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Margins of Error

Look closely at almost anything and you’ll find data—lots of it. But when you push past the calculations, what are all those numbers really saying about who we are and what we believe? CNN’s Harry Enten is on a mission to find out. This season on Margins of Error, Harry teases out big ideas like what accents say about where we live, how much money it takes to be happy, and whether the U.S. should finally switch to the metric system.

Harry Enten contemplates ideas

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Why are Losers the Favorites?
Margins of Error
Jun 28, 2022

Studies show that, when picking between underdogs and the favorite, more people will side with the underdog. So, why are we so drawn to them? And it’s not just about sports and politics. It’s the human experience. Harry talks to his dear friend Neil Paine of FiveThirtyEight, underdog expert Nadav Goldschmied, and CNN's very own Coy Wire. As a former Buffalo Bills player, Coy knows a thing or two about being underestimated. We also do some serious analysis of who really deserves the title "America's Team." Spoiler: It's not the Cowboys or the Yankees.

If you enjoy Margins of Error, CNN would love to hear from you.  Please visit: cnn.com/margins to take a brief survey.

 

Episode Transcript
Harry Enten
00:00:02
All right, let's start off simple, Mr. Hayseed, Neil Paine. I'm going to ask you a big question so that people can get a sense of who you are. Who are your favorite teams? This is sports. And why are they your favorites?
Neil Paine
00:00:18
Well, I'd say my number one favorite teams are the Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets, basketball and football teams, because I am a proud alum of that institute and I would say otherwise, I'm a Mets fan in baseball, and that's its own whole saga.
Harry Enten
00:00:41
That's my good friend, Neil Paine. He's a sportswriter at FiveThirtyEight, where we used to work together. And to be perfectly honest, we love talking sports, particularly when it comes to who we root against.
Neil Paine
00:00:55
What I learned was you have the negative partisanship of fandom.
Harry Enten
00:00:59
Yes.
Neil Paine
00:00:59
You are just anti-Yankees. You'll jump on some other team's bandwagon if they're doing well and you like them. But mainly you are rooting for whichever team is playing the Yankees at any given time.
Harry Enten
00:01:10
I think it's funny because I obviously grew up in the Bronx. My father worked literally a ten minute walk
Neil Paine
00:01:16
Across the street, yeah.
Harry Enten
00:01:16
Ten minute walk. We went to so many games, Yankee games when I was a kid. And as I got older and realized how truly evil the Yankees were, as we've grown up and Neil and I sort of took on the world and realized that these, quote unquote, America's teams are not all they were cracked up to be. We're good people so we shifted away from them.
Harry Enten
00:01:39
I'm serious. You talk to me about teams like the Yankees who I call the Yhonkays, or the Duke Blue Devils or the Dallas Cowboys, quote, unquote, "America's team," and I'll start seeing red. And while I may be a little bit, I don't know, more aggressive than most when it comes to rooting against the favorites, I know that when it comes to cheering for underdogs, I'm far from alone. Studies show that when picking between underdogs and favorites, more people will side with the underdog. So a while back, I asked my Twitter followers about their favorite teams.
Caller 1
00:02:15
My favorite team is the Detroit Pistons. I got to witness their championship in 2004, and they have been terrible for most of my adult life.
Caller 2
00:02:23
I am a fan of the New York Knicks. They haven't won an NBA championship since 1973.
Caller 3
00:02:29
I am a fan of the Miami Dolphins football team. My father practically begged me to pick any team other than the Dolphins.
Caller 4
00:02:40
I am 32 years old and I am a lifelong Detroit Lions fan, and all I hope is that they win one Super Bowl before I die. Thanks! Bye!
