Why People Root for the Underdog

In my city, there is a top wrestling team. They have won the city championship every year for nearly three decades. Every Master’s finals, their team would line up against a hodgepodge of best wrestlers from across the county, and they would beat most of them. However, when they lost, the entire arena would erupt in cheers and applause. And I always wondered why.

After all, if you love sports and there is a team that wins over and over again, that is something that people love, it is creating something that is consistent and great. And yet, whenever someone steps up to the plate, everyone but the fans of the team, want the underdog to win. Why?

Then it came to me.

It was while I was having a beer with a friend. He was discussing the brackets that he creates for March Madness. He creates one based on his loyalties and feelings, and another based on statistics and research. He said that they are usually similar but different.

One thing that he always notices is that he is almost always right about the first to rounds, but after that things fall apart. To this I replied “this makes sense”.

In a competitive tournament, the first two rounds are usually top seeded vs bottom seeded players. There is a massive skill difference at that level and it is easy to know who will win. However, once you get to quarter finals, you have the top eight players or teams. At this point, they are playing at the peak of human performance. There, small differences in conditions can sway loss and win. A sick player or a small injury or a second wind or a small fault in mental focus, and a team can lose to the other, no matter what the odds were before.

And this is why people love sports. It is the suprise and the lack of predictability that athletic competition offers us. People doing things that we normal mortals could never do and yet, they are not assured wining, it is not their physical abilities that determine their win or loss, but their mental focus and luck.

This is why people hate the Yankees and the Patriots, because we see that something is a miss. They might be great because they are great, or great because they are so wealthy they can afford the best. Whatever the reason, they destroy our sense of surprise, their consistent wins take away the unpredictability of sport and just their loss or potential of that loss, gives us that sense of unpredictability.

Unpredictability is that sense that no matter how bad things are, things can turn . It’s the poor man who might become rich, the rich man that might fall from their pedestal, the hard work that pays off when you get to the top and become the top guy. This is hope that we have and we see that hope, we live that hope, every time we see an underdog, face the favored winner.

So next time Poway wrestles or Yankees play, I will marvel at their skill, but I will root for the underdog, no matter who they might be.

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