While perusing The Guardian sports webpage this morning, something struck me as amazing. Of the three most viewed stories, two involved the NCAA tournament and the number of upsets that had occurred on St. Patrick’s Day. While my digital signature likely showed that I was viewing the website from the United States, I doubt many American citizens visit The Guardian for basketball news and opinions, so this level of interest from the paper’s readers struck me as odd. Regardless of where you are in the world, the NCAA basketball tournament (and its trademarked ‘March Madness’ name) resonates with people due to its compelling narrative.
But why is Yale beating Baylor so interesting? When you think about it, it is rare that anyone roots for Yale students and graduates to succeed. The key is the underdog moment. We, as sports fans, love to root for the underdog in games.
In the recent book This is Your Brain on Sports, authors Jon Wertheim and Sam Sommers point out that neurological studies have shown an immediate spike of satisfaction in the brain when a person roots for a team not expected to win that does win. Long-term, rooting for Yale over a season won’t keep giving you a jolt (unless you are a Yale hoops fan). But in the moment, pumping your fist for Arkansas Little Rock or texting a friend celebrating a Gonzaga upset has both neurological and emotional benefit. For many sports fans, this is just scientific justification for something we already know. Rooting for the underdog is fun.
Of course, the same is true for soccer – a League One side knocking off a Premier League side in the FA Cup is almost always fun to witness. And in tournaments, where there is one or two chances to do it instead of an entire season, the payoff is much better for the fans. This is why the recent rumors about a European Super League as well as clubs being guaranteed a place in the Champions League make little sense when you think about what builds the most buzz and fan excitement in sports.
The idea floated by major clubs that certain high-profile brands should receive automatic bids to the UEFA Champions League is preposterous. The justification is that viewers and fans (but primarily viewers and sponsors) would be more attracted to seeing Manchester United play Barcelona instead of Olympiacos versus Real Madrid, even if Manchester United had or is having a poor league run. There is a good business case to be made, since fans usually do not abandon a large market team en-masse when they are playing poorly, and thus a Manchester United match can always guarantee a good level of financial outcome. However, what if that Greek team that earned its bid plays tough against Real Madrid and earns a result? While the match-up of titans earns some buzz in the moment, the fact that the underdog David drew or beat the mighty Goliath is something that makes that tournament memorable. A Manchester club inevitably will play a Real Madrid or Barcelona again in the near future, but how often will you see a Ruben Kazan defeat Barcelona at Camp Nou or an early 2000s Monaco defeating Real Madrid? Simply eliminating the bids for these small clubs reduces the chances of these memorable upsets.
For the European Super League, the impetus is the same as that of the automatic Champions League bids but the drawbacks would be even more dramatic. With no “small” clubs in the league at all, the drama of the upset would be lost. While the excitement of seeing the best of the best face off every week would be exciting initially, eventually the reality of needing to root for one Goliath against another would be lost.
The NCAA tournament has its giants and royalty that seem to make it every year, and in reality not everyone has a shot to win the whole tournament. But it is the constant upsets and disruption of the established narratives that makes the tournament so exciting. While the tournament is far from perfect (for example play-in games, empty neutral site arenas), it has the ability to grab the world’s attention in a way (if not the numbers) almost nothing else does. That is why soccer needs to remember the lessons of science and a fellow sports competitor, and embrace the ability of the underdog to compete against the big clubs, and even win on occasion.
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