Every year march roles around in the United States and sports fans from across the country tune in to watch March Madness: college basketballs 68-team, single elimination tournament, due to the sheer excitement and unpredictability in which it brings. This past march, UMBC, a smaller college in Baltimore, Maryland, captured the hearts of the fans as they became the first 16-seed to defeat a 1-seed since the tournament expanded in 1985. They became the buzz around all of social media and sports headlines, gaining fans that did not even know this school existed before this year. They were painted as the “underdog” or the “cinderella story” by sportswriters across the nation and continued their success into the second weekend where they were eliminated in the sweet 16 by Kansas State, a more talented, put together team. This poses two questions. First, “how is it that a team like UMBC, or any other team that is less talented than the team they are facing actually come out on top?” and second, “what is it about the underdog story that captures the attention and hearts of people across the globe?”
The “underdog” concept is not something new to the world. It has been ingrained in cultures throughout the history of time. Everyone loves a good story of someone or something that possesses less skill or talent than an other, and still finds a way to come out victorious, but why has this become a phenomenon that people are so quick to associate with and support. One explanation is offered by Daniel Enberg, in his article “The Underdog Effect,” “when you are living in an unequal society, the long-shot offers something precious”(Enberg, 2). Even in today’s society people tell themselves that they are underdog and they adopt the mentality that comes along with it. A mentality that encapsulates heart, hustle, grit, and determination as its key values to follow. This mentality provides confidence for people in any situation, no matter how difficult or daunting and it provides them hope in a society that is chalk-full of people that are seen as higher skill, or more established than themselves.
This mentality perfectly adapts to sport: athletes want to believe that if you put in the required time and effort, there is no task, or team that can’t be taken down. In fact, sports players/teams often happily adopt the underdog role because they thrive and perform better against others expectations. It takes the pressure off of a team and allows them the freedom to go and play the game they know how to play, not letting outside factors influence them. Further, being an underdog does not mean that a team or an individual lacks faith, it means that no matter the obstacle, they always believe they have a shot. When this mentality is adopted, it creates a spirit and an emotion around the game that is exciting and eventually leads to the “huge” upsets that sports fans are so quick to recall today.
Speaking of fans, the athletes are not the only ones affected by the underdog mentality. Fans view underdogs as more likeable and down the earth; they are more relatable and that is why they are so quick to root for them. In 1991, two Bowling Green St. University professor, Dr. Jimmy Frazier and Dr. Eldon Snyder, published a study in which they were attempting to detect the role that an underdog effect has on students predicting the winner of a game. Students were told that two undisclosed teams were competing in a best of seven game series and which team A was “highly favored.” Accordingly, students picked team B to win 81% of the time, reinforcing the doctor’s estimations and even surpassing them as to which the underdog effect would play a role. (Frazier & Snyder, 382). Another factor also contributing to the underdog effect, is that fans love to root for the improbable. When fans watch games they want their excitement to be maximized which leads them to root for the team or individual that is not as talented. More research done based on Frazier and Snyder’s experiment extends to the sports betting world. When a fan is voting on a team that is the underdog, they bet more money than what they would bet on the favorite just due to the sheer fact that winning when betting on the underdog is just that much more exciting (Enberg, 5). Fans and athletes embrace the underdog mentality making it an important element of sports culture.
There is many other examples of underdogs in our culture; from movies like “Rocky” and literature like “The Lord of the Rings” all the way down to the Bible, the idea of the underdog is beloved. For athletes it provides a mindset that allows them to take on the daunting obstacles and opponents that come in the way. For fans it provides a relatability and excitement to sports that will always be cherished and remembered. In other words, the underdog is a concept that is prevalent in our everyday culture and in our sports culture so next time you find yourself rooting for a team that you didn’t even know existed before the game, you can always remember the underdog effect.
Engber, Daniel. “Why Do We Love to Root for the Underdog?” Slate Magazine, 30 Apr. 2010, www.slate.com/articles/health_and_science/science/2010/04/the_underdog_effect.html.
“The Power of the Underdog.” The UK’s Leading Sports Psychology Website, 31 Mar. 2015, believeperform.com/performance/the-power-of-the-underdog/.
The Underdog Concept in Sport Jimmy A. Frazier and Eldon E. Snyder Sociology of Sport Journal 1991 8:4, 380-388