Milwaukee's three-year journey from expansion to title still the gold standard in pro sports

JR Radcliffe
Milwaukee Journal Sentinel
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NOTE: This story was updated on Jan. 18, 2022, to make it free for all readers.

The Milwaukee Bucks' rise from an expansion team (1968-69) to championship team (1970-71) over three years remains the quickest such rise in the history of what we consider today's major pro sports leagues, although several other teams have gotten close. 

Plus, there's a caveat (or two).

If we count pro leagues that no longer exist, but fed into the current leagues, then Milwaukee's achievement counts only as a tie for the fastest ascent. The Indiana Pacers, founded in 1967-68 as part of the American Basketball Association, won the ABA title in 1969-70, their third year in the league. The year before, the team lost in the finals. The Pacers went on to win two more titles in their fifth and sixth years of existence before merging into the NBA in 1976-77.

That may not fit the strict definition of "expansion," with the modern interpretation including a draft, and there are other technicalities to consider.

There's also the Chicago Fire of Major League Soccer, a squad that won the MLS Cup as an expansion team in 1998. The fledgling league was only in its third season (with the Fire and fellow expansion team Miami Fusion making it a 12-team league), and though it doesn't possess the tenure of history from MLB, NFL, NBA and NHL, the league has grown to 27 franchises today and fits the bill of major pro sports.

Then, there's the Atlanta United FC, an MLS expansion team that won the title in its second season in 2018, giving the city of Atlanta its first major title since the 1995 Braves in Major League Baseball. 

If you felt MLS represented an unequal comparison or didn't quite have the historical equivalence of the other four "major" leagand wanted to use the "expansion" terminology, you could still get away with saying the Bucks were the fastest.

These others came close to the three-year window:

  • The Arizona Diamondbacks, founded in 1998, went on to win the 2001 World Series (fourth season) in a thrilling seven-game series against the New York Yankees.
  • The 1951-52 Minneapolis Lakers won the first of three straight titles in 1952, their fourth year in the NBA.
  • The Florida Marlins, founded in 1993, won a seven-game series over Cleveland for the 1997 World Series title (fifth season).
  • The Baltimore Ravens were technically an NFL expansion team in 1996 and thus reached a Super Bowl title in five years with the victory after the 2000 season, though that's misleading. Owner Art Modell relocated the Cleveland Browns to Baltimore, but as part of a legal settlement, Modell was required to leave the name and records of the Browns in Cleveland, and that franchise was re-activated in 1999. Baltimore had Cleveland's players, just not its history, and had a head start.
  • Likewise, the Houston Dynamo won back-to-back MLS titles in what was technically the franchise's first two seasons after becoming an "expansion" team in 2006 and 2007, though the team was relocated from San Jose and featured many members of that longstanding team.
Oscar Robertson's 1971 NBA Championship ring.

Some near misses:

  • The Las Vegas Golden Knights made major waves by reaching the Stanley Cup Final in their first NHL season, 2017-18, but lost to the Washington Capitals in five games.
  • The NHL's Florida Panthers made the Stanley Cup Final in their third season during the 1995-96 season but lost to the Colorado Avalanche in four games. Colorado, formerly the Quebec Nordiques, had just relocated and rebranded before the season, but that was a fully formed organization and not an expansion team.
  • The early NFL had a couple of near misses. The Portsmouth Spartans reached the NFL championship game in their second year of existence in 1931. In 1924, the Pottsville Maroons reached the NFL championship game in their first season as one of four new teams to the 20-team NFL.
  • The Atlanta Dream of the WNBA reached the league finals in its third season, 2010, but lost to Seattle, 3-0.

Then there are a host of technicalities and other tidbits worth noting:

  • One could argue the first league championships are won by "expansion" teams. The Houston Oilers won the first two AFL championships in 1960 and 1961, for example, in the first years of the franchise. The Philadelphia Warriors won the 1946-47 NBA (or Basketball Association of America, if you prefer) championship in the first year of the organization and league, then made the finals in the second year.
  • The Boston Americans, founded in 1901 as one of the eight charter members of the American League (and later became the Boston Red Sox) won the first World Series in 1903, in the team's third year of existence. 
  • In baseball, there are some other examples from what many fans won't consider the modern era, such as the Providence Grays, who won the 1879 National League one year after founding.
  • The 1947-48 Baltimore Bullets won the title in their first year with the Basketball Association of America (what became the NBA) but had relocated from the American Basketball League after three seasons.
  • Likewise, the Rochester Royals won the 1950-51 NBA title in their third season but spent three years in the NBL beforehand.
  • The Cleveland Browns won the 1950 NFL championship in their first year in the league, but they had been part of the defunct All-American Football Conference, which played its first season in 1946. Not only did Cleveland win that first title, it finished as runner-up the subsequent three years and won the following two titles in 1954 and 1955.
  • The Cleveland Rams won the NFL title in 1945, one year after rejoining the league. The squad did not compete in 1943 because many players and team personnel were drafted into the military. The franchise moved to Los Angeles immediately after winning the title. 
  • The NFL's expansion teams haven't enjoyed anywhere near the success of other leagues. Of the six expansion teams added since the AFL-NFL merger, Tampa Bay was the fastest to win a Super Bowl, needing 27 years. The Carolina Panthers reached the Super Bowl in their ninth season.
  • The Tennessee Titans reached the Super Bowl in 1999, two seasons after relocating from Houston (and their first season with the new name after changing it from Tennessee Oilers). But that's not an "expansion" team. The Los Angeles Raiders also won the Super Bowl one year after leaving Oakland.
  • The Kansas City Chiefs won Super Bowl IV in the first year of the AFL-NFL merger under the NFL umbrella, though the Chiefs were a longstanding franchise in the AFL, and the Super Bowl layout had already existed for three seasons. Another AFL team, the Miami Dolphins, won the third and fourth post-merger Super Bowls (Super Bowls VII and VIII).

UPDATE: This story has been updated to add instances of Major League Soccer expansion teams.

JR Radcliffe can be reached at (262) 361-9141 or Follow him on Twitter at @JRRadcliffe.

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