Harry Enten
00:02:48
And like many of you, I, too, have spent most of my life rooting for, well, even loving a losing team, the Buffalo Bills. When I was a kid, I made my mom order NFL Sunday tickets so I could follow the team. As a working adult, I often spend Sundays at the office at my old job because I could watch Bills games there, whenever local TV didn't air them. Heck, I even cried when they made the playoffs in 2017 for the first time since my bar mitzvah. The Bills are my everything and rooting for the Bills fits with my personality. While I grew up under fairly fortunate circumstances, I didn't really speak until the age of three or four. I had to take many courses that were labeled, quote unquote "special" like study skills. And I was held back in reading. In that instance, I was an underdog and it made school miserable for me. I remember failing seven consecutive grammar quizzes in eighth grade and crying. And my teacher, whose name shall not be uttered on this podcast, basically gave up on me. It's time to dive into a topic near and dear to my heart: underdogs. Why are we so drawn to them? And how can we explain the psychology of supporting the underdog? Well, as we'll discover today, it's part of who we are. Cheering for, the person or the team that people gave up on, it's not just about sports, it's the human experience. And of course, we'll touch on the Cowboys, the Lakers and those damn Yankees, because that phrase "America's team," just makes me so mad that, you know, I have to dissect it. Today it's us against the world. I'm Harry Enten and this is Margins of Error.
Harry Enten
00:04:41
How would you define what an underdog is?
Nadav Goldschmied
00:04:44
So I think, largely, it is defined relative to the top dog, the favorite.
Harry Enten
00:04:50
This is Nadav Goldschmied. He's an associate professor in the department of psychological sciences at the University of San Diego. And he's an expert in all things underdog.
Nadav Goldschmied
00:05:01
Obviously, there could be several dimensions of comparison. So likelihood, probability of winning. Right? So usually that's I think that's the most common currency -- sports, politics. You get some odds prior to the competition. Who is likely to prevail? Another dimension of comparison could be also resources. So I'm sure that part of your hatred to the Yankees is predicated on them having so much more resources than other teams. Right? So they just.
Harry Enten
00:05:36
They spend.
Nadav Goldschmied
00:05:37
Yes. So in one study that we did is we gave the participants, we provided positions in a vignette with two teams. And we did not define the teams, Team A and Team B. And there were four conditions. So in one condition, the favorite was 70% likely to win. The underdog was 30% likely to win. And of course, they supported the underdog not knowing anything else, there was underdog support. Then we had another condition where we provided them with resources and they supported the team with the lesser resources. Then we had a third condition when the two of them were in concert. So less the likelihood of winning and less resources. And again, this is the team that was preferred, supported over the favorite with higher likelihood of winning and with greater resources. But the most telling condition in this study was actually when we pitted one against the other. So greater likelihood of winning, but with less resources and the opposite. And here it's a little bit harder to define who is the underdog, but it went with resources. So the teams that was actually had the greater likelihood of winning but had less resources, was supported, as opposed to the team that was not likely to prevail but had many more resources. So based on this study, we gathered that at the core of it, it's about fairness.
Harry Enten
00:07:14
I think that's fascinating because I do know that over we'll just keep using the Yankees because I think, you know, they're the most successful franchise in America. You know, you place them up against the Tampa Bay Rays, right? The Rays over the past five years have been, you know, especially over the past few years, quite a good ball club, many a times. And they would be even favorites against the Yankees. But even if probability said the underdog was the Yankees, I saw the underdog being the Rays. So I think it matches up with exactly what you're talking about there and what your study found.
Nadav Goldschmied
00:07:46
Yeah, I agree.
Harry Enten
00:07:48
But our almost gravitational pull towards the underdog doesn't just dictate who we root for. It can even alter our memories.
Nadav Goldschmied
00:07:57
We had participants try to recall what was the ending of two movies, "Rocky I" or "Cinderella Man." So "Cinderella Man" is the traditional underdog story. He's old. He used to be the champion, no longer, nobody -- he's expected to lose. And then he, he wins. But "Rocky I" is an exception because he eventually loses. It's true that he comes back in "Rocky II" and so on, but -- we asked them, what do they remember? What was the end scene? And you'll see that quite a lot of them do not remember Rocky losing in "Rocky I" because it just doesn't fit the narrative of the underdog.
Harry Enten
00:08:42
Indeed our desire to support the little guy can actually change the way we perceive the world around us.
