The Perth Wildcats are not about to become the “world’s greatest team” – yet
A little article appeared at the Western Australian recently claiming that the Perth Wildcats are about to break a “world record” for most consecutive seasons making the post-season playoffs or finals. It claims that this record is currently 29 seasons, held by ice hockey’s Boston Bruins, and that the Wildcats are about to pass this mark.
True enough that they’re about to make their 30th consecutive finals series, but HPN couldn’t such an expansive claim go unchallenged. We’ve taken a look around at available records around the world that could verify this claim, so strap yourselves in.
It turns out that Perth aren’t there yet, but if you define the question a certain way, they might be close.
The majority of world sport probably lacks any form of post-season
Although it theoretically covers all top-level sport, the claim is a relatively narrow one – that the Wildcats are the “greatest team” in one narrow sense, that of having the longest consecutive streak of making the post-season stage of professional sporting competitions.
At a stroke, the focus on post-season qualification eliminates virtually all soccer teams, excluding the biggest sport in the world from consideration. Most soccer leagues don’t have post-seasons, and those leagues that do such as the American MLS and the A-League aren’t old enough to support a 30 year playoff streak. This eliminates the dominant sport in Europe, Africa and South America and significant chunks of Asia, whose leagues are all run on a no-playoffs basis.
This is convenient for the claim, because relegation-promotion soccer leagues tend to lend themselves to oligopoly and make the top soccer teams far more dominant than the Wildcats could ever dream. An illustrative example: the last time FC Barcelona finished low enough in La Liga that they wouldn’t have made a potential playoff series was probably 1964 when they finished 6th of 16. 1941 was the last time Barcelona finished in the bottom half of their league.
To be as fair as possible to the Wildcats, we should probably therefore stick to comparing them to closed competitions without promotion and relegation. Such closed competitions usually operate on the logic that every team should have a chance to win, and they are more likely to have measures like salary caps aimed at making it harder to continually dominate.
Some sports have had extremely limited post-seasons
What about the world’s second most popular sport, cricket? The qualification of “professional” would also seem to eliminate a significant chunk of the domestic competitive history of the sport, but we’d suggest that’s an unfair reading and that “top level competition” is the more substantial version of the claim regarding the Wildcats here.
As far as we can see, India’s most dominant regional side, Mumbai, has a best playoff streak in the Ranji Trophy of around 17-seasons. They won 20 titles in 22 years at one point, but for much of the trophy’s history only the winners of four large pools made it to a semi-final then final. Any slight slip from the absolute top broke the streak, and this occasionally occurred. Mumbai, incidentally, also have the improbable record of 40 wins from 44 finals appearances – that’s a 90% conversion rate from a lot of finals.
Elsewhere in the cricket world, play-offs have been traditionally constrained or non-existent in most of cricket’s long-form first class history. The Sheffield Shield, for instance, only added a final in 1982-83 summer.
There does not appear to have been any consistent three-decade finals runs in one day cricket in any country we looked at and of course T20 with its nearly random-walk level competitiveness and auction system is unlikely to ever produce sustained dominance.
Europe is full of pyramids
We can also look at basketball in other countries. In Europe, FC Barcelona Bàsquet have never missed playoffs as far back as playoffs have existed (back to 1982-83, which is 32 years and counting). Panathinaikos in Greece and ASVEL in France would be the best chances in those countries of owning long playoff streaks, but the records are difficult to find.
Lithuania’s Žalgiris basketball side have not missed a championship game since the 1993 season after Lithuania became an independent country. They also won several titles in the USSR in the 1980s before leaving the USSR league in 1990. Between 1983 and 1989 they won or lost every final in the Soviet League against CSKA Moscow. Between 1990 and 1993 it isn’t clear that they had a domestic competition to compete in. The streak from 1983 to present for Žalgiris would be 28 seasons. Close, but still surpassed by the Wildcats who of course didn’t have to deal with the disintegration of the country they played in.
We noted above that soccer’s promotion-relegation system probably helps reduce competitive parity and keep a few teams at the top in contrast to a closed league with no underlying “pyramid”. The same could therefore be the case in European basketball where all the above mentioned examples also have relegation systems and where dominant teams such as FC Barcelona have huge resource advantages. We could potentially dismiss the achievements of Barcelona Bàsquet, or Žalgiris, as being helped by that promotion-relegation system’s impact on competitive parity, if we wanted to.
