Published online 3 January 2006 | Nature | doi:10.1038/news060102-1


Underdogs fare better in soccer

English football produces more surprises than American sports.

The underdog is more likely to win soccer matches in the English premier league.The underdog is more likely to win soccer matches in the English premier league.© Getty Originals

English soccer is more exciting than any of the main American team sports - and it’s a team of US scientists who say so1.

Eli Ben-Naim of Los Alamos National Laboratory in New Mexico and his colleagues say that soccer matches in the English premier league are more likely to produce upsets, with the underdog winning, than matches in the major leagues of American football, baseball, hockey and basketball.

Major League baseball has the next greatest number of unexpected results, the researchers say. American football is the most predictable of the sports they studied.

The team of physicists analysed more than 300,000 games played over the course of a century in the five different sports. They looked at how results compared with the past performance (over the season) of the two teams in each match.

Time for an upset


A sport's 'upset probability' is calculated from the number of times that the team with the worse record wins. The larger this quantity is, the more evenly matched the teams are - in other words, the more competitive the league is.

They find that, since records began - before 1890, in the case of English football - the chances of an upset have been consistently greater in English soccer than any of the American sports. The underdog wins 45% of the time in soccer, but just 36% of the time in American football.

Distressingly for soccer fans, however, league games in England have become steadily more predictable since the 1940s. This suggests that the top teams are getting stronger at the expense of weaker ones. The same is happening in US basketball. So give it a while and, who knows, the American footballers might end up with the better games.