10 months ago
Traditionally, the one perk of being an expansion team was no one expected anything from you. Leave it to the Vegas Golden Knights to obliterate the curve. After winning their division, they went 12-3 through the first three rounds of the NHL playoff to reach the Stanley Cup Finals. They are tied with the Washington Capitals and only three wins away from the championship.
If Vegas actually wins the Cup, Toronto can go ahead and have a collective breakdown. Their Maple Leafs have been around for over 100 years … and their ongoing title drought has lasted half of that. (The NHL today has 31 teams—the last time the Leafs won it there were six.)
Yet Leaf fans may find solace in knowing that overachieving expansion teams tend to plummet back to Earth.
This is why early glory can lead to growing pains or even complete implosion, as expansion teams soar and then get smoked.
Reaching the Sky Before You Plant the Roots. American pro sports demand youth. This is a biological and financial reality. In general, leagues cap the total spending on players. They are particularly restrictive with newcomers: essentially, rookies get hazed financially.
(Soccernomics economist Stefan Szymanski explained the arrangement to RCL this way: “The owners in the league are trying to protect themselves from the players.” Picking on rookies is a way to let established players earn more, while ownership still gets to keep as much of the money they collect from fans as possible.)
Here’s how it works in practice. Golden State’s Steph Curry and Utah’s Donovan Mitchell are both 6’3” guards playing in the Western Conference who score more than 20 points per game and are essential to their teams.
As an NBA veteran, Curry’s current contract pays slightly more than $200 million over five years (roughly $40 million a season).
As a rookie, Mitchell’s deal limits him to under $8 million for three ($2.6 million).
You may consider Curry a superior player to Mitchell, but is he 15 times better? Even if the Warriors feel he indeed is, the Jazz still have a lot more cash on hand when it times to re-sign their players or pursue free agents. (And yes, it likely will cost more to attract young millionaires to Salt Lake City than the Bay Area.)
As noted, expansion teams have long been expected to be garbage fires. It’s pretty much the only time fans will happily tolerate losing—they just enjoy the novelty of suddenly having a pro team. This is when a franchise can collect high draft picks, which can either be turned into underpaid young talent or traded to other teams looking to get their own stash of promising discount players.
An expansion team that immediately starts winning, however, largely forfeits this benefit.
Take the NFL’s Carolina Panthers. They played their first season in 1995. They won their division in their second, even reaching the NFC Championship. Then they gradually fell to pieces, going just 1-15 in 2001.
This earned them the #2 pick in the NFL Draft, which became linebacker Julius Peppers. (A player so dominant—Defensive Rookie of the Year, nine Pro Bowls, All-Decade Team—that John Fox credited Peppers with allowing him “to be a head coach [with the Panthers] for nine years.”)
At which point the franchise stabilized and even reached a Super Bowl.
Of course, some expansion teams decide to prioritize experience over potential. This can lead to success, but it tends to very short-lived.
All In on Old Guys. In theory, all it takes to win a World Series is a pair of starting pitchers who have proven they can dominate. In a seven-game series, they can make at least four starts between them. Even if they don’t win all those games, they’ll eat up a lot of innings to preserve your bullpen for the other three.
As proof, look to the Arizona Diamondbacks. The Diamondbacks joined the majors in 1998. After their inaugural season, they added then 35-year-old Randy Johnson, a former Cy Young winner. Johnson was capable of not only striking out elite hitters but actually traumatizing them.
In 2000, Arizona brought in 33-year-old All-Star Curt Schilling. In 2001, it all worked to perfection. Johnson and Schilling went a combined 9-1 in the postseason with five complete games (including three shutouts) as the Diamondbacks won the World Series, with the duo sharing the Series MVP.
Did it last? Oh, it most certainly did not. Nor did anyone necessarily expect it to. Beyond their ages, both men were already on their fourth team. (Schilling would ultimately play for five different franchises; Johnson would edge him out with six.) They had each developed reputations as, to put it nicely, challenging. Sportswriters described the 6’10” Johnson as “surly” more often than they categorized him as “tall.” Schilling was considered one of the most hated men in sports. (After retiring he would expand on this, becoming one of the most hated men on the Internet.)
