The Underdog Effect

In the wake of March Madness and in the heart of the NHL/NBA playoff season, a common thread weaving its way through the sport world this year is the story of the underdog. Underdog stories have been a part of human history for a very long time. Reaching back in time to the biblical story of David and Goliath, people have always seemed to cheer against the big guy and cheer for the little guy. Why is that exactly? In theory, when the team we cheer for wins we also feel like we have won something. Why risk the chance of losing by cheering for the team less favoured to win?  It’s a quirk in our human nature but statistically, when people are given the choice to cheer for the underdog against the significantly better team, 80% will choose to cheer for the underdog. The reason behind this could be the fact that an “underdog win” feels significantly better than a one-sided blowout win. People will continue to cheer for the underdog and this years underdog in the NHL is the Nashville Predators.

Ever since their 1998-99 inaugural season, the Nashville Predators have consistently underperformed in the NHL. Out of 18 seasons in the Central Division, Nashville has had 6 losing seasons, 8 seasons out of the playoffs and 9 seasons where the furthest they ever got was the second round, before being eliminated. The Predators have always been disregarded in the playoffs and this season. It seemed they were doomed from the start as they faced the dynasty that is the Chicago Blackhawks.  Nashville’s regular season began in a buzz after the offseason blockbuster trade of top defenseman Shea Weber for top defenseman P.K Subban. Fans on both sides were questioning the unsuspecting trade, breaking down who “won” the trade, ultimately knowing that was to be decided in the regular season. Nashville continued to be an underdog as Weber recorded a more impactful regular season as Subban was injured for a good chunk of the season with an upper body injury that constricted him to play 66 games. Nashville squeaked by into a playoff position as the second wildcard spot in the west and were now poised to face the Chicago Blackhawks. You could say nobody thought they stood a chance but that would be an understatement. Nashville had lost 9 of their last 10 games against the Blackhawks at home and they boasted the worst road record (17-20-4) of all teams in the playoffs. Facing the top team in the west would be an uphill battle. The first game was played and to the hockey worlds’ surprise, Nashville was able to shutout Chicago on the road 1-0 after a tip in goal by Victor Arvidsson and an impressive 29 save performance by Pekka Rinne. The trend continued to the next game where Rinne made 30 saves to shutout Chicago while 5 different Predators players scored to lift the Preds 2-0 in the series against Chicago. Nashville was dismantling the beloved Blackhawks and people loved it.  Nashville was uncharacteristically the dominant team and they continued to be by sweeping the Chicago Blackhawks in 4 games while holding them to only 3 goals in the whole series. Nobody expected such a dominant performance by the usually underperforming Predators and now they are heading into the Western Conference final after defeating the St. Louis Blues in 6 games, playing their first series ever as a franchise in the 3rd round.

Watching the Predators succeed in the playoffs has been entertaining and for hockey fans has become must-watch playoff hockey. Success with a team like Nashville is what makes sports exciting to follow. Watching an underdog defeat a “Goliath”, brings in more fans and more excitement into any league.  Nobody could have foreseen Nashville’s dominance in the postseason but the “surprise factor” is what makes it even more exciting to watch. Shock value sells tickets and underdog stories make for great sports to play and watch.

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