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The Power of the Underdog: Without One, the Super Bowl Is Less Fun

We still want to believe in meritocracy, whether in sports or in finance.

For the first time in memory, I’m having trouble making myself care about the Super Bowl. It has the potential to be a great game, yet I’m already sick of hearing commenters dissect how the Giants’ vaunted pass rush will match up against golden boy Patriots quarterback Tom Brady. I haven’t made it through an episode of SportsCenter all week.

It’s not just that my team isn’t playing in the big game (my team never plays in the big game, or at least, they haven’t in the past 10 years, which certainly feels like an eternity). And thanks to a TV-less, Patriots-loving friend, I’ve seen New England play more games this season than any team except the one I actually root for, so I’m somewhat curious to see how they perform. And don’t get me wrong, I plan to watch the game (What’s the alternative? The Puppy Bowl?). I just won’t really care.

After thinking about it for the past few days, I finally realized why. While the Pats are technically favored by three points, there’s no real underdog in this game. Both teams have recent Super Bowl wins and highly paid, highly recognizable superstars. Both coaches are notorious jerks (only one is a known cheater). And, of course, they play in the two cities whose sports rivalry has completely exhausted anybody who doesn’t live there.

Without an underdog, sports just aren’t as much fun. Think about the best sports events of the past several years. What made March Madness so great last year? Virginia Commonwealth and Butler beating all odds to make the Final Four. Why was the end of baseball’s regular season so exciting? The small-market Rays and surprisingly resurgent Cardinals beat the vaunted Red Sox and Braves on the last day of the season. The playoffs were just as good, with the Tigers knocking of the Yankees and the Cards plowing through the Phillies, Brewers, and Rangers to win the Series. And, of course, the best Super Bowl in recent memory was the one in which the Saints beat the juggernaut Colts four years after Hurricane Katrina destroyed their hometown.

Rooting for underdogs is as old as sports itself: You don’t need to be a Bible reader to appreciate the story of David beating Goliath. The bully has enough advantages—why would we chant his name and wear his colors too? Watching the Patriots knock the stuffing out of Tim Tebow and his Broncos in the divisional playoffs wasn’t fun for anybody, even New Englanders.

But our love of the underdog goes deeper than a simple desire for an exciting storyline. What was the occupy movement except the little guys rising up against their 1 percent overlords? Why does the narrative of the American dream still hold so much power? We still want to believe in meritocracy, whether in sports or in finance, despite any evidence seeming to disprove its existence. Watching the blue-blood Giants and Patriots square off guarantees the 1 percent wins again.

Photo via (cc) Flickr user Christine Ann Dunne

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