How often do teams with low seeds win a championship in major U.S. professional sports?

Since the turn of the century, how often have low-seeded teams (seeded in the bottom half of the playoff table) in the National Football League, Major League Baseball, the National Hockey League or the National Basketball Association won the championship?

Here are the seedings of the eventual champions for each league in each year.

Seeding of champions NFL MLB NHL NBA

In the NFL, there were 6 champions in this time period who’s seed was in the bottom half of the table. So in the NFL, where there are 6 teams from each conference seeded in the playoffs, any seed of 4 or lower who eventually wins the championship would count. In MLB, where there are only four teams from each league, a seed of 3 or 4 counts as a lower-table seed.

As you can see championship wins among lower-table seeded teams are fairly common in the NFL and MLB, and practically unheard-of in the NHL and the NBA (where 8 teams per conference are allowed in the playoffs).

Possibly the inclusion of so many teams, including teams with inferior records, into the NHL and NBA playoffs works against an eventual championship win by lower-seeded teams. Perhaps this reflects quality of the teams, that the teams seeded 5-8 really are that much worse than teams seeded 1-4.

It does seem odd that the NFL, which grants a bye-week to the highest seeded teams still has so many lower seeded teams that get through to the championship.

And that MLB – which has until this past year only had four teams per conference in the postseason – has had 4 fourth-seeded champions while the NBA has had zero.

And that only two #1 seed won the Super Bowl, while there were 4 top-seeded champions in the NHL and 5 in the NBA.

#1 and #2 seeds compose only 25% of the postseason fields in the NBA and NHL, but they have won the NBA championship 9 times since 2000, and 8 times in the NHL. And while #1 and #2 seeds are 33% of the field in the NFL Playoffs, and a whopping 50% of the postseason field in MLB, those seeds have won the championship only 6 times in the NFL and 6 times in MLB.

There are 7 seeds below the top seed in the NBA and NHL, 5 seeds in the NFL and 3 in MLB. Since 2000, there were

  • 78 MLB teams seeded #2 or lower, winning 10 championships (.13 championships per non-#1 seeded team)
  • 130 NFL teams seeded #2 or lower, winning 11 championships  (.09)
  • 168 NHL teams seeded #2 or lower, winning 8 championships [excludes lockout year] (.05)
  • 182 NBA teams seeded #2 or lower, winning 8 championships (.04)

So, the smaller the playoff field, the more competitive the postseason tournament, the less likely that a #1 seed goes through. How can that be? Including more teams, and playing more series, ought to create more flukey elminations of top-seeded teams, right? Or does the requirement that the lower seeded teams play more games mean they are more likely to be elminated?

Bracketing the NFL – where each playoff round is a single game – how is it possible that the MLB postseason is more than 150-200% more likely to produce a non-#1 seeded champion than the NHL or NBA?

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