What Is An Upset In Sports?

What Is An Upset In Sports

By the time the playoffs come around at the end of any given sports season, it is clear which teams have the best chance at winning and which teams are less likely to win. An upset occurs when a team that is clearly favored loses to a team that they should have easily beaten, according to statistical evidence. Sports fans and commentators will often acknowledge that no matter how good or bad a team is during the regular season, anything can happen in the playoffs.

The Miracle on Ice

One notable international sports upset was when the United States ice hockey team defeated the USSR to reach the Olympic championship game in the 1980 Olympic Games. The USSR team had won gold at the previous four Olympics and had defeated the United States in each of their 12 previous matchups, outscoring them 117-26. 

Even within the semi-final game when the U.S. defeated the USSR, the USSR team led in nearly every statistical category. The USSR had 39 shots on 52 shot attempts, while the U.S. had just 16 shots on 25 shot attempts. 

U.S. goaltender Jim Craig saved 36 of the 39 shots (allowing only three goals) for a .923 save percentage, and the U.S. team used their youthful speed and perhaps unprecedented conditioning to score four goals and win the game. This was a notable upset because the USSR was the statistically better team, but the U.S. managed to win the game and eliminate the opposing team from the tournament.

North-American Record-Setting Teams

In Major League Baseball (MLB), the National Hockey League (NHL), and the National Basketball Association (NBA), the winningest team in league history failed to win the league’s major championship. These resulted in some of the biggest sports upset stories of all time.  

2001 Seattle Mariners

In 2001, the Seattle Mariners broke the MLB record by winning 116 games. The Mariners advanced through the first round of the playoffs but were then defeated by the New York Yankees. This was not a huge upset, because the Yankees were already the three-time reigning World Series winners and had themselves won 95 games in the regular season to enter the postseason as the third-best team in baseball. However, the Mariners still would have expected to win, given that they had won the most games of any MLB team ever during the regular season.

2023 Boston Bruins

In the 2022-2023 season, the Boston Bruins broke the NHL record by winning 65 games. They were up 3-1 in the best-of-seven first-round series against the Florida Panthers, who squeaked into the playoffs as the second wild card team. However, the Bruins ultimately lost the last three games of the series and were eliminated. The Panthers had won only 42 games during the regular season and had struggled with poor goaltending and inconsistency, so very few people predicted that they would win the series, making it a true upset.

2016 Golden State Warriors

In the 2015-2016 season, the Golden State Warriors broke the NBA regular-season record, winning 73 games and losing only nine. In that year's NBA finals, the Warriors faced the Cleveland Cavaliers and initially led the best-of-seven series 3-1. Due to their record-breaking stats and significant lead, the California-based franchise was heavily favored to win the championship. However the LeBron-led Cavaliers made one of the biggest upsets in NBA history, ultimately winning games 5, 6, and 7.