A few Mondays ago, one of the unlikeliest of sports achievements has finally been realized. Across the Atlantic, Leicester City Football Club overcame steep odds to win the Premier League title and become champions of England for the first time in the club’s 132-year history.
In a sport where glory has become dictated more by the wealth of the clubs’ owners than much else, the Foxes’ triumph had all the makings of a Cinderella story culminating with the perfect ending. They stood in last place in the league on Christmas Day the previous season (almost the halfway point in the season; usually a harbinger of relegation), earned 22 of a possible 24 standings points in the team’s final eight matches of the season to rise from last place to finish 14th in the league, endured a racist sex tape scandal in the offseason involving three players (including the then-manager’s son), all of whom (plus the manager himself) were terminated, hired a manager that had been fired from Greece’s national team after an embarrassing loss the previous year, has spent the fourth-least amount of money in the league on player salaries, and, as has been mentioned repeatedly by nearly everyone following this story, faced 5,000-to-1 odds to win the Premier League.
As Leicester City approached clinching the title, the sports media in the United States began to take notice. Talking heads on TV and the radio began mentioning what the club had been doing in passing. SportsCenter showed their highlights more often (although, like most mainstream soccer coverage in the States, it was still scant compared to the major sports here). ESPN began showing their scores on their BottomLine ticker; the space for soccer scores is normally normally reserved for notable European league matches, and added more details about their matches as winning the title became more and more likely.
And eventually they did it. After Tottenham failed to keep up in the title race after a 2-2 draw with Chelsea, Leicester City clinched the title. As many Americans are wont to do (including yours truly!) when a soccer story or event gets our attention, many have tried to put the 5,000-to-1 championship odds that Leicester City faced at the beginning of the season in perspective for American sports fans unfamiliar with soccer by comparing this to a similar hypothetical in American sports.
As it turns out, that task is virtually impossible in modern times when you look at the championship odds of even the bottom-feeders in the respective American sports leagues. At the time of this writing, the Cleveland Browns have the longest odds of any NFL team to win Super Bowl LI at 200-to-1. In October of last year, the Philadelphia 76ers, a team in the throes of a years-long rebuilding process, were tied with the Charlotte Hornets with having 350-to-1 odds to win the NBA Finals. The 1999 St. Louis Rams are pointed to as the most likely comparison, having finished 4-12 the previous year and having had its projected starting quarterback suffer a season-ending injury shortly before the start of the season, but even their odds were still just 300-to-1 before they went on to win Super Bowl XXXIV, and it’s this victory that is said to have changed the way that the Vegas sportsbooks determine future odds so that few teams, if any, could have preseason odds much steeper than 200-to-1 in the NFL. Outside of the hypothetical of a minor league team joining one of the Big Four sports leagues and winning its respective title, there really is no comparison in pro sports to what Leicester City achieved this season.
And when you really think of it, it makes all the sense in the world, not only because of the enforced parity measures in many American sports such as amateur drafts where worse teams get priority, the salary cap, and the luxury tax, but also because of the differing season formats and how each league determines its champion.
In many American sports, to have a chance at winning a league championship, a team must qualify for the playoffs. The truly elite teams in each league usually have very little difficulty qualifying for the playoffs, but those teams that are on a tier or two below the elite might have to work harder to get in. But once the playoff field is set, the teams start with a clean slate and only need to win as few as three or four single-elimination games (in the NFL) and as many as 16 (in the NBA and NHL) games in best-of-seven playoff series. With elimination from the playoffs hinging on such small margins, it is understood that the teams that play well in the playoffs might have not necessarily had the best records in their league. Thus, a team could still have a decent shot at winning the title by getting hot at the right time even if it didn’t perform as well as the elite teams in the same season. And for those expected to struggle mightily in the league, a surprisingly-good season could theoretically give them just as much of a shot at a title as the alpha dogs. Because more teams have a realistic shot at winning a championship in sports with playoffs (especially in the NFL, when a team’s championship fortunes can turn “on any given Sunday”), there tends to be less variance in Vegas future odds in these leagues.
