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Venkataraman: Ranking the most difficult championships to win

This article was supposed to be, at worst, half joyful and half morose. After all, with yours truly holding a vested rooting interest in two of the four teams left in the NFL playoffs, it would seem reasonable to hope that at least one of my teams would advance to the Super Bowl.

Alas, it was not meant to be, and my psyche has yet to recover from the demoralizing events of Jan. 19, 2014, a day that will long be remembered in the Venkataraman household as Footballgeddon.

It is an irrefutable truth that winning a championship in any sport requires a great deal of skill but also an equal amount of luck. Whether that luck be in the form of a team that implodes, a random bounce of the ball, a relative lack of injuries or a terrible foul call, the point is that the “best” team, either on paper or by punditry, is quite often not the team that goes home with rings and Champagne.

This got me thinking, because we never stop to think exactly how hard it is to win a championship in each sport. Are there some sports that are inherently tougher to triumph in? As this column has only just crossed 200 words, you know the answer is going to be “yes.” Without further rigmarole, here is my (definitely imperfect) list of relative championship-winning difficulties in major professional sports leagues, ranked by the relative difficulty for the most talented team (on paper) to triumph.

4. Winning the World Series: This was the easiest call to make: In baseball, the best team almost always heads home as champions. The points for baseball being difficult include a grueling 162-game regular season and a severely skewed talent distribution, centered around major television markets; however, the sport has a relatively smaller injury risk when compared to the rest of this list, a plethora of ways to reach the playoffs and five- or seven-game postseason elimination formats that quench the upset potential that a smaller sample size would grant. On the whole, there are fewer confounding variables in baseball, and as such, if you have a strong team, you have a very fair and decent chance of emerging as champions.

3. Winning an NBA title: The NBA is the second-easiest league to emerge from as a champion if you are the most talented team on paper. First off, there are only five players on the floor at a time, meaning the presence of a single superstar is far more dramatic than other sports, where there are more active players on the floor at one time. Want proof? The only team in the last 34 years to win without a guaranteed Hall of Famer on its roster was the 2004 Pistons, and their victory ranks as one of the greatest upsets in NBA history.

Additionally, the luxury tax rules include a soft cap, which allows teams to spend with (admittedly severe) penalties, which has the added result of again concentrating talent among big spending teams; the parity in the league is thusly diluted. If you are in the Eastern Conference, your path to a championship gets paved in golden bricks; this year, 12 of the 15 teams in the conference are currently at or below .500.

2. Winning the Super Bowl: Football is easily the most directly violent sport of the four we are considering; the scope and magnitude of injuries players suffer leave teams often in shambles by the end of the sporting year.

There is also a startling amount of parity in football; the phrase “any given Sunday,” after all, does draw its origins from the typical Sunday football experience. Attracting and keeping talented free agents is difficult, as is finding talent in the draft. But the biggest struggle is the single-elimination postseason format; all it takes is five minutes of poor play, and you can find yourself out of the playoffs. It is rarely sufficient to be talented enough to win the Super Bowl; you also have to peak at the perfect time and get hot through the playoffs. In football, the hottest (and least injured) team wins.

1. Winning the Stanley Cup. Canadians, take a bow. Your national pastime is easily the victor of the “most difficult to win” sport. Injuries are an enormous risk here; anytime you get unreasonably large men flying around at high speeds on ice skates in a contact-heavy sport, you will tend to see more than your fair share of bumps, lumps and torn ligaments. There is an impressively large amount of parity in the playoffs: Since 1994, when the NHL adopted its current postseason structure, there have been nine No. 8 seeds (supposedly the weakest teams in their conferences) that have upset No. 1 seeds in the first round; this is a mark that the NBA hasn’t reached in its entire history. The playoffs are lengthy, with four full rounds being played before a champion is anointed. Add to these variables the tendency of officials to swallow their whistles in the postseason and a severely unforgiving salary cap structure. With conditions like these, winning the Stanley Cup might actually require divine intervention.

My conclusions? It behooves you to be good at your sport, and it also doesn’t hurt if you are lucky. It’s when you put the two together that the championship banners start floating to the rafters. With these words, I will continue to sulk the hurt away.

Viggy Venkataraman hasn’t left his room since the events of last Sunday, too distraught to go to class, pick up his copy of The Daily or even read up on the Richard Sherman situation. Fill him in on what he’s missed at viggy ‘at’ stanford.edu.