The FA Cup was in its last ten minutes and between my visiting American friends asking me questions about injury time and red cards, they asked me, "Whose your favorite?" I said, "I am not a huge fan of either team." Two seconds later Wigan scored spectacularly and I jumped out of my seat shouted with joy. They turned to me and asked, "I thought you said you didn't have a favorite?"
My response was, "I just wanted to see the underdog win for once." And I believe my sentiment was shared with the near entirety of the football community. So why do we love the Wigan underdog story? And interestingly, why does a Wigan relegation not bother us?
Well, no matter whether you are right or left of center, work for Microsoft or Apple, or are a janitor or CEO, you most likely see yourself as somewhat of an underdog.
So with underdogs you have 1) a narrative people like and 2) a narrative people see themselves in. Is it any wonder people want to cheer for underdogs? It's like cheering for yourself.
These narratives serve to energize us with the hope tht people like ourselves can do anything. People like to believe that those above us aren't that great after all, and that people like us are just as good, if not better than the people in power.
In fact, the narrative is so strong that Neeru Paharia, of the Harvard Business School, and colleagues named a psychological effect after it, simply "the underdog effect." They found that companies gain goodwill from consumers when companies present themselves as a group that has overcame disadvantages through sheer determination. This effect was stronger for people who personally related with the narrative and stronger in cultures (e.g., Western Countries) where the narrative was more prevalent.
This narrative dominates Western culture not only in sports but in all other popular media. From Luke Skywalker to Cinderella, Westerners crave stories about underdogs. Even the more privileged characters in storylines, such as the elite James Bond or billionaire Tony Stark, end up in situations where they must overcome cultural and physical disadvantages through sheer determination.
Even politicians are forced to conform to the narrative, regardless of reality. This was a challenge that proved very difficult for American Republican Presidential Candidate Mitt Romney and may have greatly hurt his campaign. Mr. Romney just wasn't a relatable underdog.
The underdog narrative doesn't only sell fiction, politics and sports, it also sells nonfiction books in my field of social science. The nearly unparalleled success of Malcolm Gladwell's "Outliers" owes a lot of that success to the intuitive appeal of his "10,000 hours doctrine." Gladwell concludes that if someone spends 10,000 hours at something they can become an expert, implying to readers (who don't carefully read Gladwell's other more nuanced chapters) that they can make it just by trying hard.
Hip Hop artist Macklemore of the "Thrift Shop" fame even opens his chart-topping first album with a song called "Ten Thousand Hours." He directly references Gladwell's name in the song, chants "Ten thousand hours, felt like thousands hands, they carry me," and then raps "Take that system!"
Oddly enough, many political pundits on both sides of the spectrum have argued (mostly for political reasons) that such a dream is fading in Western society. Psychological research shows that when beliefs we value are threatened, we try to find ways to defend such beliefs and keep the belief alive.
Celebrating Wigan this year might be a good way to keep alive that wonderful underdog dream alive.
It's also why Wigan may only have a short burst of fandom. We will all root for Wigan as long as they are the little guy competing against the big guy. But the premiere league battle against relegation is a battle amongst the little guys. There is nothing symbolic to root for there. In fact, it's simply just sad to think about the rich advantage teams winning all the time and the little guys just clawing at each other to stay on TV.
Yet, regardless of what happens to Wigan over the next few years, we will always have that wonderful rainy day in May to live in our memories and inspire us throughout our lives.
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