The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

A review of the best and worst franchise records in professional sports

The Green Bay Packers and Chicago Bears entered this past Sunday's game with 786 victories apiece. (Kamil Krzaczynski/AP)
5 min

On Sunday, the Green Bay Packers beat the Chicago Bears, 28-19. Both teams are having mediocre seasons, to put it generously — the Bears more so. But this contest was far more than a measure of which currently bad team was worse. It was also a measure of which historically good team was better.

With their win, the Packers reached 787 franchise victories over the team’s lengthy history. As it happened, they and the Bears were tied at 786 entering the game, lending a significance it otherwise would have lacked.

It does raise an interesting question, though: Just how do other teams stack up over their own franchise histories? For every Green Bay Packers, after all, there’s an Atlanta Falcons, which has more than 100 more losses than wins over its franchise history. Who, then, are the best active franchises in history? And, more fun, who are the worst?

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Immediately you can see that we get into some trouble. The Washington Post’s local baseball team is the Washington Nationals. Do we count the Montreal Expos in the franchise history? The Washington Senators, though they moved to Minnesota to become the Twins?

The proper and natural way to resolve this question is to punt it to someone else, so we chose to use franchise definitions established by the encyclopedic sports sites collected under the Sports Reference umbrella. So the Expos’ (few) wins get added to the Nats’, and the Twins are saddled with the Senators’ (many) losses.

From there, it’s straightforward: Collect data on the all-time win-loss records of teams in the professional baseball, basketball, football, hockey and soccer leagues through Monday and sort them by win percentage. The result is below. For reasons that will soon become apparent, teams along the Philly-to-D.C. axis have been highlighted.

As you skimmed, you hopefully noticed that we delineated the teams that had winning percentages above .500 and those below — a group that will figure more prominently a bit further down in this article.

You probably also noticed that a surprising number of Major League Soccer teams with high, and low, winning percentages. That’s a byproduct of a smaller sample. Because those teams are newer, they have fewer wins and fewer losses. That’s exacerbated by the fact that soccer matches can end in draws (known as ties for the rest of this article for the sake of consistency). With fewer matches played, it’s easier to have a higher win percentage overall. Win two of three games and you’re at .667, for example. Win 666 of 1,000 games and your win percentage is slightly lower.

You can see that clearly if we show the same ranking as above, but with actual wins and losses displayed. You can also see that baseball franchises are the champions of games played for the obvious reasons of longevity and games-per-season.

If we limit our winning percentage analysis to teams that have played at least 1,000 games, we end up with top five teams in each sport that probably look familiar.

Yankees (.570)
Lakers (.592)
Packers (.572)
Canadiens (.598)
Giants (.536)
Spurs (.592)
Bears (.559)
Flyers (.583)
Dodgers (.531)
Celtics (.591)
49ers (.543)
Bruins (.577)
Cardinals (.521)
Jazz (.545)
Steelers (.535)
Wild (.567)
Red Sox (.518)
Suns (.536)
Giants (.529)
Predators (.567)

Even if the Bears had won Sunday, the Packers still would have had a higher winning percentage, given that they have fewer losses. With that, let us turn from historic winners to historic losers.

You might have noticed that teams from along the Philly-D.C. corridor tended to land in the below-.500 space of that first chart. Well, as it turns out, two of those teams — the Philadelphia Phillies and the Baltimore Orioles — end up the furthest from .500. The Orioles need to win more than 1,000 more games than they lose before they’re breaking even over franchise history; the Phillies need to win more than 1,100.

When we look at how far teams are from .500, though, we again see that Major League Baseball is overrepresented. The Phillies have been around for well more than a century and now play 162 games a year! Even if they had averaged just 10 more losses than wins over that period — a not-too-embarrassing 76-86 record each year — you arrive at a net deficit of 1,000 games over 100 years.

So let’s shift the context a little. Baseball teams play 162 games a year, meaning that, if the Phillies had a few perfect seasons — which … is unlikely, but work with us here — they’d eat substantially into that deficit. So let’s consider that metric instead. What teams would need the most perfect seasons to make up for their win-loss deficit?

The winner, by far, is the NFL’s Arizona Cardinals. If the Cardinals won every regular-season game from now until 2034, they would be, at last, at .500. By this metric, the Phillies are just the fifth-least successful franchise in American professional sports.

Now let’s talk about the Washington Commanders. You’ll notice above that they need less than one perfect season to reach .500. In fact, they need just three more wins than losses to hit .500 over franchise history — not likely this season, but possible. And for a team currently at the bottom of its division, an imaginary metric worth celebrating. The Packers can explain how good that can feel.