How a 27-year streak without a Grey Cup victory means the Winnipeg Blue Bombers have beaten the odds

When the Edmonton Eskimos defeated the Winnipeg Blue Bombers on Sunday at Investors Group Field, they didn't just expose enormous holes in the Blue & Gold's pass defence.

All things being equal, there was a 96.5% chance of Winnipeg winning a Grey Cup between 1991 and 2017

Edmonton quarterback Mike Reilly throws to an open receiver during the Eskimos' 39-32 win in the Western semifinal against the Winnipeg Blue Bombers. (John Woods/The Canadian Press)

When the Edmonton Eskimos defeated the Winnipeg Blue Bombers on Sunday at Investors Group Field, they didn't just expose enormous holes in the Blue & Gold's pass defence.

The Bombers' loss in the Canadian Football League's western semifinal extended the Winnipeg Football Club's Grey Cup drought to 27 seasons, the longest active futility streak in the league.

It's also the second-worst futility streak in North American professional sport, when you consider how few teams there are in the CFL and how many seasons the Bombers have failed to win a Grey Cup.

Playing in a league with nine teams, the ​Bombers went into this season with an 11.1-per-cent chance of winning the Grey Cup this season, if you assume every team has an equal statistical shot at winning the league championship.

But over the course of the past 27 seasons, the Bombers had a 96.5 per cent chance of winning one championship, when you factor in the number of teams in the CFL during each season from 1991 to 2017 and the odds of winning the Grey Cup during each of those seasons.

And yes, that includes the seasons when the CFL only had eight teams — and the mid-1990s experiment with U.S. expansion.

The last time the Bombers won the Grey Cup was 1990, when Winnipeg blew away Edmonton 50-11 at Vancouver's B.C Place. The game was effectively over early in the third quarter, when Bomber linebacker Greg Battle intercepted a Tracy Ham pass and returned it for a touchdown.

Winnipeg Blue Bombers quarterback Matt Nichols (15) throws against the Edmonton Eskimos during a Bomber loss that extended Winnipeg's championship drought to 27 seasons. (John Woods/Canadian Press)
Since then, the Bombers have been to the Grey Cup five times, losing in 1992, 1993, 2001, 2007 and 2011. The club only came close to victory in one of those championships — 2007, when Saskatchewan won by a four-point margin over a Winnipeg club that had lost quarterback Kevin Glenn to injury earlier in the playoffs.

Despite the lengthy Cup drought, the Bombers have been eager to portray two recent winning seasons as signs of progress, highlighting the fact Sunday's game was the first home playoff game since 2011.

"We took that next step and now you want to keep the core group of guys together and take the next step the next year," quarterback Matt Nichols said Monday. "We're building something great here."

But the time it's taken to do that building is bordering on the statistically improbable, if you consider a Grey Cup victory the completion of the project.

The Bombers own the second-worst futility streak when you look at championship droughts in five North American professional sports leagues. Major League Soccer is getting a pass here, as it hasn't been around long enough to generate futility streaks that can compete with those of the CFL, NHL, major-league baseball, NFL and NBA.

David Pastrnak celebrates a goal against the Toronto Maple Leafs, who haven't won the Stanley Cup since 1967. (Bruce Bennett/Getty Images)
In hockey, the Toronto Maple Leafs own both the longest and most improbable futility streak. The Leafs haven't won a Stanley Cup since 1967, the year of Canada's centennial celebrations.

By failing to win a Cup in Canada's 150th year, the Leafs have defied the odds: If you assume every NHL team has an equal shot at the Cup every year, there was a 90.4 per cent chance of Toronto winning at least once over the past 50 years.

In baseball, the Cleveland Indians have both the most inappropriate name and the worst futility streak. Cleveland last won a World Series in 1948 and all things being equal, that team had a 95.1-per-cent chance of winning it all since then.

In the NFL, the Arizona Cardinals are only a shade shadier than the Bombers. The Cards, who have never won a Super Bowl, last won a pro football championship in 1947, as the Chicago Cardinals.

There was a 96.4 per cent chance this club would have won either an NFL championship or Super Bowl at some point in the past six decade.

The most futile club of all is the NBA's Sacramento Kings, who last won a championship in 1951, as Rochester Royals. If you assume every NBA squad has an equal chance of winning every year, this franchise had a 98.3-per-cent chance of winning it all some time between 1952 and this spring.

Toronto Raptors guard DeMar DeRozan (10) goes to the net against the Sacramento Kings, who haven't won an NBA championship since 1951. (Frank Gunn/The Canadian Press)
Again, all these statistics are based on the idea every team in any given league has an equal chance of winning a championship every year. Clearly, that hasn't been the case for the Kings, Cardinals, Indians, Maple Leafs and Blue Bombers.

To place the Bombers' futility streak in a different context, the chance of Winnipeg failing to win a Grey Cup at least once since 1990 was 3.5 per cent.

That's about one in 28, or the same odds of lawyers getting replaced by computers and robots in the near future, according to Bloomberg News. 

The statistics suggest the Bombers have not the same chance at winning the Grey Cup as as every other CFL team over the past 27 years. You could blame bad luck, injuries or lousy officiating, if you want to be charitable.

Other potential reasons for Winnipeg's highly improbable streak of failing to win include inferior personnel, questionable coaching and poor management.

Winnipeg Blue Bombers

Last Grey Cup win: 1990

Grey Cup futility streak: 27 seasons

Probability of winning a Cup since 1990: 96.5 per cent

Odds of futility streak: Roughly one in 28

Toronto Maple Leafs

Last Stanley Cup victory: 1957

Stanley Cup futility streak: 50 seasons

Probability of winning a Cup since 1967: 90.4 per cent

Odds of futility streak: Roughly one in 10

Cleveland Indians

Last World Series victory: 1948

World Series futility streak: 66 seasons

Probability of winning a World Series since 1948: 95.1 per cent

Odds of futility streak: Roughly one in 20

Arizona Cardinals

Last U.S. pro football championship: 1947 NFL championship, as the Chicago Cardinals

NFL championship/Super Bowl futility streak: 69 seasons

Probability of winning a football championship since 1947: 96.4 per cent

Odds of futility streak: Roughly one in 28

Sacramento Kings

Last NBA championship: 1951, as the Rochester Royals

NBA championship futility streak: 66 seasons

Probability of winning an NBA championship since 1951: 98.3 per cent

Odds of futility streak: Roughly one in 60


Bartley Kives

Senior reporter, CBC Manitoba

Bartley Kives joined CBC Manitoba in 2016. Prior to that, he spent three years at the Winnipeg Sun and 18 at the Winnipeg Free Press, writing about politics, music, food and outdoor recreation. He's the author of the Canadian bestseller A Daytripper's Guide to Manitoba: Exploring Canada's Undiscovered Province and co-author of both Stuck in the Middle: Dissenting Views of Winnipeg and Stuck In The Middle 2: Defining Views of Manitoba.

With files from Pierre-Gabriel Turgeon