Why We Root for Underdogs in Sports
There was no good reason for the show Ted Lasso to become what it has. What’s so special about an inexperienced American football coach, played by Jason Sudeikis, who knows next to nothing about soccer? Precisely that: the expectation that he’s supposed to lose. Ted Lasso is an underdog. As the eternal mystery of human behavior tells us, we all love ourselves a good loser-turns-winner narrative.
“Underdogs are inherently contradictory: They’re the unfancied team everyone fancies,” poet and novelist Kári Tulinius summed up this logic. Is there some method to this madness? People tend to gravitate towards underdog stories for several reasons: it could be that they resonate with the idea of failure or carry a desire for justice. Some may find a low emotional cost in cheering these teams on; others may even derive a sense of “schadenfreude” — the pleasure we experience due to someone else’s misfortune. It is the same human impulse, Tulinius notes, which “drives those countless popular movements in history that strive to level society, to make the meek equal to kings, erasing status and riches.”
The allure of the losing side shouldn’t be understated. Sample this: there are two teams, A and B, competing in best-of-seven playoff series for some unidentified sport. Team A was “highly favored” to win. When two researchers asked 100 people who they would root for, 81% cheered on for Team B. If Team B won the first three games of the series, would people switch allegiances? Half of those who picked Team B before now went with the new loser, Team A.
The researchers went on to publish a paper called this “the underdog concept in sport.” People relate more than they realize with stories of failure, perhaps because it is difficult to identify with a winner since no one wins in life all the time. This makes it easy for people to relate to the losing side; the underdogs take on a hero cape to fight superior forces. “One can argue that all stories are either tragic or comic. Human beings, being narrative animals, understand all events in terms of the story they fit into,” Tulinius noted. The refrain of tragedy in lives (either personal or professional) makes it intuitive to root for a tragedy story.
Think of the 2018 FIFA World Cup, the final match between France and Croatia. Croatia was playing their first World Cup final, which the French team had seen quite often. Everyone wanted Croatia to win, no matter the individual merit of the footballers.
Another theory is also of expectation and reward. Much of the sports madness comes from its ability to inspire emotional expression. This is an avenue for escape and aspiration. So how does one maximize the pleasure they get out of this cathartic viewing? It’s emotional economics: people have less to lose if the underdog team loses (because the odds were against them) and a lot to gain if they make it to the top. Studies show people get more joy out of unexpected successes than expected ones. The stakes are relatively low in this bargain. “…if you multiplied the odds of an underdog victory by the amount of pleasure it would produce, you’d end up with a higher number,” Daniel Engber explains this in Slate.
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The underdog charm stems a lot from the theory of schadenfreude. The German concept offers an odd emotional catharsis: people experience pleasure and self-satisfaction when they learn of someone’s troubles, failures, or humiliation. This theory applies to the world of sports too. According to researcher Nadav Goldschmied, our love for the underdog is an expression of schadenfreude. We resent winners or teams that win every year, so we root for them to lose. The pleasure of displacing a legacy winner is not that unfamiliar. “This could be the reason so many people love to hate the Yankees: there’s something great about watching a team that’s spent so much money go down,” journalist Joseph Stromberg noted in Vox.
Scientists link the impetus for schadenfreude to something called “inequity aversion.” People resist inequities and express an active preference for fairness and justice. Two researchers at the University of South Florida studied this using a hypothetical match-up. One team had a slight chance of winning, but they spent a lot of money on their coaching and resources due to structural advantages; the other team was more skilled but didn’t come from a similarly affluent background. People looked at the last team more favorably — they wanted everyone to have an equal shot at winning.
“Most football watchers want a game where anyone can win. We don’t want success to breed success. We want new champions every year,” as Tulinius noted.
This is an excellent time to ask what made Chak De! India (2007) so endearing. It was the story of Shah Rukh Khan playing the coach who was ostracized from sports and of the women’s hockey team winning against all odds. The cinematic moment found a real-life counterpart recently when the women’s hockey team made it to the top 4 in Tokyo Olympics. Many likened the achievement with the movie, but the sense of awe mostly rose from the fact no one expected the team to do so well. The inequity was in terms of gender politics in sports and the lack of infrastructure that prevents many athletes from achieving their dreams.
This also brings up the role of cultural identity in fuelling the underdogs’ narrative. According to a study conducted by the Journal of Consumer Research in 2009, the desire to see underdogs wins has some caveats. It may not work in societies like India, “where an individual’s passion and determination may do little to combat rigid class or caste structures which favor the status-endowed,” the researchers noted. Hockey player Vandana Katariya‘s example comes to mind. People used casteist slurs on her and her family after the women’s team’s defeat. The caste composition inevitably determined how people reacted to victories and losses. The psychology of rooting for an underdog still stands, but prejudicial cultural notions also decide who we root for.
In the end, every underdog story is one of ambition and aspiration. It is the athletic version of the rags-to-riches narrative — with “riches” here symbolizing achievement and “rags” being shorthand for all the gendered, economic, and structural inequities.
The theme of struggle and reclamation is as old as civilization itself. In the tale of David and Goliath, David is the traditional weaker opponent with all odds stacked against him. He still comes out victorious against the stronger adversary. As Lindsey Carson noted in Medium: “Had this story ended differently, everyone would have gone about their business, and things would have returned to the status quo, but instead, it inspired many.”