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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

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