In many soccer leagues in the world, the team that finishes the regular season at the top of the standings is the league champion. No playoff is needed, as each team plays each other in a double round robin format, home and away. Because the United States is such a large country and teams are normally divided by geography (and thus play the teams nearest to them ore often than those farther), each team’s record does not accurately reflect their quality relative to the rest of the league (in other words, a team with the best record might have simply played weaker teams more often than some of the other teams with good-but-not-great records in another conference or division; see the 2009-10 Washington Capitals as an example). Many European countries (except for Russia) are smaller, with cities and clubs closer to each other than in the United States, which eliminates the need for geographic divisions at the highest level, so a team’s final record is representative of their quality of play over the course of the season. Add the imbalance of resources among football clubs in England (and in most other countries in the footballing world) and winning a league title becomes one of the most difficult achievements in sports. Leicester City needed to prove over a span of 38 games to be better than 19 other clubs, some of which had spent as much as four times as the Foxes did on player salaries and anywhere between three and eight times as much on bringing in new players.
Even in college sports where the fan culture and traditions most closely mirror world football, even the teams with the longest odds still had better odds than Leicester City apparently had. In college football, the major American sport with arguably the most significant regular season, Heading into this past college football season, nine teams had the longest odds of any Division I FBS school to win the College Football Playoff championship at 500-to-1. One could say that the odds do not include very many schools in the lower-tier FBS conferences due to the assumed exclusivity of CFP bids, since such teams could win every game on their schedule and not get a bid due to playing a weaker schedule than the bigger schools. Even betting those teams wouldn’t be wise, as Vegas had “the field” listed as 65-to-1 underdogs.
Surprisingly, heading into this past season, Division I college basketball had the only instances of four-digit future odds to win the NCAA Tournament at 1,000-to-1, even considering that college basketball has been criticized recently for having a relatively meaningless regular season. Theoretically, a team could lose every regular season game prior to their conference tournament (provided that their conference allows every team not already banned from postseason play due to NCAA violations to compete in their conference tournament), win the four or five consecutive games necessary to win said tournament (and thus earn an automatic bid to the NCAA Tournament) and in turn win six or seven in a row en route to cutting down the nets in celebration of a national championship. This, of course, is an extreme example that has never actually happened, but several teams have sneaked into the Big Dance and made deep runs, upsetting basketball powers along the way, so such a triumph would not be unheard of, and just like in the example with the St. Louis Rams, such a shocker could lead Vegas to reconsider its odds formulas.
On Saturday, the Premier League championship trophy finally made its way to King Power Stadium where Leicester City celebrated its title in front of its home fans. This moment capped a season that will be remembered in world football lore for the rest of time, and looking back at that 5,000-to-1 number, many are arguing that the Foxes are the most unlikely champions in sports history and will likely remain so for years to come. Might that be because managers and talking heads will now be on the lookout for “the next Leicester City” and be prepared when this happens? Is it because the obscene amount of money coming in to Premier League clubs from the TV contract is tightening the gap between the haves and the have-nots in the league? Is it because bookmakers will now want to revise their handicapping methods to guard themselves from another big cashout?
Maybe it’s best that we not try to overthink the greater significance of this title, or compare it to the title chances of another team in another country. If the Cleveland Browns won next year’s Super Bowl, would it really matter to that fanbase and that organization that bookmakers thought that they were 25 times more likely to win its respective title (and thus, make its title 25 times less significant) than a club in a completely different sport and league structure? It’s almost as if these comparisons are implicitly saying, “If Leicester did it, what’s the Browns’ excuse?” while completely missing out on the context of each team’s struggle. And I somewhat feel guilty of contributing to this as well by writing this piece. Sometimes when we get caught up in all the numbers, we lose sight of some of the other reasons why we watch sports: it’s because there’s a chance we could see somebody achieve an amazing feat on any given day.
Leicester City Football Club achieved something amazing in 2015-16 regardless of context, and their now-elated fans are not particularly concerned with whether their triumph is indicative of anything larger right now. Maybe we, too, should just sit back and enjoy it for what it is.