The Underdog Appeal in Sports

We are subconsciously drawn to the teams that seem destined to lose – is there something deep within us that makes us more inclined to root for the underdog?


Manny Becerra / Unsplash

“It’s fun to see someone succeed with the odds stacked against them,” said Miles Kross ’23, a Rangers and Mets fan. This mentality is shared by millions of people around the world, showing up not only in major sporting events like March Madness but even with political leanings.

“We’ve got heart!/ All you really need is heart!/ When the odds are sayin’ you’ll never win/ That’s when the grin should start,” sings the cast of the musical Damn Yankees! as the characters muse about their lack of a skilled team. Despite the somewhat satirical nature of the lyrics, “heart” is a genuine factor when it comes to choosing a sports team to root for. What other reason could account for the racehorse Haru-urara of Japan becoming a national hero after losing 113 consecutive races?

In a 2007 study, researchers Joseph A. Vandello, Nadav P. Goldschmied, and David A. R. Richards had participants watch a basketball game video where they were told one team was the 9-to-1 favorite. Participants were asked to then rate both teams’ players in terms of ability and effort. The subjects overwhelmingly attributed the underdogs more “hustle” and “heart” but less “talent” and “intelligence” than the favorites. The researchers then reversed the information, stating that the other team was the favorite despite showing the exact same video, and again, subjects claimed that whichever team was labeled the underdog was trying harder, regardless of what they saw on screen or the actual team’s skill.

But what exactly is an underdog?

The term finds its basis in the American slang of dogfighting, where “top dogs” were clear winners, the low-risk bet to place. So, when one betted on the underdog, the improbable choice, they needed to have more faith than others. 

This developed to encompass all sorts of unlikely heroes, from sports to film to social media.

Many genres have featured lovable protagonists facing seemingly impossible odds, yet somehow always managing to succeed in the end. Many of the most popular movies from the 20th century follow this type of underdog story. Sports movies like Cinderella Man, Remember the Titans, Hoosiers, and even Karate Kid dominated the industry and have remained popular decades after their release. Even in more fantastical settings, people tend to root for the downtrodden, like Harry Potter and Cinderella, both victims of abuse who rose to higher status, fame, and love.

These tropes are equally pervasive in the real world. A study in 1980 during the election season found that when people were told Jimmy Carter was ahead in the polls, they disproportionately voted for Ronald Reagan. Conversely, they voted for Carter when Reagan seemed to be leading.

Another study, conducted in 1991 by Jimmy Frazier and Eldon Snyder from Bowling Green State University, detailed two fictional, unnamed basketball teams in a seven-game series. When asked their opinion, over 81 percent of the student participants rooted for “Team B” when they were told that “Team A” was highly favored to win. Then, the researchers posed a new question: if Team B, the “underdog” team, somehow won the first three games, would the students’ choices change? About half of the students switched their allegiance to Team A, always rooting for the unlikely choice.

In a world defined by access and resources, how do underdogs win?

New York is no stranger to underdog stories. In Super Bowl III, the Jets triumphed over the Colts, which were the 18-point favorites, for a 16-7 win. The wild card team, 12-point underdog Giants beat the undefeated Patriots in Super Bowl XLII. The “Miracle” Mets, which two seasons earlier had a 101 loss season, won the 1969 World Series against the Orioles, which had not only been the favorite to win but had three future Hall-of-Famers. (Sarah Elizabeth / Unsplash)

Frequently, the underdog uses being underestimated to its advantage. Facing severe odds can destroy a team before they even begin playing, or it can cause them to rise to the occasion and perform at the height of their abilities. Physical Education teacher and coach of the Bronx Science Lacrosse and Track teams (and formerly JV Volleyball) Christopher Fallon said, “I’ve seen [underdog] teams that started off slow… and ones [that] rise to their opponents’ level. When [an underdog] wins, there’s definitely a reaction.” 

Simultaneously, “topdog” teams will often become complacent, convinced that their opposition is not a threat, not working as hard, while the underdog will put their entire heart and soul into winning. This can be seen in Milan’s victory in the 1994 Champion League Final against Barcelona, where the losers were so confident in an imminent win that one player, Johan Cruyff, is rumored to have posed with a trophy for a photo before the soccer match even happened. This mentality of overconfidence led Barcelona to go into the game with lessened concentration and improper preparation, leading to a 4-0 game in favor of Milan. Of course, this underestimation and thus success of the underdog does not often work; but when it does, the rewards are far greater. In fact, because of the increased effort, a resulting win will be inordinately gratifying.