European domestic Ice Hockey follows a similar pattern – there are potentially very long streaks in certain countries, but there’s also promotion and relegation that supports sustained dominance by a few. The internationalised Kontinental Ice Hockey League based in Russia appears to be a franchise-based exception to this pattern but is only a few years old.
In French rugby, Tolouse in France have not missed qualifying for various forms of national playoff since at least 1982-83, an active streak of 32 years. The French system also uses a form of promotion and relegation between two levels of professional league, as is the European norm. Leagues in Britain and Ireland do not appear to have a strong tradition of playing finals.
…and a look elsewhere
In South African rugby’s Currie Cup, Northern Transvaal (now the Blue Bulls) missed a few semi-finals across their long period of historical dominance up until the 1980s. New Zealand has only had provincial semi finals since 1992. Australian domestic rugby doesn’t count – it never counts.
No streak in the NSWRL/ARL/NRL comes close with St George’s 23 seasons (1951-1973) unlikely to be bested. Including pre-Super League competition, the best playoff qualification streak we can find in English rugby league is the Wigan Warriors’ 21 seasons from 1984-85 to 2005.
The AFL/VFL record is 13 by Hawthorn from 1982 to 1994 (who also have the longest finals drought (32 years from their 1925 inception until 1956). Port Adelaide in the SANFL, despite their historical dominance, made a habit of periodically missing a single season of finals every 15 or 20 years throughout the 20th century. We didn’t check the WAFL but that competition has had strong historical parity that makes such an extensive finals streak unlikely.
In baseball, the MLB record is 14 seasons by the Atlanta Braves. Dominant teams in major leagues in Cuba (Industriales) and Mexico (Diablos Rojos del México) have not managed to get active playoff streaks anywhere close to 30 seasons, while Japan only recently added playoffs beyond just pitting their two division winners against each other.
Gaelic Football and Hurling in Ireland is an unusual case where the prestige competition is a knockout rather than a league. For a comparison we would need to draw a line at a stage of the tournament. If we drew it at, say, the All-Ireland Series “quarter final” stage (a repêchage process from the qualifiers means that means there are 6 teams remaining) there’s a good chance that the utterly dominant hurling counties of Kilkenny, Cork or Tipperary would have streaks several decades long. But we haven’t checked those records.
Not quite yet, Perth
There is, however, the Canadian Football League.
CFL is the premier league of a slightly different gridiron sport played in Canada by teams like the Blue Bombers and Rough Riders. The Edmonton Eskimos played every playoff between 1972 and 2005, a total of 34 seasons. It’s a franchise league, clearly professional, and by itself enough to disqualify the Perth Wildcats from any form of world record.
So where do the Wildcats sit?
We’ll say this, then:
The Edmonton Eskimos made 34 playoffs in a row and clearly sit ahead of allcomers in North American professional sport, and are also still ahead of the Wildcats who will play their 30th consecutive playoff series this year. Perth are 5 years away from passing that mark.
In terms of active streaks, there’s at least two teams in strong elite sporting competitions in Europe with 32-season active playoff streaks. Barcelona basketball and Tolouse in French rugby, have both been dominant enough in leagues with accessible records to put them ahead. There are likely to be others in pyramidal European leagues in basketball, rugby, ice hockey or sports played in Europe. Simply: unless FC Barcelona Bàsquet somehow miss a year of playoffs, and they probably never will, Perth will never get the record.
Also notable is that Žalgiris in Lithuania are riding an active streak of 28 playoff seasons which started several years before Perth’s, in the Soviet league in 1983. It is a streak older than the Wildcats’ but consists of less completed seasons.
However, those are promotion/relegation leagues with the above mentioned issues of competitive parity. If Perth want to claim a record, they can narrow down their claim to exclude the open competitions with promotion and relegation between multiple levels of a pyramid that characterise much of world sport. This essentially leaves them comparing with only North American and Australian sport.
Among the closed franchise-based competitions that are most predominant in Australia and North America, formats which should have greater competitive parity, the Wildcats are still a few seasons away from claiming a record.
So as a final word, if the Perth Wildcats want to define “greatest team in the world” as “the longest streak of post-season play in a closed/non-relegation professional sporting league”, the mark to beat appears to be Edmonton’s 34 seasons.
Five seasons to go, Perth