Nadav Goldschmied
00:08:50
We did one study in the realm of business where we had the students sample chocolate and evaluate the quality of the chocolate. And in essence, it was the same bar. We broke it into two and we we split it and we told them this is made by a conglomerate, a company that dominates the market. And the other piece of chocolate was by a new moms and pops operation. Tell us, which one do you like better? And in this case, we again found underdog support. And here again, you might think it's within this not so important category. Right? So you're not making a life or death decision. You're just trying to evaluate two brands of chocolate and just telling you that one is made by the underdog as opposed to the other one made by the dominating force is sufficient to you liking it more and thinking that it's better.
Harry Enten
00:09:58
Our love of the underdog can even extend to chocolate, which may sound wild, but I don't think it's actually all that surprising because in our day to day lives, many of us often feel like underdogs. And when we identify as such, well, you want to support a fellow underdog, even if it's just a chocolate bar. Indeed, this may explain something that we see in the world of politics. Candidates love branding themselves as the everyman, as fighters, as the little guy trying to fix the corrupt system. Just think of the qualities we associate with underdogs. They're tough, they're tenacious. And importantly, they work hard.
Nadav Goldschmied
00:10:43
Whenever we pit, you know, talent versus hard work, that's from past research, we know that hard work is what we like. Talent is God given, if you will. Hard work is what you can really, where you can really apply yourself. So I think that also part of the underdog effect is, built into it, is the hard work that they supposedly undertake. And I think that is probably the linking mechanism to politics, because you see that politicians do not shy away from the underdog label. They actually readily endorse it. And I think that they instinctively realize that it portrays them as someone who is really and willing to work hard in this competition.
Harry Enten
00:11:42
In fact, Joe Biden emphasized this a lot during his 2020 presidential campaign whenever he talked about, quote, "the dignity of work." But there's more to the underdog effect than just rooting for fairness or supporting hard work. You have to consider the difference in emotional payoff.
Nadav Goldschmied
00:12:02
In essence, you have nothing to lose by supporting the underdog and much to gain. The way initially, the probabilities are structured, if you decide to support the top dog -- so if it does win, as in most cases it will, that were the expectations. If in the unlikely event that it loses, you lose much. For the underdog, it's the mirror image. So in that sense, it makes much sense to hedge your bets with the underdog rather than the top dog.
Harry Enten
00:12:40
And again, this follows sort of my own, you know, I just go back to my own experiences, which are when the Bills, the Buffalo Bills, I'm a huge Buffalo Bills fan, there's an underdog -- has never, obviously, won a Super Bowl. Been -- were to four in the 1990s in a row and lost them all. Thank you for not showing yourself, God. Um, and they've become good all of a sudden. Now they're actually really good. But this past season, when I expected the Bills to do well and they lost to the Chiefs in heartbreaking fashion, that was devastating. And that seems to fit in exactly with what you're talking about -- expectations, expectations game, seems to play a big role in sort of the emotional roller coaster when it comes to underdogs and to favorites.
Nadav Goldschmied
00:13:29
So I spent some time in Buffalo, New York, studying there, and I'm familiar with those years in between when it was really, you know, the city lives by the the the football team and there was misery. Absolutely.
Harry Enten
00:13:49
So after the break, well, who better to talk to than a former Buffalo Bills player about what it's like to actually be an underdog at the highest level of sports?
Coy Wire
00:14:00
There were some people on the team and in those years where you would see they kind of pack in the bag early, we know we're not going to make the playoffs. And you become content and then contentment becomes a career killer. They weren't here the next year.
Harry Enten
00:14:12
That's after the break.
Harry Enten
00:14:20
Hey, folks, welcome back. So before the break, we were talking about why so many of us are drawn to rooting for underdogs. In many ways, it's because we, ourselves, often identify as underdogs, which is, of course, a little different from being the underdog that other people root for and watch on TV. So for that, I turn to a colleague of mine at CNN, Coy Wire. He's currently a sports anchor and correspondent here. But in a prior life, he played for nearly a decade in the NFL, with most of that time spent wearing my favorite jersey in the league.