It didn’t help that the Diamondbacks soon started to slip. The next season they were swept in the National League Division Series and the year after missed the postseason completely. Arizona had seen enough and shipped 37-year-old Schilling off the Red Sox. It was a bitter mistake, as the Diamondbacks promptly fell to 51-111, still the worst season in franchise history. Meanwhile, Schilling helped Reverse the Curse in Boston while doing some of the most memorable bleeding in sports history.
After the 2004 season, Johnson was shipped off to the Yankees. In hindsight, the Johnson-Schilling era was a glorious blip. It was a brief high followed by a crushing low for a franchise that is generally mediocre but not awful. (The Diamondbacks haven’t won a playoff series in the 13 full seasons since 2004, but their record has never plunged to those depths again either.)
Another baseball expansion team might envy that relentless mediocrity, as they showed just how wildly a franchise can fluctuate.
Marlin Madness. In general, teams that consistently win have stability—the owner, coach and GM stick around a while. (Think Patriots, Spurs, Steelers, etc.)
Their first ownership change came in 1998. In preparation for going on the market, the Marlins launched a fire sale of their top players. This was particularly jarring because they had just won the 1997 World Series. (They defeated a Cleveland Indian team that hadn’t won the Series since 1948. You’re Welcome, Cleveland author and Indians fanatic Scott Raab recalled the bitterness of victory being snatched away to RCL: “When you go into the ninth inning with a lead in Game 7 of the World Series, you reasonably expect that it’s going to happen.”)
Of course, that Marlin fire sale should not to be confused with the fire sale after their 2003 World Series victory, their 2012 fire sale, their current ongoing fire sale or all their other fire sales. Their former players include Miguel Cabrera, who went on to win four batting titles, two MVPs and baseball’s first Triple Crown since 1967 after what Miami New Times describes as the “worst trade in professional sports history.”
One of the few potential superstars the Marlins didn’t unload was the All-Star pitcher José Fernández, who was killed in 2016 when he crashed his boat while both intoxicated and on cocaine. (Two passengers also died.)
Unsurprisingly, the Marlins are well under .500 this season, which would give them their ninth straight losing season.
Marlin attendance has been as volatile as everything else in franchise history. In their first season, the Marlins drew over three million. By the second season, it had dropped to under two. While the figure ebbs and flows, it is generally disturbingly low by MLB standards. Indeed, it slipped under a million in 2002. (And yes, the Marlins did win the World Series the next season, just to keep everyone guessing.)
25 years in, the Marlins are still asking a very basic question: How do we make this franchise make fiscal sense? It doesn’t help that many Marlin fans feel that owners have largely treated the franchise as a straight cash grab: Hold on to the team for a time, keep salaries low, get a massive score when you peddle it to the next guy.
Then the next guy has to pay off the debt he took on with his purchase. (The current owner is $400 million in the hole.) Agent Scott Boras has described the Marlins as “a pawn shop that is trying to pay the rent of the building” and said the team is focused on “debt service—paying off the purchase price for the ownership, as opposed to giving that fan base something to look forward to.”
Compare that to the Chicago Cubs. Win or lose—mostly lose—year after year and decade after decade they can draw two and even three million fans a season.
Maybe the Marlins were destined for dysfunction whatever they did. (Hey, they’re in Florida.) But a quick World Series win clearly didn’t stabilize the franchise: it literally triggered a demolition of the team. The year after that first title, they lost 2/3 of their games as success went away even faster than it arrived.
Where Do the Golden Knights Go? No one’s correctly predicted anything with this franchise—at one point you could get 500-1 odds of them winning the Cup at local sports books. There’s no reason to think that’s going to change.
Yet there is reason to believe the Golden Knights aren’t a mirage. For one, clearly, this is an extremely well-run organization—this much relentless success this soon doesn’t happen by chance. Beyond that, they could prove surprisingly appealing to free agents (and not just ones looking to indulge various addictions 24/7 in Sin City). Vegas has an extremely mild winter and is in a state with no income tax. Plus they have what NHL stars value above all else: a pre-game show that plays like a trip to Medieval Times after taking an entire blotter of acid.
Top that, Toronto.