Root, root, root for…the underdog

Posted on May 16, 2010

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In the previous post I began with the intention of quickly introducing a link my colleague David Wong sent me to a fun article in Slate called “The Underdog Effect: why do we love a loser?” But before I could think about why some of us cheer for underdogs, I couldn’t help pausing to worry about why cheering for one side rather than the other seems to be such a key component of even the sports connoisseur’s experience. I haven’t even begun to clear up that worry. But I now realize that partisanship deserves a series of reflections on the different reasons or causes for hitching our fan-wagons to particular athletes or teams.

Here are some typical stories about why we come to cheer for a team or athlete (for brevity, I’ll mostly talk about teams from here on).

1. The team comes from the city we grew up in, and we have kept that bond with them even if we later moved away. (This kind of fan took to heart the advice to “Root, root, root for the home team” in the most famous song in American sports, Take Me Out to the Ball Game.)

2. The team is competing in an international competition (perhaps it is also a national team) and it is from our country.

3. The team is in the city we currently live in (or perhaps from one of the cities we lived in along the way, and we’ve kept up our interest in them).

4. The team has become more interesting for us with its current line-up because of its style of play, its vibe, the appeal of one or more of its players or coaches, etc.

5. The team has become more interesting for us with its current line-up because… they are successful. It’s always more fun when the team you’re rooting for wins; so why not find a way of liking the team more likely to win?

6. The team is more interesting for us precisely because it is less likely to win: it is an underdog.

There are of course lots of other reasons, including variations on these reasons or combinations of them. For example, there is a whole range of special reasons for why Americans come to cheer for and against particular college teams.

There is only one team I have been a lifelong, through-thick-and-thin, fan of: the Montreal Canadiens. Why? I can’t be sure. I lived near Toronto in my formative years, but my mother bought me a Canadiens’ jersey when I first learned to skate. (It was probably on sale at Towers.) That got my fandom off the ground, at which point it would soon be swept along in the slip stream of the 10 Stanley Cups the Habs would win during my youth before I was even legally allowed to celebrate along with them (and legal drinking age then was 18). In all other sports, my affiliations have shifted. In any given sport I will generally like several teams quite a bit, perhaps all for slightly different reasons. I’m sure this is the same for many North American sports fans, especially those of us who have moved around a lot in our adult lives.

But I digress. Each of the explanations of our fandom tells us a little something about the ways in which our sports affiliations and identities are like others in life. A not insignificant percentage of the electorate, for example, will vote for the party they think is going to win; and more still tell pollsters the day after elections that they voted for the winner. This is like cheering for the Yankees. Cheering for your national team, even in winter-Olympics sports you are almost embarrassed to be watching, is more a question of patriotism than sports fandom.

One of the many things that’s fascinating about underdog cheering is that it reveals how little it takes to tip us into an almost instantaneous and passionate identification with the plight of some groups of strangers we know almost nothing about and have never cared about in the past.

The Slate article I mentioned at the outset surveys an impressive amount of academic research seeking empirical evidence for various hypotheses about the extent and causes of underdog rooting. Understanding the driving forces behind sports fandom in general is, at it turns out, a huge academic enterprise. The Slate article links a chapter by Murray State University’s Daniel Wann, “The Causes and Consequences of Sport Team Identification” that has an 8-page bibliography full of articles in serious (and mostly non-sports-related) academic journals. Psychologists and sociologists (among others) seem to follow fan motivations and identities, and publish these studies in their leading journals, precisely because these phenomena mirror other relations and behavior in our social lives.

There are plenty of obvious reasons why many of us enjoy participating in a narrative of underdogs taking down more powerful and privileged foes. But another part of the story has two components: humans are susceptible to a powerful and well-documented “in-group bias” that make us capable of favoring members of “our” group, even when we know our group is distinguished from another by an arbitrary method (like a flip of a coin); and we find it rather difficult to fully enjoy a sporting match unless we do find a way to feel like one of the teams is in our group.

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