In the “March Madness” NCAA tournament, underdog upsets abound. The 8-seed North Carolina Tar Heels triumphed against the Baylor Bears, the defending champion of the tournament, and the eleventh-seeded Michigan team defeated Tennessee, ranked number three. Second-seed Kentucky lost to St. Peter’s college, the fifteenth-seed, an occurrence that has only happened ten times in history. Making the underdog factor even greater, Kentucky spent 11.7 times as much money on men’s basketball as St. Peters. St. Mary’s win over Indiana and New Mexico State’s over UConn are also examples where the victor’s basketball budget was less than half of the loser.

So, why are we so willing to have our hearts ripped out time and time again?

We root for the underdog because it gives the situation higher stakes and makes the overall process more intense. Contrarily, we get tired of watching the same few teams win every year. As Nathanael Rullan ’25 said, “Underdogs are always the most interesting since they might not win. A team that’s expected to win that wins is boring compared to a team that shouldn’t win but does anyways.” It is surprising to see the unlikely candidate succeed, especially when it comes from a shocking method or causes a shift in the power dynamic. Because this is rarer, our brain registers the situation differently, stimulating the reward center of the brain and releasing neurotransmitters to make us happier. Seeing underdogs triumph literally increases our joy. 

Regarding this point, Mack Adolf ’24 said, “It just feels good to be on the side that doesn’t win all that often. It feels more rewarding that way.”

Additionally, since underdog success stories are less frequent, they are more memorable than losses that maintain the status quo, so they are more likely to register in the minds of fans. This is connected to the availability heuristic, which stipulates that what you remember informs how you proceed, including who you root for.

Schadenfreude, a phenomenon where one subconsciously enjoys witnessing others struggle, is theorized to contribute. Deep down, we selfishly do not want to see others succeed, so we become jealous of the team that appears to thrive. Having the underdog win allows one to feel resentment and relish in the downfall of a group without guilt.

That does not make us inherently bad people. In fact, many argue that our choice of team stems from our empathy. In the nation of the “American Dream,” we want to believe that someone can overcome any obstacle and succeed regardless of what is thrown at them, which makes us susceptible to underdog stories. We want to believe that the world is inherently fair, based on hard work rather than skill or prestige.

Hometown, of course, contributes to our loyalty. Susan Cohen ’23 said, “Even though the New York Knicks don’t have the best track record, I continue to root for them. My parents are huge Knicks fans, and for as long as I can remember, we would attend Knicks games. The New York Knicks are a part of my childhood. Honestly, it can sometimes be painful to watch their games, but I will forever be a Knicks fan. I would also like to tell people I witnessed their eventual redemption, whenever that may be.” (Lerone Pieters / Unsplash)

We enjoy seeing people work to the best of their ability. Writer Daniel Engber explained this in his article for Slate: “A mediocre team with a lot of ‘heart’ is more appealing — and thus more deserving of our fandom — than a lineup of distractible superstars.”

We care about the underdog because we too relate to the underdogs, and their fight against adversity and overwhelming odds. We want to believe that we can persevere, no matter how many times we lose. Being privy to an underdog story provides hope.

As Susan Cohen ’23 said, “There is an element of relatability to underdogs. It’s easy to think back on your past experiences where you were the underdog yourself. Everyone loves a redemption story and people proving others wrong.” Grace Zagoria ’23 added, “Sometimes you want an underdog to show you that difficult things can be done.”

That being said, there are conditions. If the team that seems destined to lose has considerable resources, people are not as drawn to them. If the supporters have personal stakes, they are likely to choose the safer option. In the world of sports betting, many participants would like an underdog to win, but they still spend their money on the “topdog.” In a completely different context, in one study, participants were given information on two water-testing companies competing for a city’s water contract. The more renowned company was not as favored originally, but, once the participants were told that the contract was for their city, they chose it anyway, showing that once it becomes personal, we choose security over dreams.

How can we best understand the “underdog concept” scientifically?

Nadav Goldschmied is a leading researcher on the concept of underdogs. His work on the underdog spans film, contrasting Cinderella Man with Rocky I, sports, whether collegiate basketball or Olympic swimming, and even global crises like the Israeli-Palestinian conflict. In one study, he had students read a fake newspaper article about a rugby match where one team had only a 30 percent chance of winning, but when he asked the students to predict for themselves, they gave the underdog a 41% chance. When the article used the term “underdog,” the rate went to 44%. The same was true when the rugby team was substituted with political candidates and businesses; regardless of the context, people choose to believe in the power of the underdog. 