Coy Wire
00:14:57
Lifelong dream was achieved when I got drafted by the Buffalo Bills in 2002, third round. I'd never been to an NFL game before, Harry. It was like my dream. Like, I'm only going to see one until I'm playing in one. And that dream came true there in Orchard Park, ran out that tunnel, tears were flowing. I played there for six seasons with the Bills. After that, I ended up going to Atlanta after I had a neck injury, there in Buffalo. Titanium plate and four screws put in my neck. I thought my career was over. Falcons called, brought me down here to Atlanta. Played three more seasons and had a position switch. Went from strong safety to linebacker and was captain of the teams in both Buffalo and Atlanta. As a special teams guy, mostly, my entire career, you know, biting, fighting, scratching and clawing to stay on the team each and every year.
Harry Enten
00:15:43
You know, it's funny, this is an episode I think, you know, about underdogs and favorites. It kind of sounds like you describe yourself a little bit as an underdog, at least on the NFL field.
Coy Wire
00:15:54
Yeah. And this goes back to, you know, high school, when I dreamed of becoming just a college player, I was always too short. I was never going to be fast enough. I didn't have the right skin color. You know, there are no part-Asian running backs in the NFL. And, you know, these were things that were up against me by others my entire life. But I use that as fuel. It just made me work harder. It made me want to prove people wrong. And it's just been kind of the story of my career.
Harry Enten
00:16:18
I love that, but I want to kind of come back to those mid-2000 Buffalo Bills teams. I just recall for the most part, in 2002 you were not bad. 2003, meh. 2004 was the year I remember you guys came out of nowhere, nowhere. I think you were 3-6 -- I think that's what you were. And you won six games in a row. I still believe by statistical analysis, it was the best team for a long period of time, that did not make the playoffs because you lost that final game against Pittsburgh. Just kind of wondering, what was it like playing for those teams that, while they were some okay years, there were a lot of lean years as well in there?
Coy Wire
00:17:05
Yeah, it was so difficult because as a defensive player we had some of the best defenses in the league for some of those years. As a special teams captain, we were always right there at the tops of the league in those categories as well. Still I have a football in my office of some of the record type games we had, as a special teams wise. And it just seemed like we had never really put things together and click on all cylinders at the same time. And that Pittsburgh game, too soon, man, even though it was back in the mid 2000s, you bring it up too soon. I was injured in that game, didn't play. They had their like second and third string players in because they had already, you know, made it to the playoffs. They're trying to rest their starters like "we got this, we just win this game, we're making it to the playoffs. Let's go." And it just, it, I don't know what happened. No one knows what happened. And it certainly wasn't for lack of effort, lack of trying. We had some of the hardest workers in the league. It just wasn't meant to be. In my six seasons in Buffalo, we did not make the playoffs once. But it was the best experience you could ever ask for as a professional athlete, any sport, the best fandom around.
Harry Enten
00:18:13
I wonder what it felt like playing for a losing team. If there's some sort of like psychological or emotional grind to it. Just sort of like, I know that's kind of blunt, but I'm a blunt guy.
Coy Wire
00:18:28
Say, like it is.
Harry Enten
00:18:29
Say it like it is. I'm just kind of wondering, you know, how do you put one foot in front of the other? I realize you're professionals, but at the same time, you know, we're professionals, too. I can tell you as someone, you know, who goes on the air, when a producer emails me "great segment," it spikes me up like nobody's business. It's like unbelievable. So, I just kind of, I'm just kind of wondering, you know, how it kind of felt on the day to day.
Coy Wire
00:18:50
Those days were long and they were hard. And, you know, there are certain players who understand that they still don't take any moment for granted. I mean, the average career in the NFL is about three years. And so if you ever stop trying like you, you know, have always tried to just to make it there, if you lose that hunger and that edge, you're going to be passed by. There were some people, and on the team, in those years, where you would see they kind a pack in the bag early, we know we're not going to make the playoffs and you become content and then contentment becomes a career killer. They weren't here the next year. It happens, you know, and it's it's all depends on the mental makeup of the teams and of those locker rooms. And so there were both Harry, you know, you saw some guys who kept working hard, even harder, you know, to try to turn things around. But then there were others who, you know, their character showed through tough times. And that's kind of always the case, whether it's in sports, in life, in general. You know, tough times reveal character, right? So, certainly not the greatest on the field, but overall, the experiences there, we still had the support from the crowds. I don't ever remember getting booed by fans in Buffalo, even in our worst years there. I never remember that once. But in other cities you'll see that. Says a lot about the people of Buffalo.
