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Underdogging It

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Wow!  It was pretty startling, I have to say, to stumble onto my name—and a reference to a paper that I co-wrote 20 years ago—as I was reading Slate on my iPhone in a park yesterday!

I certainly enjoyed Daniel Engber’s article on Slate.  (If you haven’t already, go read it now.  This post needs context, you know!)  Over the years, I’ve continued to think about underdogs, of course, and to wish that more research would focus on the allure of the underdog and, more generally, on the ways that spectators form attachments with athletes and teams.  The underdog is just one variable in the sociology of sports fandom.  And it’s a force that is likely felt most keenly in a peculiar (and almost artificial) setting: when the fan has no other preexisting leanings toward one of the competitors.  In other words, even if we figure out the specific attraction of the underdog—and we haven’t come close to that yet—we have a lot to learn about the general pleasures of sports spectating.

Engber’s article says that Eldon Snyder, my co-author, and I thought “the expected value of a bet on an underdog—its average payoff in raw, chest-bumping excitement—will always be higher than the expected value of a bet on the favorite.”  That may well be an accurate take on our short research note.  As sociologists and not economists, though, we would have been fairly uninterested in trying to specify the “expected value” of anything!  Indeed, although I can’t speak for Snyder today, I’m quite agnostic about Engber’s suggestion—based on an assumption that the betting odds of a victory are a good proxy for the amount of excitement a fan would experience with the competitor’s win—that the emotional payoff should (i.e., in the economics-sense) be “exactly the same” whether the fan roots for the favorite or the underdog.1 Rather, we suspected that—whether or not they were right—most spectators did not perceive the emotional payoff for a single game to be the same for favorites and underdogs.  And our simple data seemed to bear that out.  As sociologists, our task was to explain the mental gymnastics, and possible cultural supports for those gymnastics, that got so many fans to this underdog-loving place.  We sketched out a few hypotheses and hoped others would follow suit.  Not many have.  I’m thrilled that Engber has joined in.

Update (5/3/10): Slate’s Hang Up and Listen podcast (starting roughtly at the 32:20 mark) featured Engber today.  Snyder and I didn’t get a specific mention, but we can claim some authorship of the tasty Team A vs. Team B hypothetical he mentioned.  During his discussion with Josh Levin, Mike Pesca, and Stefan Fatsis, Engber defended the decidedly un-sociological idea that some innate/native human sense of fairness exists.  I obviously doubt that (and, of course, theorized that a “selfish” desire to maximize excitement leads to underdog-loving).  And as proof that there is no “primal sense of fairness” (as Engber called it in his written piece), I offer as evidence the entirety of human history!  For generations, we have been enslaving, killing, and just plain discriminating against one another.  Indeed, we have developed ideologies and entire institutions—including the United Nations, various police forces, the rule of law, and on and on and on—to protect ourselves from ourselves.  It’s nice to think that humans are drawn to underdogs because, at heart, we believe in equality, but I sincerely doubt that is a persuasive explanation.

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1For the record, I’m not sure Engber has sufficiently figured into his equation the social costs for a fan’s being on the losing side.  Or, perhaps more fundamentally, that the fan is probably not thinking about emotional payoffs over the long haul.  For instance, Engber talks about a fan of a 4-1 Super Bowl favorite being “four times more likely to get a reward one-fourth as good.”  To get the same emotional “juice” as the successful underdog-lover, then, the successful favorite-favoring spectator must watch and win four games.  But wait—there’s only one Super Bowl!

But no matter!

Written by Jimmy

May 2nd, 2010 at 1:51 am

Posted in Jay,Sports

Five More Reasons I Don’t Like The Masters

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6.) The proximity to Easter — As it will this year, The Masters frequently concludes on Easter Sunday.  I’m not a Christian, but I generally think, I swear,  that Christians are pretty cool.  Still, Easter rests on a fairly creepy mythos, and a non-Christian like me can—in my part of the world, anyway—pretty easily get inundated by it.  Maybe, you think to yourself, a little golf will provide a nice Sunday-afternoon distraction from all that?  Think again.  In 1993, after taking his second Masters title, Bernhard Langer found time to note that Easter was “the day when [his] Lord and Savior rose from the dead” and that it meant more to win on the day he “celebrate[d] the resurrection of [his] Lord and Savior.”  Langer’s not alone, either: As the close of the last linked article (from The Baptist Advocate) indicates, many different players have found golfing wins a chance to bear Christian witness.  The Masters at Easter invites that.  No thank you.

7.) Butler Cabin — If there’s any duller, more awkward winner’s celebration in sports, I haven’t seen it.  Television viewers have to withstand an uninformative conversation with the low-amateur, if one made the cut, before a seated, tepid panel discussion featuring Jim Nantz and the champion breaks out.  Ok, “breaks out” is too strong a phrase.  In fact, I usually start a nap about this time.  More energy and excitement (and, hey, better lighting), please?

8.) Yes, the green jacket — Congratulations.  You’ve just won the highest honor in your sport.  In celebration of that, we’re doing to dress you up like a Shriner.  Enjoy.

9.) Larry MizeHe’s back, you know.

10.) Having it both ways — The Masters is supposed to be all about the tradition (“it’s a tradition unlike any other,” Nantz repeatedly intones on CBS), but the course has seen many changes.  Once, the controversy was the switch from Bermuda to bentgrass.  More recently, the course underwent significant changes to fend off long-hitters like Tiger Woods.  This is not the same golf course that Snead, Hogan, and Nelson once played, and we’d all be better off if we recognized that.

Written by Jimmy

April 10th, 2009 at 3:22 pm

Posted in Jay,Sports

Five Reasons I Don’t Like The Masters

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1.) The small field — The Masters is supposed to be one of the four great championship events of the year, yet the field is small.  It’s essentially an invitational event.  A championship is supposed to tell us who the “best” is.  What’s the best of an invitational field?  I dunno, but my tennis club does the same thing.  Why isn’t CBS there?  I’ll take the U.S. Open’s qualifying free-for-all any day.

2.) The tradition — Unlike Wimbledon, where the tradition is almost charming, it’s stultifying in Augusta.  And, yes, I’m saying there’s too much of the “wrong kind” of tradition.  Lee Trevino didn’t feel welcome there.  Lee Elder qualified for the tournament 15 years before the club had—in the 1990s!—its first African-American member.  There’s a good reason Martha Burk was protesting the event.  Yuck.

3.) CBS’s reverential coverage — As I understand it, the club mandates a certain tone in the coverage.  If I’m forced to choose between the raucous(?) Jack Whitakers and Gary McCords of the world and the unctuous, Masters-approved Jim Nantzes of the world, I’m going with the Whitakers and McCords every time.

4.) Larry Mize

5.) Exclusivity — I’m not welcome—as, ahem, a “patron”—at the tournament, and you’re not, either.  This is from the tourney’s website: Tournament or ‘Series’ Badges (Thursday through Sunday) have been sold to those on our patron list which was closed due to demand in 1972. A waiting list began in 1972, and was closed in 1978. It reopened in 2000, and it too is now closed. No applications for ‘Series’ Badges are currently being accepted.

Written by Jimmy

April 9th, 2009 at 6:27 pm

Posted in Jay,Sports