Another one of his studies focused on the associations of the underdog, the “little guy,” where he established two teams, where Team A was the 7-to-3 favorite to win but still had a lower salary than Team B. Despite a greater chance of victory, two-thirds of participants supported the lower-paid team. This was true not only in the US, but also the Middle East, Asia, and Europe.

I interviewed Dr. Goldschmied for his thoughts on the enduring popularity of underdogs:

Hallel: What got you interested in studying underdogs? Your research has spanned over 15 years. What was the catalyst?

Nadav GoldschmiedSo I was, like yourself, a little bit puzzled by [the underdog]. I saw the strength of the support in the underdog in myself and others. It was apparent. And it’s counterintuitive because we usually like winners, and the straightforward definition of an underdog is someone who is less likely to prevail. I did not know how to bridge the gap; if indeed we like winners, and the underdog is not likely to be the winner, then why? Why the appeal? So I would say that most of my research was done first to substantiate the effect and show that this is not something that, supposedly, only I felt. And second, was to try and figure out why. Why do we support the underdog?

Hallel: In your work, you’ve talked about optimism bias. You’ve talked about social identity, of the different factors that have been used to justify and explain people’s motivation. Which do you find the most compelling and important?

Nadav Goldschmied: I think the most compelling one to me, at least, is, in essence, fairness. I think that we intuitively assign the underdog, the lesser resources, the lesser opportunities, so when a label is assigned, like an underdog and a favorite, we immediately also assume that side from the relationship. We think that the underdogs did not have the same opportunities, and I think that we have kind of a sense of fairness to lend our support and try to make the world a more fair place. I think it’s a heuristic. So it’s a cognitive shortcut in most cases; that’s probably true, but sometimes it’s not…

In some of the research we played with, we describe two teams in competition. And one was more likely to win than the other based on the oddsmaker. But, in addition, we provided some of the participants with the payroll, so how much money each entity had. So there was always support for the underdog, but, in an instance where the underdog team is determined by the oddsmaker to win, to prevail in the competition, or had significantly more money than the topdog, it shifted…

So, I think also underdogs are associated with winning. So if you look at the Hollywood movies, then most of them [win], right? So if they start as a hero, they started as an underdog, right? Because there’s a really boring plot if you were always the strongest and then you eventually prevailed. Who cares? So I think this is another thing, and I think this is tied with the fact that, you know, political leaders do not shy away from this designation [of being underdogs]…

So I think that we make some assumptions when we hear “underdog,” we make some assumptions and thus in order to, in some respect, make them again. I wouldn’t call it justice. I think justice is too lofty [to refer to] just mak[ing] it more fair. Again, we lend our support for this for the lesser. Very few times do we really take the time to study everything and to really wrap our heads around it.

Hallel: You’ve talked a lot about on a conscious level how we want to believe in certain things, and we want to believe that the world is just. Similarly, how would you contrast that with concepts like schadenfreude, literal endorphin shifts, and stuff that happens at a more subconscious level?

Nadav Goldschmied: In regards to schadenfreude, so I wish to see the mighty fall. It’s possible, right, that it’s easier to express underdog support rather than schadenfreude. It’s easy to support something rather than to see someone fall. I think that they take from the same reservoir, whether it’s the mirror image of it. And maybe, you know, we talk often about social desirability in psychology, right, that you can express some things and you shouldn’t be expressing others because you want to look good to others. It stands to reason, but I don’t have empirical support for that.

Hallel: How much do you think our support for our underdogs is conditioned by society and different tropes that we see in the media and online? And how much do you think are our natural inclinations? 

Nadav Goldschmied: I have another publication about the cross-cultural support for the underdog. So we did it also in Israel, Japan, and China. And I would say, for the most part, we see similarities. So I think it’s kind of an archetype. And that is another reason why I think it’s about fairness, which is, I would say, cross-cultural. You know, when you see such huge, huge disparities, you’re moved somehow to try and rectify. So based on my research, I would say it’s a human tendency.

This interview was cut for space and clarity.

In summary, we root for the underdog because we care about the world we inhabit. We want to believe in its fairness, its heart, its mercy, its defiance of the odds, and so we choose hope.

As Susan Cohen ’23 said, “There is an element of relatability to underdogs. It’s easy to think back on your past experiences where you were the underdog yourself. Everyone loves a redemption story and people proving others wrong.” Grace Zagoria ’23 added, “Sometimes you want an underdog to show you that difficult things can be done.”