Photo Credit: Washington Post

By Zane Miller

When a new champion is determined at the end of nearly every season for any sport, one would expect that the winner would be a team that excelled during the regular season. After all, some of the most iconic championship teams in history have also been the amongst the most dominant during the regular season as well. The 110-win 1927 New York Yankees, undefeated 1972 Miami Dolphins, and the 1976-77 Montreal Canadiens, who only lost eight times during their 80-game schedule, have all etched themselves into the history books as some of the greatest champions the pro sports world has ever seen.

Of course, the majority of champions fall into the “impressive, but not jaw-dropping” category. Take the 2022 Kansas City Chiefs for example, as they won the Super Bowl with a 14-3 regular season record. Obviously a fantastic season, but it doesn’t really stand out amongst the other champions in any specific way. They’re basically the definition of a completely normal championship run. This article is about the champions who beat the odds, overcoming a mediocre and even bad regular season to achieve glory. However, even within this exclusive group, there is one team that stands out as the unlikeliest champion ever.

Starting with the NASCAR Cup Series, since there isn’t a traditional win-loss system in place like most other sports, I feel the most effective way to look at the champion seasons is by top-10 percentage. While many fans say that the worst championship season was taken by Kyle Busch in 2015, as he missed 11 races early in the season due to injury, I’d personally disagree as he had a .640 top-10 percentage in the races he did start, so it’s not particularly surprising that he won the title that season. With the institution of the Chase/playoffs in 2004, it’s more likely than ever before for drivers to surmount subpar top-10 numbers to win the championship. In series history, only two champions have finished with top-10s in less than half of their races, those belonging to Joey Logano in 2022 with 17 top-10s in 36 races, with the other being Jimmie Johnson in 2016 as he had just 16 top-10s for a top-10 percentage of .444. However, neither of these seasons could be considered bad or even mediocre, as Logano had four wins on the year and Johnson had five.

By far the easiest sphere to win a title despite a losing record is in the sphere of Minor League Baseball, with a whopping 22 champions finishing below the .500 mark. This is because of the MiLB’s unique way of determining playoff spots, which entails each season essentially being split into two halves, with the winner of each moving on to the playoffs. As a result, a team could be completely awful in one half, but still be able to win the championship after securing a postseason berth in the other half. However, this format still guarantees that the title-winning team would have at least a somewhat decent record; as of this writing, the worst record of a champion in any of the top three levels are the 2008 Arkansas Travelers, who came in at a lowly 62-78 after barely taking the first-half crown at 36-34 before having a dreadful 26-44 record in the second half.

For many of the leagues I follow, no team has ever won a championship with a losing record, with this list including the NFL, MLB, Major League Rugby and Indoor Football League (the 2023 XFL champion Arlington Renegades had a 4-6 record in the league’s final season before merging to form the UFL). Even the NASCAR Xfinity Series and Truck Series have yet to have a sub-.500 top-10 percentage driver win the title. On the other side of the coin, the NHL has seen three losing-record teams get to lift the Stanley Cup, most recently in 2012 with the Los Angeles Kings, who finished with a regular season showing of 40-42. While the 1948-49 Toronto Maple Leafs at 22-25-13 are likely the most forgotten of the trio, the 1937-38 Chicago Black Hawks have been remembered by history for the worst regular season record of any champs from the main four major U.S. sports leagues, as the Black Hawks squeaked into the playoffs by winning just 14 of their 48 games on the campaign.

For most, this is where the story ends, and I don’t blame them. A team winning a championship with any winning percentage worse than the .359 shown by the 1937-38 Black Hawks seems like it should be impossible. But there is one league that I have not yet mentioned, containing a champion with a record so unfathomably terrible it doesn’t even look real when placed on a spreadsheet. It’s time to take a look at the Arena Football League, specifically their 2018 season.

While the AFL already had a sub-.500 champion under their belt, as the 2006 Chicago Rush claimed ArenaBowl XX with a 7-9 record, the regular season ineptitude of the 2018 Washington Valor may never be matched by any champion not just in the AFL, but the pro sports world as a whole.

By this point in time, the AFL was clearly on its last legs, having battled through several years of financial problems and lawsuits, already a bad sign for a league which had already filed for bankruptcy protection less than a decade earlier. For 2018, the AFL had contracted down to its lowest number of teams since their inaugural season in 1987, as they hosted just four clubs with the Valor being one of them. This is an important detail as the league still wanted to have a two-round playoff, meaning that every team would automatically qualify regardless of regular season record.

This arrangement proved to be fortuitous for the Valor, as they hobbled through the regular season with a pitiful 2-10 record. Not only were they dead last in the standings by a wide margin, but they were also the only team in the league to have a losing record at all. Washington went winless until their eighth game of the season, though they would receive a confidence boost in their season finale with a win against the Baltimore Brigade.

In the semifinal round, the Valor faced the #1-seeded Albany Empire. At this time, the semifinals were set up as a best-of-two, essentially meaning that whichever team scored the most points in the two games combined would move on to ArenaBowl XXXI. Undeterred by the poor regular season, quarterback Arvell Nelson and wide receiver Reggie Gray kept pace with Albany throughout the game, with Nelson throwing for 259 yards and six touchdowns, with Gray catching four of them. Although Washington lost in overtime 57-56, they only needed to win the second game by at least two points to set up a rematch with the Brigade for the AFL crown.

While the Empire were able to silence Gray for most of the game, Nelson found a new primary target in Douglas McNeil, who caught three of Nelson’s five touchdowns. The Valor secured the first-round upset with a 47-40 victory, bringing them back to face the same Baltimore team which they had defeated just three weeks prior. With momentum through the roof, the Valor quickly captured a 35-20 lead at halftime and never looked back, going up 56-34 by the start of the fourth quarter before officially capturing the 69-55 win, completing the seemingly impossible by winning the same number of games in the postseason as they did in the regular season. While it certainly took wild circumstances to get there, the 2018 Washington Valor stand today as the greatest championship outlier of all time.

Every champion with a losing record in regular season