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5 of the Most Successful Expansion Teams in American Sports History

As U.S. sports continue to thrive in a culture that idolizes professional athletes and the teams they belong to, league commissioners are always on the hunt for new ways to increase the popularity of its product.

Aside from bringing in new talent and offering additional attractions at their sporting venues, one of the best ways to strengthen any particular sport is to launch expansion teams in strategic parts of the country.

While most newly established franchises often struggle out of the gate, some have risen to the occasion and become quite successful almost immediately. Here are five such expansion teams, one from each major sports league.

Chicago Fire – MLS

Chicago Fire FC was founded on October 8, 1997, as Chicago Fire Soccer Club and was Major League Soccer’s first expansion team. Beginning play in 1998, the Fire took the league by surprise, dominating the competition over the course of its first season.

Not only did the Fire, which was named after the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, beat D.C. United to capture the 1998 MLS Cup, the expansion team also won the 1998 U.S. Open Cup the following week by defeating the Columbus Crew.

Their momentum continued, reaching the 2000 MLS Cup, where they lost to Kansas City, and winning the 2000 U.S. Open Cup yet again. The Fire is the only U.S. expansion team to win a championship in its inaugural season.

Carolina Panthers – NFL

The Carolina Panthers joined the National Football League in 1995. Although the team lost its first five games, it went on a hot streak, winning five of its next six games. The Panthers finished the season with a 7-9 record.

The 1996 campaign was a completely different story. Not only did Carolina finish the regular season with a 12-4 record, the team earned a trip to the NFC Championship game. Unfortunately, the Panthers fell victim to Hall of Fame quarterback Brett Favre and the Green Bay Packers.

Carolina’s 7-9 record is still the best for any NFL expansion team in an inaugural season.

Florida Marlins – MLB

Prior to 2011, the Miami Marlins were known as the Florida Marlins. Founded in 1993, the Sunshine state’s newest Major League Baseball team didn’t have much to brag about. Five years later, everything changed.

During the 1997 campaign, the Marlins went 92-70, securing the franchise’s first trip to the postseason. After making their way through the National League, the Marlins defeating the Cleveland Indians to capture the club’s first World Series title.

Following a few down years, the team acquired some exciting new talent prior to the 2003 season. The Marlins’ blockbuster deals paid off, as the franchise secured its second World Series Championship.

Milwaukee Bucks – NBA

While the Milwaukee Bucks have only recently returned to prominence in the NBA thanks to the talent of forward Giannis Antetokounmpo, they were once considered one of the league’s most formidable forces.

During the Bucks’ 1968-69 inaugural season, the team finished with an embarrassing 27-55 record. Things would turn around, however.

The following year, the Bucks improved their record to 56-26 and qualified for the playoffs thanks to Rookie of the Year recipient, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar.

While Milwaukee lost to the New York Knicks in the Division Finals, they bounced back the following year and won the 1970-71 NBA Finals with a regular season record of 66-16.

Vegas Golden Knights – NHL

While the idea of a professional hockey team in the middle of the desert seems quite outlandish, American businessman Bill Foley wasn’t going to let anything deter him from his dream to bring an NHL team to Las Vegas.

The Golden Knights did not disappoint, breaking numerous records before becoming the first National Hockey League expansion team since the Edmonton Oilers and Hartford Whalers (Carolina Hurricanes) to make the postseason in its first season.

Not only did the Golden Knights make the playoffs during their inaugural year, they reached the Stanley Cup Finals. Their dream season came to an end, however, when they lost 4-1 to the Washington Capitals.

The following season the Golden Knights returned to the playoffs but were swept away by the San Jose Sharks. While the 2019-20 campaign looked similar to their Stanley Cup run, the season was suspended in March due to the pandemic.

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