Underdog Appeal Overrated

don’t forget straight up excellence when applauding your Cinderella stories

Luc Anthony

never properly appreciated the Chicago Bulls’ run of success in the 1990s, and, in particular, the unique quality of Michael Jordan. A player unlike any other, at his prime, and there I was, hoping he and the Bulls would lose, getting mad when they won another title. I regret not acknowledging what I was seeing: one of the greatest careers of any athlete in modern sports. And I am determined to not let that happen again. Why? I do what is likely difficult for many sports fan to do: root for excellence.

Our sports culture leads us to cheer for the underdog, the Cinderella, the little guy. The player or team no one thought had a chance. Their achievement reassures us that anyone can win. Plus, success by the unexpected makes sports more dramatic and entertaining – after all, isn’t the only reason we follow sports for our entertainment? What’s entertaining about the same team or player winning a championship every year? Surprises keep us entertained, so we root against those who win most often. 

I was that way through my teens. The pro teams I disliked the most were the Bulls, Dallas Cowboys, San Francisco 49ers, Atlanta Braves (more because of the ’91 World Series against my Twins, but they still qualify in this discussion), and the college basketball quad of Duke, North Carolina, Kansas, and Kentucky. Teams you always found in the championships of their sport. Boy, did I ever want them to lose, and get some fresh blood on the scene. I didn’t care if they were doing what I would ultimately want my favorite teams to do. I merely didn’t like them because they had the nerve to be good at winning games.

Then a funny thing happened over the past decade throughout many of our pro and college and even high school sports: parity. We started to see more variety in who reached title games and clinched division and conference championships. Certain teams and players could not dominate like they could just a few years earlier. Suddenly, Cinderella seemed to be showing up at the ball almost every night. The little guy was everyone. Dynasties were greatly reduced. The upshot: The thrill of watching the underdog has been reduced, since a different underdog seems to rise to the top in every sport every year. The drama has been reduced. The surprise isn’t there anymore.