playoff blunders could easily foil them again.
Things are looking up in Seattle overall. They have a strong farm system and look like a force to be reckoned with soon. However, most analysts are projecting next year to be when they really become competitive.
So, far they have begun this season strong, though. On top of beating some tough opponents, this young club seems to have a never-say-die attitude. They have already come back to win three games where they trailed by three or more runs, including erasing a 6-0 deficit against the aforementioned Twins.
Pittsburgh looks doomed for obscurity once again, with oddsmakers placing them least likely among all 30 teams to come out on top this season. So far, their play has matched predictions.
Which Appearance Drought Is Most Likely to End?
None of the sports’ longest appearance droughts feel particularly likely to end this season. However, if backed into a corner, the Mariners seem like the best bet. They are a young team with a whole lot of talent both on the Major League roster and waiting in the wings. If a few players are able to mature a bit quicker than predicted, this team could be in trouble come September.
A World Series run is probably pushing it for the only ball club never to make an appearance in the championship. However, they may be able to do just enough to knock their name out of this article.