Those long-lowly Royals are America’s new “it team.”
The nation is speaking, voting online, buying blue. Its sports sages are writing that Kansas City’s baseball franchise has become the popular choice of fans whose teams are out of championship contention.
And a decent stack of research supports the leading theory as to why that may be.
Studies call it the underdog effect. After 29 years of missing out on postseason play, our boys in blue are being viewed, say the scientists and pundits, in a light similar to how millions of Americans view themselves:
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A 2014 incarnation, maybe, of the racehorse Seabiscuit. Flyover country’s own Rocky Balboa or the plucky Hobbits of Middle-earth.
The Harry Truman of “Dewey Defeats Truman.” The Butler Bulldogs of NCAA Final Four showdowns past.
“People love the underdog story,” said sports psychologist Christian End of Xavier University. “It’s about effort. It’s about justice. It’s a storyline pitched to us over and over again.”
It is not that the Baltimore Orioles — the Royals’ rival in the American League Championship Series beginning Friday in Baltimore — rank among baseball’s privileged overlords. They haven’t gone to a World Series since 1983.
But their payroll is $15 million higher than that of the Royals. Also, the Orioles have faced performance-enhancement issues and basked this year atop the vaunted Eastern Division with its Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees.
Whatever the reason, respondents to an online ESPN poll say they would rather root, root, root for the Royals.
It’s not even close. Of more than 100,000 votes cast, 68 percent prefer Kansas City over Baltimore in the ALCS.
The Royals pull majority support in 47 states. They rock in California (69 percent favoring the Royals) despite teams in Los Angeles and Oakland falling to our Wild Card bunch in the postseason. The Orioles prevail only in Virginia, Delaware and home state Maryland.
Detroit Tigers fan Rick Grieve, who studies sports fan behavior at Western Kentucky University, has climbed aboard what he called “the Royals bandwagon” in part because he’s as much a sucker for underdogs as anybody.
But he also said baseball fans of all stripes are mindful of how the small-market Royals got here.
“By doing it sort of the pure way, developing young talent and being patient,” Grieve said. “People appreciate a little more the things in life that take time.”
The Royals are “not high-rollers like the Yankees, paying their way to get the top stars,” he said.
Case in point: His Tigers late in the season acquired Cy Young Award-winning pitcher David Price from the Tampa Bay Rays. Meanwhile, the Royals tapped a Texas kid named Brandon Finnegan, 21, who in June had still been pitching in college.
After some shaky late-season outings, Price and his Tigers were swept by Baltimore in the playoffs.
Finnegan, on the other hand, has emerged as a postseason phenom. Could he not as well be your naive, starry-eyed nephew?
The Los Angeles Times declared the Royals “destiny’s darlings” and even “America’s team” at the start of the divisional series with the home-team Angels early this month.
Since then, sales of Royals merchandise have exploded.
Among postseason teams over the past week, the Royals are second only to the Dodgers in merchandise sales through mlb.com/shop, said Matt Bourne, a publicist for Major League Baseball.
At Fanatics.com, the nation’s largest online retailer of licensed sports merchandise, Royals sales have led all other MLB teams’ gear since Oct. 1, the day after Kansas City’s thrilling victory over Oakland in the Wild Card Game.
A hero of that 12-inning contest, first baseman Eric Hosmer, has zoomed up the Fanatics.com charts and become the third-most popular player among consumers seeking jerseys and other athlete-specific stuff.
Some academics suspect the come-from-behind excitement of the Wild Card Game created a broad new landscape of fans for “America’s team.”
Human physiology could have played a role.
Tight, action-packed games “create this emotional arousal” in spectators partly because of endorphins and adrenaline flooding through the nervous system, said Oregon State University marketing professor Colleen Bee.
She is among researchers who have tracked fans’ reaction to sporting events when one side is cast as “underdogs” or “heroes” and the other is designated “top dogs” or “villains.”
But a magnificent game can boost admiration for both kinds of teams, she said. And in the case of the nationally televised Wild Card Game, only the Royals advanced.
The underdog effect is buoyed by other factors, including one called “emotional economics.”
Economists, of course, stand behind the theory: Selecting a team to root for involves a simple but unconsious cost-benefit analysis.
“The underdog is a very safe bet,” said Murray State University professor (and longtime Royals fan) Daniel Wann. “If they win, the emotional benefit is huge.
“But they’re not supposed to win. So you, as a fan, have an excuse if they fail. There’s not much of an emotional cost to that.”
Yet another area of inquiry: Are fans cheering for the underdog, or are they really rooting against the top dog?
According to a 2005 paper by University of South Florida researchers who analyzed student subjects, “support for the underdog was found to be more extreme than rooting against the top dog.” So that settles that.
Still, The Wall Street Journal has pushed the anti-top-dog theory to new empirical dimensions with its “Hateability Index.”
When the 10 postseason teams were determined at the end of September, the newspaper scored each club’s hateability based on payroll, past pennant success, Sports Illustrated covers, substance abuse problems, even the players’ “excessive beards.”
The Journal rated the St. Louis Cardinals as the most hateable.
The Royals were rated the least.
All about you
All in all, scientists think that the underdog effect is a function of fans seeing themselves in the teams they choose to support.
You, the fan, are an underdog in life. You work hard to scrap out a living.
Society’s top dogs get all the acclaim and rewards, but they’re really no more deserving than you.
“When good things happen to your team, it reflects well on yourself,” said Grieve of Western Kentucky University. “Especially if you went with the underdog.”
The phenomenon extends beyond sports.
A 2009 study published in the Journal of Consumer Research found that “underdog branding” is effective in marketing products and services ranging from Avis Rent A Car (“We’re number two, but we try harder”) to the blockbuster series of books and films about Harry Potter, a gifted orphan who grew up in a closet.
“Consumers react positively when they see the underdog aspects of their own lives being reflected in branded products,” researchers from the Harvard Business School wrote.
But let’s step back.
Maybe the Royals aren’t the underdogs we think.
Just who is an underdog, and who isn’t?
That’s the question pondered in the recent book “David and Goliath” by Malcolm Gladwell.
The Bible’s account of the young shepherd slaying the mighty Philistine is widely misunderstood, Gladwell contends. The nimble David had his sling, which in an instant could put down a lumbering and perhaps medically disadvantaged warrior saddled with armor, a sword and heavy shield.
That David won should be no surprise.
“David was a slinger,” Gladwell writes, “and slingers beat infantry, hands down.”