Harry Enten
00:20:01
I think that kind of made Buffalo special, is what you were hinting at -- they kind of live and die with the team. It's kind of like an underdog city. And I guess, did you guys see yourselves as underdogs? Did you see your guys see yourselves as sort of representing the city, sort of, we're not going to take this crap. You kind of get what I'm getting at there.
Coy Wire
00:20:20
Absolutely felt it 100%. You know, as as NFL players, we felt in Buffalo, we were not only not getting respect, we were disrespected in general by media, by the coverage. We see the teams in New York, and the Dallas Cowboys get, and, you know, just because of those logos and those markets. Like Cowboys fans, they are one of America's teams, supposedly, you know. If you listen to Cowboys fans or Jerry Jones who's out there reminding everyone, America's team, America's Team, America's team, I mean, it's just like brainwashing, right? It's like the power of marketing and branding. But what? Since 2000, I think they've had only 11 seasons over 500. So how are you telling me you're America's team? It's only because you're telling me you're America's team. You were good, but right now you're not good. So I think there's probably another team right now that America would want to latch on to.
Harry Enten
00:21:14
So funny. This is literally, I have the outline of questions. And literally the next question was about the Dallas Cowboys. I'm not even kidding. I'm not even kidding. And the title of "America's Team," very clearly a legacy thing. But it sounds like you do not believe that they merit being referred to as America's team anymore.
Coy Wire
00:21:37
They were incredible back in the day. They've earned that right at one point. And so it stuck for a while. But it was, you know, it deserved for a while. One of my favorite photos of my playing days, I was running down on a kickoff and I blasted a fook and we were playing the Cowboys. I mean, blasted. His helmet almost popped off. And I have a photo mid-blast, it's like, it's my favorite one because it's like the underdog taking down America's team. In my mind, this was a great moment for me.
Harry Enten
00:22:08
Coy sent me a photo of that hit. He really did pop that guy. Score one for the little guy and against the big bad Cowboys, of all teams. Speaking of the Cowboys, it's time to talk America's team. Where the heck did that phrase even come from? And do teams like the Cowboys, the Yankees, even deserve to be called America's team anymore? We'll find out after the break.
Harry Enten
00:22:42
Hey, y'all, welcome back. So I'll admit the title America's team makes my stomach turn. So I had to discuss it with a less biased guest -- my friend Neil Payne, who you heard back at the beginning of the episode. When I say the phrase America's team, who do you think of?
Neil Paine
00:23:02
Well, I think of the Dallas Cowboys. I'd say that's the team that has kind of most prominently taken that on. I think of the Atlanta Braves, which was a team that defined themselves as that. I don't think it would take for anyone outside of maybe the generation that watched them on TBS. But that was the thing they tried to make. And I think it speaks to the value that a team sort of sees in anointing themselves as America's team. And every single time any team has done that, it's really been this sort of self-promotional, you know, moniker that they put on themselves, where they're trying to make a statement about the fact that "we're not just claiming the fans in our own locality, we're actually claiming fans from all across the country, all across the world."
Harry Enten
00:23:51
Indeed, the phrase "America's team," was primarily born from the Dallas Cowboys' own marketing material. Bob Ryan of NFL films dubbed the Cowboys as such when he produced their highlight film from 1979. The name stuck to such a degree that just a few years later, in 1984, President Ronald Reagan, of all people, brought it up during a rally at the Republican National Convention, in not surprisingly, Dallas.
President Ronald Reagan, 1984
00:24:21
The Dallas Cowboys have come to be known as America's team. May I suggest, may I suggest that by the time this convention ends, the Republican Party will be on its way to being America's party.
Neil Paine
00:24:41
And in some ways, you can't really argue with that with the Cowboys, in the sense that every time you look at one of those maps, you know, the maps that they try to measure through Facebook likes, or various other measures where they're trying to go like county by county in the U.S., and map out what's the most popular team in each county of the country, there really is in football, when you do that, there's like this sort of bluish silver tint to areas between major cities that have teams, that is the Cowboys. And it's sort of inexplicable. It's areas that you would not expect. It's it's like the middle of Kansas. It's, you know, it's it's places in the Southwest. You have that low level lying support of the Cowboys sort of simmering under the surface in various different places of the country.
