The Best Ever Expansion Teams in American Sports

By Dan Roberts in Sports
| April 13, 2020 10:05 am PDT
Vegas Golden Knight, Miami Heat, Carolina Panthers and Arizona Diamondbacks

In many places around the world, the entire idea of an expansion team does not really make sense. In countries where sports clubs have traditionally provided regions with their local teams, they have evolved naturally over time.

But in the US, with its history of franchises rather than sports clubs, expansion teams have been the way that leagues have grown. It is expected that these new teams will take a while to get to grips with their new leagues as the organizations grow and the players get to know each other.

Some never end up troubling the honors lists at all.

But there have been a few expansion teams in history that have either hit the ground running or become one of the dominant sides in their sport almost immediately. Here are a few such teams that became powerhouses in no time at all, putting them in contention as some of the best expansion teams in US sports history.

Orlando Magic, NBA, Founded in 1989

Orlando very nearly didn’t get an expansion team at all in the late 1980s when NBA bosses originally thought that Miami would be a better place for a new team. But thanks to a convincing campaign, it was decided that both cities would join the league. The Magic played its first game on November 4th and managed its first win two days later, beating the Knicks (nothing changes there, then).

It is not as though Orlando has been incredibly successful in the 30 years since, but it did get off the ground fairly quickly, thanks to the arrival of a certain Shaquille O’Neal. The center from LSU was regarded as the most eagerly anticipated number one pick for years, and when Orlando won the draft lottery in 1992, it changed the organization forever.

Shaq couldn’t bring the playoffs to Orlando in his rookie year, giving the Magic the chance to land another number one pick in Chris Webber, who was traded for Anfernee Hardaway. But the two of them took the team to the playoffs four years in a row, including a finals loss to Houston in 1995.

There was another finals appearance in 2009 when the Magic lost to Kobe Bryant’s Los Angeles Lakers. By that time, the Magic had another number one pick in Dwight Howard, and he led the team into the playoffs year after year.

It has been largely a period of rebuilding ever since, but Orlando has still made the playoffs in 50% of the seasons the franchise has been in operation. There may never have been any championships to celebrate in the Magic kingdom, but Orlando has looked a better bet than many more established teams in the league.

Arizona Diamondbacks, MLB, Founded in 1998

The D-Backs started in familiar expansion team fashion in its inaugural season, managing just 65 wins in a 162-game campaign. But it turned things around spectacularly the next year, making it to the playoffs, where it came unstuck against the New York Mets. When you remember that only eight of the 30 teams at the time made it to the postseason, that achievement becomes even more impressive.

The 100 wins were pretty good, too.

But just two years later, Arizona went all the way. After trading for Curt Schilling the year before, he and Randy Jackson led the way to a World Series triumph in 2001 over the Yankees. The drama of the 4-3 series win only made things even sweeter. The National League West division title was won once again the year after, but Arizona was swept by the Cardinals in the NLDS.

Since then, it has been more a case of hit and miss. There have been a number of dry years interspersed with more NL West titles. Although there has not been a repeat of the 100-win season, there have been more playoff appearances, including a National League Championship Series in 2007. Unfortunately, that ended in defeat to the Colorado Rockies.

There hasn’t been as much to celebrate in Phoenix since then, but that World Series in just the third year of existence puts the D-Backs as one of the most successful Major League Baseball expansion teams of all time.

Carolina Panthers, NFL, Founded in 1995

There are far more established football teams that have never even experienced a Super Bowl. So for the Panthers to make the big game after just nine years of being in the league is to be applauded. With so few games to play each season, NFL expansion teams are expected to post losing records for quite a while before finding their feet.

But the Panthers looked pretty good right from the beginning. The 7-9 debut season was the best ever for a new team in the NFL. But Carolina did even better the next year. A 12-4 record won the NFC West, and the Dallas Cowboys were seen off in the divisional playoffs.

Only the Packers, who went on to win the Super Bowl that year, could stop the rise of one of football’s greatest ever expansion teams.

