DB’s Weekly Take: Why we love upsets

Oral Roberts players celebrate after beating Ohio State in a first-round game in the NCAA men’s college basketball tournament, Friday, March 19, 2021, at Mackey Arena in West Lafayette, Ind. Photo by Robert Franklin/AP Photo.

March Madness is the greatest sporting event in the world. Of course, that’s a subjective statement based solely on my opinion, but there are a lot of people who agree with me. When you ask any of us the reason why we love March Madness so much, the answer is pretty simple: 

“The upsets,” we say. 

Upsets are a universally beloved thing in sports, and no event sees more upsets than March Madness. Just in the first round this year, we saw Oral Roberts take down Big 10 power Ohio State, Abil Christian beat Texas and North Texas defeat Purdue, among other unlikely results. Now I’m not sure anybody outside of those school communities actually know where those schools are located, but everybody (with the exception of Ohio State, Texas or Purdue fans) was happy they won. Why? Because sports fans love upsets. 

Now why do sports fans love upsets? As someone who watches more sports than most and almost always roots for upsets, I really can’t give a straight answer to that. There’s just something about a team or individual who seemingly has no chance to win taking down a heavily favored opponent. It’s romantic. It’s the closest real life gets to a fairy tale. 

Take a look at some of the greatest upsets of all time. Buster Douglas knocking out Mike Tyson for the heavyweight title in 1990. The United States defeating the Soviet Union in hockey at the 1980 Olympics. No. 16 seeded UMBC taking down No. 1 Virginia in the 2018 NCAA Tournament. The Miracle Mets beating the heavily favored Orioles in the 1969 World Series. Appalachian State, an FCS football team, beating No. 5 ranked Michigan, a college football powerhouse, in 2007. I can go on. 

Even the New York Giants beating the undefeated New England Patriots in Super Bowl XLII. As a 9-year-old Patriots fan, it made me cry. As a 22-year-old sports writer, I can recognize just how amazing and improbable that upset was. 

Abilene Christian players celebrate after upsetting Texas 53-52 in a college basketball game in the first round of the NCAA tournament at Lucas Oil Stadium in Indianapolis Sunday, March 21, 2021. Photo by Mark Humphrey/AP Photo.

Unless you have a rooting interest for the favorite, you always cheer for the underdog. It’s human nature. Nobody roots for Goliath. Nobody cheers for Apollo Creed to win at the end of “Rocky.” The underdog may not win very often, but when it does, it’s a huge deal. 

Like I said, I don’t have a clear answer as to why we as humans always tend to root for upsets, but if you’ll allow me to get philosophical for a second, I do have some ideas. Life is hard, and we humans are hardwired to feel like the world is always against us (and a lot of times, it is). In the game of life, we are the underdogs, and life beats us up more times than not. But when we do get those occasional victories in life — a new job, a promotion, a gift we really want — it’s almost like we are pulling off an upset. So when sports fans tune into games, they don’t want to see the team that’s supposed to win, win. There’s enough of that in everyday life. They want to see the underdog win because they see themselves as the underdog. 

Wow, that was deep. Obviously there’s no science involved in that hypothesis. It’s just one man’s attempt to explain the unexplainable urge to always root for the little guy.  

Well, whatever the reason, I know I love to see the underdogs win. So here’s to more upsets in the coming weeks of the NCAA Tournament. Maybe this will finally be the year where a double-digit seed wins the whole thing, thus adding itself to the list of the ultimate underdogs. 

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