Harry Enten
00:25:31
Which is funny because it's been a while since the Cowboys were consistently a dominant team.
Neil Paine
00:25:37
You really have to go back a long time, back to when they were winning Super Bowls in the seventies and when that "America's team" really sort of started to take hold. That idea that ever since then, it's like if you repeat something enough and you believe it enough, it becomes true. It's the George Costanza Theory.
Harry Enten
00:25:53
It's not a lie ...
Neil Paine
00:25:54
If you believe it.
Harry Enten
00:25:57
So what about another one of those America's teams, the Yankees? Neil and I actually did some polling a while back, and we found that while they're one of the most beloved teams in American sports, they're also the most hated baseball team. When it comes to the Yankees, no one was on the fence. Which brings us back to our ultimate question: how should we define America's team? So basically, I have a few ideas. I'm going to float by you. And based upon what you were saying, which is, one, is America's team defined by the number of people who can watch your games. Right? So if you are a team that maybe not everybody really likes or doesn't like, but you have a broad audience, is that America's team? Two, do we take into account land area? Or is it that we just care about the total number of people? Right? If you just look at the total number of fans, the Mets have a lot of fans that are concentrated in the New York City metropolitan area, which is actually a very condensed amount of land. Three, do we take into account the number of people who may not like a team? So if we're building sort of this mathematical equation out, is it, say, the number of fans that a team has, minus the number of people who hate them? Or is it something?
Neil Paine
00:27:21
Net Favorability.
Harry Enten
00:27:22
Right. Is it net favorability? Are we -- well, that's also part of it. Right? Which is there may be a team who's a lot of people, second favorite team and doesn't have a lot of people who dislike them. Is it just sort of this bland they're offensive to no one, is that America's team? Maybe the Cubs might fit that definition outside the south side of Chicago? Or is it a situation where what we're really interested in, is this team has the most number of diehard fans, and even though they have the most number of people who also hate them, that actually is what America's team is, because in this particular case, it's the teams that generate the most amount of conversation.
Neil Paine
00:27:59
I think about the New England Patriots during their dynastic run. That was another example of a team that you really you would watch all the time because they were always on in the prime slots on, on TV, and they were always being carried nationally. And, you know, they had years where they almost never lost, or one year where they didn't lose until the very end, until the Super Bowl. And that was a team that was very polarizing, generated a lot of conversation. And I think about maybe the idea of America's team, is the team that just is so omnipresent and so successful that they can't be ignored.
Harry Enten
00:28:36
How about this? I'm going to give you, I don't know, basketball enough, to be perfectly honest, to give you an America's team there, but I'm going to give you an America's team in both football and baseball that may surprise you a little bit. And my basic equation is, I'm looking for a good team, a very good team, but one who does not generate the amount of hatred that these all- time teams hate. So in baseball, I would make the argument that America's team may very well be the Saint Louis Cardinals.
Neil Paine
00:29:07
Oh.
Harry Enten
00:29:08
The Cardinals, very successful franchise. They have won two World Series this century. They won in 2006, 2011. They've appeared in more World Series than that. They appeared in 2004, for example. They're in the heart of the country and they don't generate the type of, outside of Chicago, I don't think that most people look one way or the other with the Cardinals. They realize them as a good team. They have a loyal fan base. Baseball is big in Saint Louis.
Neil Paine
00:29:34
I think there's a little bit of eye rolling over "the best fans in baseball" claim that always gets made about it. But I'm with you otherwise.
Harry Enten
00:29:41
And then the other team that I'll make the argument on in football, I'm going to again go in the Midwest and I'm going to say it's the Green Bay Packers. I think that is one of the most obvious answers.
Neil Paine
00:29:52
Yeah, and it's interesting to think about like with Green Bay. The other really interesting part of it is just this like small town story, you know, the fact that they're from this very sort of Anytown, USA. And the people of the town are the, you know, owners of the team. There's just all of these little elements of it. And the fact that they won the first two Super Bowls, I think, really sort of plays a role in that as well, where it's like they and Vince Lombardi. I mean, the trophy for the Super Bowl champion is named after their their coach. So they're very iconic in a way that it's a, it's a very good feat to be able to become iconic without also picking up haters as much on the way.
