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Favored underdogs

The Baltimore Sun

The Super Bowl offers fans a clear choice.

One team is bidding to be remembered as one of the greatest in history. The other isn't supposed to be there.

So which do you like? The undefeated and heavily favored New England Patriots or the underdog New York Giants? Bill Belichick, the genius coach, or Tom Coughlin, the one who almost got fired last year? Tom Brady, the peerless quarterback who dates a supermodel, or Eli Manning, the one who'd be picked second in a family game of two-hand touch?

The answers might say a lot about how we look at the world, according to marketers, psychologists and others who study fan behavior.

Studies say that long-term, we like to be associated with winners. But given a specific scenario in which we have no prior affiliation to either team, we're apt to cheer for the underdog. According to psychologists, our basic sense of justice compels us to support those with financial, talent or age disadvantages. When confronted with near-perfect competitors such as Brady, Tiger Woods or Alex Rodriguez, on the other hand, we're apt to watch in awe but also to become insecure and look for flaws in the seemingly flawless.

"There are really mixed emotions," said Edward Hirt, a psychology professor at Indiana University who studies fan behavior. "Most of us really do root for underdogs. The well-ensconced teams become almost evil and we like to see them taken down. But at the same time, what they're doing generates tremendous interest. We want to see history."

The dynamic gives the game a can't-miss appeal, he added.

"If you see the Patriots get beat, the world is just," Hirt said. "If they do it, you've seen a historic season."

If the Giants want to be remembered as more than a footnote, they better win, San Francisco-based sports marketing consultant Bob Dorfman said.

"Americans love underdogs," he said. "It's the David and Goliath story brought to life. But we need our underdogs to go all the way, beat the favorites and win the championships. Otherwise, they tend to be forgotten."

Perfection or, at least, supreme excellence, compels us as sports fans.

How else to explain why 34.5 million people made a meaningless December game between the Giants and undefeated Patriots the most-viewed regular-season NFL contest in 12 years?

How else to account for the drastic leap in viewership every time Woods tops a golf leader board on Sunday afternoon?

But discussion of these phenomenal teams and performers often dwells on possible weaknesses or on the opponents best suited to topple our sporting kings.

Preeminent tennis star Roger Federer summed it up after a recent loss at the Australian Open spurred talk of his demise: "I've created a monster."

Our relationship with the greatest teams and performers is complex.

We want them around and yet we want to find their flaws. We often revere them more in hindsight than we root for them in the moment.

Fans regarded golfer Jack Nicklaus as an aloof technician when he was eclipsing the swashbuckling Arnold Palmer in the 1960s. But by the time he charged to victory in the Masters at age 46, he was the Golden Bear, melting our hearts.

In the mid-1960s, Muhammad Ali disconcerted many Americans with his radical politics and virtuoso boxing style. By 1974, he was a courageous friend to the world, whiling his way to victory over silent, imposing George Foreman.

In both cases, figures who were once perceived to have all the advantages became more sympathetic once age robbed them of some talent.

The inclination to pick at the best of us is deep and ancient.

We remember the Greek hero Achilles for his vulnerable heel more than for his slaying of Hector. We remember David and his slingshot, not Goliath's winning streak on biblical battlefields.

"Nobody roots for Goliath," Wilt Chamberlain once said. And he sure knew. No one dominated basketball like the 7-foot-1 Chamberlain, but he spent his career being hounded for poor free-throw shooting, suspect leadership and his teams not winning enough.

Fans often revel in awe at such performers one day and pick them apart the next.

"It's just part of human nature that we compare ourselves to other people," Hirt said. "And when we see these figures that we can't be as good as, it's hard to live with. So we say, 'Oh, they're so good because that's all they do. They don't have special lives. They're just freaks.' "

Children start applying such judgments to the best students in their classes in elementary school.

By contrast, our cultural affinity for the underdog is such that it has spawned a whole genre of movies. Rocky, Hoosiers, The Natural. All reside in the pantheon of sports films.

Teams compete to be the little upstart these days, looking for perceived slights from fans or opponents to fuel their preparation.

Dean Smith, until recently the winningest coach in college basketball history, was famous for underselling his abundantly talented North Carolina squads.

In their quest to be remembered, the undefeated Miami Dolphins of 1972 cast themselves as underdogs, always in danger of being eclipsed by the next team questing for perfection.

We favor underdogs out of a deep-seated belief in justice, argues a recent paper by Joseph A. Vandello, a psychology professor at the University of South Florida. If we believe one team or person in a given confrontation has more resources than the other, we will generally root against the rich, powerful entity.

For example, Vandello asked students to pick a side in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict after showing them both areas on a map. If he manipulated the Palestinian territory so it appeared larger, students tended to pick Israel. If he beefed up Israel's territory, the preference shifted to the Palestinians.

He also posed questions about sports teams.

"In general, people wanted teams to win more when the teams had lower expectations of winning or had relatively small resources [or both]," Vandello wrote.

Despite our innate love for the disadvantaged, those who study fan psychology say it's more lucrative in the long run to be great.

"It's usually the dynasties that reap the greatest marketing rewards," Dorfman said, "because consumers [and marketers] become more familiar and comfortable with the teams and players that win championships again and again. That's why jocks like Jordan, Montana, Woods and Brady are so successful. Consumers love underdogs, but ultimately they love winners the most."

So even if Eli Manning is propped up by the cheers of millions tomorrow night, you'd probably rather be Tom Brady over the next 20 years.

childs.walker@baltsun.com

AT A GLANCE

The game

Matchup: New York Giants (10-6, 3-0 in playoffs) vs. New England Patriots (16-0, 2-0)

Site: University of Phoenix Stadium, Glendale, Ariz.

Kickoff: 6:17 p.m. tomorrow

TV: Chs. 45, 5

Radio: 1090 AM

Weather: Forecasts call for scattered showers and temperatures in the 60s at game time. The stadium has a retractable roof.

Line: Patriots by 12.

Series record: Patriots lead 5-3.

Last meeting: Patriots won, 38-35, on Dec. 29 in East Rutherford, N.J.

THE ENTERTAINMENT

Pre-game: Alicia Keys, nine-time Grammy Award winner.

National anthem: Jordin Sparks, youngest American Idol winner.

Halftime: Tom Petty and the Heartbreakers, Rock and Roll Hall of Famers.

Post-game: Fox will air a special episode of House.

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