Six years without any postseason action followed, though, before Carolina roared back into life. A poor offense was greatly improved in 2003, with the team managing an 11-5 regular season record before wins over the Cowboys, Rams, and Eagles took it to Super Bowl 38. The championship game is regarded as one of the most exciting of all time, and although the New England Patriots were ultimately victorious, the Panthers had definitely arrived.

There was another NFC Championship game in 2005, but it was the arrival of Cam Newton in 2011 that gave the Panthers another shot at the title. Newton was the first overall pick in the 2011 NFL draft, and his immense talents took just three years to return playoff football to Carolina.

There was another Super Bowl appearance in 2015, but Newton’s captivating talents could not shake up a defensive battle, and Carolina lost 24-10 to Denver.

Times have been a little leaner since then, and Cam Newton looks like he may now be leaving the organization. But two Super Bowls in just 25 years is something to be proud of.

Miami Heat, NBA, Founded in 1988

Orlando may have had Shaquille O’Neal, Penny Hardaway, and Dwight Howard. But Miami looked to LeBron James and Dwyane Wade for its success, and that’s not even taking into account the early work of Alonzo Mourning to put the team on the map.

A predictably slow first three years of existence went by before the first playoff appearance, a first-round defeat to the Bulls. But it was not long before the Heat was back in the postseason. It was Mourning and Tim Hardaway, with the coaching skills of Pat Riley, that led the Heat in the early days, but it was the arrival of that man Shaquille O’Neal again — and Dwyane Wade — that made all the difference.

Those two led Miami to its first finals in 2006 with a series loss to the Mavs, but O’Neal’s departure just two years later hit the Heat hard. But in 2010, Wade was joined by Chris Bosh and LeBron James, and the good times returned to South Florida.

The “Big Three” led Miami to four successive NBA finals, winning two and losing two. There was revenge against Dallas in 2010 and losses to OKC Thunder and San Antonio before some more revenge against the Spurs in 2014.

All three had left Miami by 2016, and the team is in more of a transitional phase again at the moment. But four Hall of Famers and two NBA championships in just over 30 years is not a bad return.

Vegas Golden Knights, NHL, Founded in 2017

But the team that can legitimately claim to the be the greatest ever expansion team in the history of sports has to be the NHL’s Vegas Golden Knights. Its rise to prominence has been incredible.

Even the idea of a hockey team in the middle of the Mojave Desert seems unlikely. But it was Bill Foley’s dream to bring the sport to Las Vegas, and the Golden Knights confounded everyone’s expectations right from the first game. A terrible mass shooting occurred in the city just before the 2017/18 season began, and the tragedy seemed to bring the players and fans together.

The Golden Knights never looked back and broke all kinds of records before becoming the first expansion team since the Edmonton Oilers and Hartford Whalers to make the playoffs in its first season. The capture of the Pacific Division gave the Golden Knights the honor of being the first expansion team in any of the four major US sports to win its division at the first time of asking.

But the good times did not end with the divisional title. The Kings, Sharks, and Jets were swept aside before the impossible dream was finally ended with a 4-1 series loss to the Washington Capitals in the Stanley Cup finals. The second season was not quite as successful, but they reached the playoffs once again, San Jose wreaking its own revenge by winning 4-3 in the first round.

The 2019/20 campaign had looked to be a return to form as Vegas led the Pacific Division before the season had to be suspended in March.

Apart from the many wins on the ice, the Golden Knights have managed to make Las Vegas a hockey town, and the arrival of the Golden Knights is just one of the indications Vegas is turning into the nation’s new sports hub.

Final Words

The instant achievements of the teams profiled here make it sound as though it is easy for an expansion team to find success. But for every Vegas Golden Knights and Miami Heat, there are many more like the NFL’s Tampa Bay Buccaneers, who went through its first season without picking up a single win.

With the parity that most of the major US sports foster through their draft systems, there is a good chance that any team can go from worst to first fairly quickly. But there are still some organizations still waiting for their first Stanley Cup or Super Bowl appearance, let alone championships.

These expansion teams are definitely the exceptions rather than the rule, and I’m not sure if any future team will ever surpass the achievements of the Vegas Golden Knights.

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