Harry Enten
00:30:34
Of course, I should note that America's team isn't always the one that people consider the most palatable, or put another way, the team with the fewest haters. So when it comes to underdogs, well, often times they only become beloved when matched up against the known favorite. Otherwise, outside of their core group of fans, they're frequently ignored or really just forgotten entirely. But America's team, the top dogs? It's just like I said earlier about those frickin Yankees. They're the teams that more people love than any other. Often, though, this is the same team that even more people hate. And it turns out the same patterns can hold true when it comes to individual players. Something that we haven't really hit upon, but I want to hit upon before we go is the effect that individual players have on fandom. I think that is especially the case now, where in an era of free agency players can move around. I know LeBron James, you can basically find, you know, whatever team LeBron James is on, that to me is the most prominent example. All of a sudden, that team, whether it be the Cavaliers, whether it be the Heat, whether it be the Los Angeles Lakers, their interest level goes through the roof. Or Tom Brady going down to Tampa Bay. Same general idea. These players who transform fandom and players who make fans root for teams that they would never otherwise think to root for.
Neil Paine
00:32:04
Yeah. And I think it's a really a whole generation of fans that are less interested in "I'm a diehard Boston Celtics fan" or "I'm a diehard, you know, Miami Heat fan" or whatever. It's really like "I like LeBron. And so whatever team he's on, I'm going to root for." And we've even been talking about teams that way. You mentioned that, yeah, like when LeBron goes to a team, their odds go up tremendously. We could even draw a line where it's like, okay, you take like the LeBron era of the Heat plus like the second LeBron era of the Cavs, plus like the Lakers era, you can make like a dynasty, but it's not a traditional dynasty of like one team doing well.
Harry Enten
00:32:43
That's interesting.
Neil Paine
00:32:44
With players coming and going, it's a dynasty of one player doing well, and the teams come and go.
Harry Enten
00:32:51
My conversation with Neil made me reflect on something that is statistically true. Star players' social media presence is huge, and if instead of America's team, you wanted to crown someone and say America's player, well, there's a slew of athletes who could qualify. Players like LeBron James and Tom Brady have tens, if not hundreds of millions of Instagram followers. They tend to have many more than the teams they actually play for. The Bradys of the world are, of course, not underdogs. He's a favorite, but it makes sense that he'd have so many fans. And just like with favorite teams, polling suggests a lot of people do love Brady, but even more people hate him. Of course, focusing on individual players instead of teams isn't a new phenomenon. People loved Babe Ruth and Jackie Robinson. It's just today it's far easier to connect with players than it's ever been. So maybe that's it. It's not about America's team anymore. Instead, it's all about the players themselves. When I started imagining this episode, it was simply because I wanted to rip the Yankees and praise the Buffalo Bills. If I could get in a knock against Mike Krzyzewski and the Duke Blue Devils, while also trying to explain my infatuation with one of college football's all time losing programs, the Columbia Lions, all the better. I think I managed to do that but the story of favorites and underdogs is a far larger one than any of that. When people ask me why I like sports so much, I usually answer along the lines of "sports is the story of us." That is certainly the case when it comes to favorites and underdogs. We can't help but root for the underdog for the same reason, we can't help but root for David against Goliath. Indeed, the fact that we easily use a biblical reference in sports, tells us everything we need to know about how important favorites and underdogs are to our everyday lives. The underdog versus favorite story plays out when you decide to support the smaller store over the big box retailer. When you root for that student who isn't all that skilled but works his butt off to get a passing grade. Indeed, this podcast was a bit of an underdog. I had to fight for it to exist. I'm thankful I did and I'm hopeful you are as well. Margin of Error is a production of CNN Audio and Western Sound. Our showrunner is Cameron Kell. Our producer is Savannah Wright. Production assistance and fact checking by Nicole McNulty. Misha Stanton is our mix engineer. Additional support from Tameeka Ballance-Kolasny, Dan Dzula, Allison Park and Alex McCall. Our executive producers are Ben Adair and Megan Marcus. And me? Well, I'm Harry Enten.