One of the strongest drivers of interest in sports is the concept of parity. We love to see the underdog win, but rarely watch if there isn't at least a perceived notion that it could actually happen.
In some sports, equal competition isn't always easy to find and David will rarely sneak up on Goliath. Thanks to our hunger for the downfall of the villain and our thirst for the feel-good rise of the "little guy" we may be seeking out upsets in places where they don't exist.
The Miracle on Ice is often referred to as the standard by which Americans define the upset in sports. The story of the 1980 United States Olympic hockey team is well documented and even has it's own movie -- a great one at that. An entire country of good-guy Americans taking down the communist bad-guys from the Soviet in their own sport. It was like walking into Michael Jordan's house and beating him at a game of one-on-one. Add in some lingering political tension combined with the historical dominance by the Soviets in hockey, and the cumulative layers and subplots defined the upset better than any one part.
There have been other notable upsets over the past twenty years as well, but most drop the side-show stories for a true statistical upset. Most times in sports we look to the rankings or seeds to decide what is an upset.
The 1994 opening round upset of the top-seeded Seattle SuperSonics by the eight-seed Denver Nuggets was something we didn't expect. But then the LA Kings took the entire hockey world by storm and rode their eight-seed all the way to the Stanley Cup this year -- a pure upset story.
When Kent State took down the top-seeded Florida Gators to reach the College World Series this year, "upset" was too small an expression to capture the moment for many. The Gators had history and the top seed. Kent State had neither. But what they both had were nearly identical records.
After downing the Gators, the Golden Flashes held an impressive record of 47-19. Florida? 47-20. Is that really that much of an upset?
One of the more controversial events of late, the Tim Bradley/Manny Pacquiao fight left a large majority of fans, well -- upset. The split-decision had heads spinning and screams for heads to roll as almost everyone declared Pacquiao the victor. The judges saw it differently but the controversy hasn't ended.
Whether Pacquiao actually defeated Bradley is up for debate, but what about the upset-factor? What if Bradley would have clearly taken down Manny -- would it have been an upset?
Bradley with a record of 29-0 and Pacquiao sitting on a resume' of 54-4-2. History, numbers, and hype may point to Manny Pacquiao, but a man with a record of nearly thirty-and-zero is tough to paint as an underdog.
Try the NC State basketball team that won the 1983 national championship over an unstoppable Houston squad. Or the New York Giants taking down the undefeated Patriots in Super Bowl forty-two on a ridiculous play by Eli Manning and David Tyree -- that kind of big. Appalachian State over Michigan, James Madison over Virginia Tech, George Mason to the Final Four, or Butler to the championship game -- twice -- that kind of upset.
Our culture throws around hyperbole like kids used to throw around a baseball in their free time. Everything is epic, awesome, and unbelievable. And in the world of sports fanatics, the craving for a good story has mixed seamlessly with the culture of superlatives.
It's time to step back, evaluate, and take back the true meaning of a true underdog accomplishment.
It's time to redefine the upset.
How do you define an upset in sports?
Justin Mikels is a staff writer for Operation Sports. You can follow him on Twitter @long_snapper.