The Underdog in Sports: Loved, Feared, or Not Even Appealing?

Brian WagnerCorrespondent IApril 1, 2009

MEMPHIS, TN - MARCH 29:  The North Carolina Tar Heels hold up the South Regional trophy after defeating the Oklahoma Sooners during the NCAA Men's Basketball Tournament South Regional Final at the FedExForum on March 29, 2009 in Memphis, Tennessee. The Tar Heels defeated the Sooners 72-60 to advance to the Final Four.  (Photo by Joe Murphy/Getty Images)


That word alone draws interest from every casual sports fan in the world. It excites the die-hards. And it scares the pesky fans of those elite teams, those elite power-houses.

In sports, the underdog is always a fan favorite. We see it everywhere. Last year’s Super Bowl between the New England Patriots and the 14-point underdog New York Giants saw much of the NFL fan base jump on the underdog’s wagon.

I, myself, became a huge advocate for the New York ‘Football’ Giants. I merely didn’t want to see the Patriots go 19-0.

Everyone I knew that wasn’t a Patriots fan was hoping to take down Goliath. Along with  them, I’d rather see the Giants pull out one of the great upsets in NFL history. And you know the rest of the story.

We see the underdogs emerge in every sport. And at every level.

But what event elicits the greatest response by underdogs? The NCAA Men’s Basketball Tournament. Simply known to the layperson as March Madness. In pro sports, underdogs are harder to come by. The playoff brackets bring only four to eight teams per conference. Tough.

But March Madness’s 65 team bracket—with automatic bids from each conference—provides a vision with potential underdogs succeeding in every direction. It has become arguably the most alluring sporting event in the country.

Check that. In the world—as more and more college players are coming to U.S. universities from outside the United States.

The bracket frenzy contributes to our love of underdogs. Every casual sports fan – and more—in the country takes part in predicting the tournament and ‘doing’ his or her bracket. Sometimes just one bracket. Sometimes two. And sometimes even more. I guess I would have to fall into the latter category.

It has become a contest that is sweeping the nation. From office pools to school pools to entirely random pools, it has become a competitive option. And it’s becoming even more popular with our new media technologies.

One big reason for the recent explosion of March Madness is the evolution of ‘underdog success’ in the Tourney. The 12-5 upset has become commonplace now. (See three of four 12-seeds winning this year.)

Stephen Curry and 10-seed Davidson made the run to the Elite Eight last year.

Eleventh seed George Mason rode the path to the Final Four three years ago.

A major factor influencing the winners in each tournament pool is contributed directly back to the first weekend of games. (Considering you picked the correct champion) Usually, that consists of picking some upsets. Or a lot. Or none (See President Obama’s straight ‘chalk’ bracket).

Not only could picking underdogs attribute to a greater chance of winning your pool, it is enticing to be glued on the television, phone, or Internet hoping your 13-seed pulled off the rare upset of the four-seed. Trust me. I know.

Along the lines on the same premise, when you predict a four-seed to the Final Four, that road also becomes interesting. I am a big advocate of going with this strategy. It didn’t pay off for me this year, but that is irrelevant.

While underdogs are fun to watch in the Tournament—like when they pull off a major upset and keep going and going like the Energizer battery—it’s quickly becoming clear Americans don’t like them. Seriously?

Hmm. Maybe. While there is some interest in seeing if an underdog continues to surprise, the fact is we will not tune in to watch the game. You would probably check in on the game from time to time, but only if it was close and nearing the end would you actually sit down.

A Duke vs. Kansas Elite Eight game is much more intriguing than a Duke vs. Cleveland St. Elite Eight game. It’s just the facts.

I like knowing a small school, mid-major is in the hunt for the Final Four. But honestly, I probably wouldn’t watch either their Sweet 16 or Elite Eight games, unless it was competitive. But, I would tune in for North Carolina vs. UCLA. Even in a blowout situation. And so would the rest of the country.

And CBS—who owns the exclusive rights for March Madness—is beginning to take notice.

With not too many ‘shocking’ upsets in the first two rounds, CBS saw a boost in television ratings. The first weekend of this year’s March Madness was up 6% from last year’s opening weekend. And we’re supposed to be in a troubling economy?

Having better games simply means better ratings. And by ‘better,’ I am referring to a game between two national powers.

This year, the time slot with Louisville, Michigan State, and Missouri winning was up 14 percent from last year. And last week’s Syracuse’s victory over Arizona State was up 17 percent from last year’s Siena-Villanova game.

For those mathematicians:

Michigan State > Siena.

College Power > College Underdog.

I love the underdogs just as much as anybody. In March Madness, the excitement of seeing a 12-seeded Western Kentucky advance with a game-wining three-pointer at the buzzer runs through my veins like the way a child behaves on Christmas Day.

Nothing makes me happier. Especially with a nickname like the Hilltoppers. I mean, Come on!

But, as unfortunate as it is, I would rather watch a game that elicits more tradition, more history, and better athletes.

This year’s Final Four is made up of three of the biggest College Basketball powers of all time (Michigan State, Connecticut, and North Carolina) and another that is consistently regarded as a decent basketball program (Villanova).

I will be tuning in for all 120 minutes of this weekend’s game. No doubt about it.

So this brings us to a crossroads. Are underdogs even good for college basketball?

I would have to yes. As a fan, we love the underdogs. Just one reservation needed: As long as they don’t take out our favorite team in the Tourney.

But when working in the business of March Madness, it’s all about the money. But I can’t imagine those CBS executives not rooting for a Davidson: A Cinderella team making an unforgettable run in one of the most watched sporting events in the country. It’s remarkable on so many levels.

That has to educe some of the fandom back into them. Ratings are a lot, but they aren’t everything.

For one final declaration, I will say it again. I like the underdog. Exciting to watch. Something unusual. Playing bigger than reality, perception. These are all qualities that I admire with a passion.

Let’s put it this way: While underdogs may not give companies the best TV ratings, they provide so much excitement in the sport that can’t be provided anywhere else, but the underdogs. They allow for further and a more comprehensive interest in the game.

Interest that may not be noted in the short term. But the long-term effects will soon linger.

The famous phrase, “That’s why they play the game,” is directly related to the importance of underdogs. If underdogs never had a chance, so many people would stop watching sports.

Underdogs have helped sports grow. No, they are sports. Without them, the term ‘sports’ as we know it, doesn’t exist.

Even though Michigan State vs. Connecticut will be a pretty competitive game to watch, I wouldn’t mind seeing 16-seeded Morehead in there. But I can’t get caught up in the emotion. Michigan State-Connecticut is almost as good as it gets. It can’t get much better. Maybe a 16-seed vs. 16-seed matchup? We can only dream...

But at least we have the comfort of knowing “what could’ve been” and have that opportunity to dream. Unlike the BCS in College Football. Now that is in disarray. And something not worth taking a look at now.


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