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During March Madness, fans seek a Cinderella story

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Most college fans would be hard-pressed to tell you anything about the Eastern Kentucky basketball team.

The school from just south of Lexington has no All-Americans on its roster. The coach isn't famous and the fight song isn't particularly catchy.

But when the NCAA tournament begins later this week, don't be surprised if people start paying attention to — and rooting for — the Colonels.

The reason is simple. As forward Deverin Muff says: "They want to see us upset a big school."

March Madness gets much of its excitement and unpredictability from the underdog. With 68 teams in a bracket that matches top seeds against lower-ranked — and lesser-known — opponents, no other sporting event offers so many chances for David to slay Goliath.

That makes for dramatic television and cutthroat office pools. Just as important, underdogs personify one of our favorite cultural beliefs: With enough grit, anyone can succeed.

"We're talking about the concept of the Cinderella," says Annemarie Farrell, an Ithaca College professor who studies fan behavior. "It focuses on American ideology."

This year's lineup of potential giant-killers includes Wofford, Milwaukee, Coastal Carolina and North Dakota State.

Like Eastern Kentucky, they earned their place in the tournament by finishing atop their small, out-of-the-way conferences. Now they will face the likes of Florida, Duke and Kansas, schools with championship pedigrees and much larger athletic budgets.

History suggests the favorites will prevail. But a series of early-round upsets over the last decade has proven anything can happen.

Lehigh has knocked off Duke. Bucknell has defeated Kansas. Last year, Florida Gulf Coast and its "Dunk City" offense ran past Georgetown and became the first No. 15 seed to reach a regional semifinal, eventually earning the coach a job at USC.

"We remember those monumental upsets," said Rick Horrow, a sports business consultant. "The fans are looking for this year's big story."

Researchers at Bowling Green State University studied this dynamic in 1991, asking subjects to choose sides in a hypothetical sporting event. More than 80% preferred the team identified as the underdog.

That might explain the cheers heard in arenas nationwide come tournament time. With games held at neutral sites, where neither team has a home-court advantage, crowds often turn against the favorite.

Studies have suggested several reasons for this.

Some people root against a heavy favorite simply because they don't want to see a lopsided game.

"Fans are smart that way. They understand how to get the best bang for their buck," said Daniel Wann, a psychology professor at Murray State. "Picking the obvious front-runner — there's not a whole lot of fun in that."

The underdog also represents a safe emotional investment. Wann explained: "If you lose, it was expected … you don't have as much at stake."

Other reasons for liking the little guy run deeper in our collective psyche.

People who face challenges in their lives can relate to a team fighting an uphill battle. When the underdog prevails, research has shown, spectators feel more optimistic about their own prospects.

On a broader scale, upset victories strike a familiar chord with a culture raised on Horatio Alger stories and "Rocky" movies. Americans like to think of their nation as a meritocracy where success is determined by hard work, not status or birthright.

As a kid, Jordan Adams watched George Mason make its unexpected run to the 2006 Final Four. He recalls cheering for the Virginia school — which compensated for a lack of NBA talent with balanced scoring — because it could "come in and shock the world."

Now that Adams plays for UCLA — which, despite its recent struggles, still ranks as a traditional powerhouse — he has experienced the flip side, the disdain for favorites.

"If you have our four letters on your chest," he said, "you have a big target on your back."

The appeal of the underdog is not the only reason for the tournament's success. CBS paid more than $10.8 billion for broadcast rights through 2024 because the event fills a gap in the calendar between the NFL and NBA playoffs.

Television loves a win-or-go-home format that squeezes dozens of tense games and ample storyline into three weeks. Horrow calls it "the ultimate reality television."

March Madness has also benefited from the explosion of office and Internet pools. This year, with an estimated 50 million workers filling out brackets and following their picks on company time, U.S. businesses could lose $1.2 billion in productivity, according to Challenger, Gray & Christmas, a global outplacement firm.

That's where our love of the underdog becomes complex. "Conflicted fans," as Wann calls them, root for an upset so long as it doesn't spoil their chances of taking the pot.

Support for the little guy wanes even more as the tournament progresses.

One or two dark-horse teams in the Final Four is acceptable, but fans — especially those who do not watch the sport closely during the regular season — ultimately gravitate toward familiar faces.

"The big-name players are the stories that people have followed throughout the year," Horrow said. "I think you're hoping for a mix, and that often happens."

This blend of old and new has propelled March Madness into the national spotlight.

Experts point to 1979 as a turning point. The championship matchup between Magic Johnson's powerful Michigan State and Larry Bird's upstart Indiana State still ranks as the most-watched college game ever.

Two decades later, Jeff Neubauer was an assistant for the No. 14 Richmond team that upset No. 3 South Carolina in the first round. People with no connection to his school were on their feet.

Now coaching at Eastern Kentucky, Neubauer hopes to generate that kind of emotion when the 15th-seeded Colonels face second-seeded Kansas on Friday at St. Louis, saying, "The crowd really does matter."

His team may not have celebrity status, but his players understand the power of the underdog.

"America loves a Cinderella story," Muff said. "We'll take the support however we can get it."

david.wharton@latimes.com

Twitter.com: @LATimesWharton

Copyright © 2014, Los Angeles Times
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