Rooting for the Underdog

That’s the thing about underdogs. When we have no skin in the game, it’s easy to cheer for them.

By Kellyn Brown

Flathead High School’s football team looks poised to have its best season since Brock Osweiler graduated in 2008. The quarterback, who went on to play at Arizona State University, is now a backup for the Denver Broncos behind future Hall of Famer Peyton Manning. In other words, Oz left behind big shoes to fill.

Since his departure, coupled with the 2007 school split that sent half the talent across town, the Braves have struggled.

That’s changing. And the city of Kalispell, home to last year’s Class AA state champion Glacier Wolfpack, has taken notice. The largest crowd in years, save for cross-town or the playoffs, packed into Legends Stadium recently when the Braves rolled over previously undefeated Great Falls, 41-12.

This is a different Flathead team than the one that had compiled a record of 14-47 since 2009, including one-win seasons in 2010 and 2012. For years, the Braves have been considered underdogs as the new school up north accumulated a series of firsts. But now, whether we have ties to the school, many of us are rooting for Flathead a little harder then we otherwise would.

That’s the thing about underdogs. When we have no skin in the game, it’s easy to cheer for them.

Science backs this up. There’s a reason a lot of us dislike the New York Yankees, New England Patriots and Duke University basketball. They win all the time and, if we have no vested interest in their success, studies show we’re wired to pull for their opponents, which often face longer odds.

One such study, published in 1991 by researchers at Bowling Green State University, found when 100 college students were posed with a hypothetical best-of-seven matchup between Team A and Team B, in which Team A was “highly favored” to win, 81 percent said they would root for the underdog.

When the same group was told that Team B had somehow upset Team A in the first three games, half of those who initially supported Team B began rooting for Team A, the one that now had a tougher road to victory.

We often attribute more effort to underdogs and view their occasional upsets as contributing to a sense of fairness. But we also, researchers find, experience more joy by unexpected results.

That’s why during the March Madness basketball tournament we cheer for so many Cinderella teams and why, after several losing seasons, it’s easy to cheer for the Braves. They, in many minds, deserve this.

I have family roots in Illinois, so I have long supported the ultimate underdog, my beloved Chicago Cubs, which haven’t been to the World Series since 1945 and haven’t won the title since 1908.

Every year my father and I talk about the Cubbies’ prospects, and nearly every year we’re disappointed by the actual result. So this year, with our team expected to make the postseason for the first time in years, a fever has swept my family, which is convinced this is, in fact, the Cubs’ year. It’s likely not, but rooting for underdogs defies logic and we’re more optimistic about their chances because we believe they deserve it.

It’s that belief that draws many of us to sports. And when our teams falter, we search for another worthy of our support.

The Braves are that team. Regardless of logic, and after several losing seasons, I think this could be their year. That’s what I’m cheering for, anyway.

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