In sports, the terms Cinderella, "Cinderella story", and Cinderella team are used to refer to situations in which competitors achieve far greater success than would reasonably have been expected. Cinderella stories tend to gain much media and fan attention as they move closer to the championship game at the end of the tournament. The term comes from Cinderella, a well-known European folk tale embodying a myth-element of unjust oppression/triumphant reward. The title character is a woman living in unfortunate circumstances that are suddenly changed to remarkable fortune. In a sporting context the term has been used at least since 1939, but came into widespread usage in 1950, when the Disney movie came out that year, and in reference to City College of New York, the unexpected winners of the NCAA Men's Basketball championship also that year. The term was used by Bill Murray in the 1980 hit movie Caddyshack where he pretends as the announcer to his own golf fantasy: "Cinderella story. Outta nowhere. A former greenskeeper, now, about to become the Masters champion."
Referring somewhat inaccurately to the plot details of the classic Cinderella story, the media will debate whether the given "Cinderella" team or player will "turn into a pumpkin", i.e. fail to win the prize and then return to its former obscurity. In the fairy tale, it was the carriage that turned into a pumpkin at midnight, not Cinderella herself. Another popular term is "strike midnight", when a Cinderella team does finally get beaten.
Prior to the widespread use of "Cinderella" in this way, the more common term for unexpected and dramatic success was "Miracle", as in the "Miracle Braves" of 1914, the "Miracle of Coogan's Bluff" in 1951, the "Miracle Mets" of 1969, and the "Miracle on Ice" in 1980.
Cinderella teams are also referred to as a surprise package or surprise packet, and their success would be termed a fairy-tale run. A related concept is the giant-killer, which refers to a lesser competitor who defeats a favorite, reflecting the story of David and Goliath.
Examples of "Cinderellas"
Many teams are considered "Cinderella teams" when they seemingly overachieve. For example, the Tampa Bay Rays, and the Arizona Cardinals went all the way to their respective leagues' championships in 2008 only to "turn into a pumpkin" at the end. This list is largely confined to "Cinderella teams" that won championships.
- 1968 New York Jets – The AFL Jets, led by quarterback Joe Namath, beat the heavily favored NFL champion Baltimore Colts in Super Bowl III. Namath had shockingly guaranteed a Jets win before the game.
- 1980 Oakland Raiders – The Oakland Raiders became the first Wildcard Playoff Team to win the Super Bowl, defeating the Philadelphia Eagles, 27-10 in Super Bowl XV.
- 1999 St. Louis Rams – After losing starting quarterback Trent Green in the pre-season, many suspected the Rams' season was over. However, Green's undrafted backup and eventual NFL MVP Kurt Warner led the Rams to a 13-3 record. After defeating the Minnesota Vikings and Tampa Bay Buccaneers in the NFC playoffs, the Rams captured their first and only Super Bowl by defeating the Tennessee Titans 23-16 at Super Bowl XXXIV.
- 2007 New York Giants – In 2007, the 5th seeded Giants, who went 10-6 in the regular season, won four playoff games on the road, including wins over the Dallas Cowboys and Green Bay Packers, and culminating in a win over the 18-0 New England Patriots in Super Bowl 42. 3 of the 4 Giants' playoff victories were against teams they had lost to in the regular season (Cowboys twice). At the time, their 10-6 regular season record was tied for the worst record among teams to win the Super Bowl. Today, the only Super Bowl-winning team to have a worse regular season record is the 2011 New York Giants, who, after a 9-7 regular season, again defeated the Patriots in Super Bowl XLVI.
- Wake Forest Demon Deacons (2006) – Wake Forest won the Atlantic Coast Conference title after being picked by the media to finish last in their division, and after losing their starting quarterback, starting running back, and starting left offensive tackle to injuries. The team and star linebacker Jon Abbate became the subject of a 2011 feature film, The 5th Quarter.
- Boise State Broncos (2006) – In only their ninth year in Division 1-A (FBS) play, the Broncos staged a last-minute regulation rally and some trick plays to defeat perennial powerhouse Oklahoma Sooners in the 2007 Fiesta Bowl.
- Denmark (Euro 92) – Denmark won Euro 92 after originally failing to qualify. They qualified for the tournament after Yugoslavia, who had initially won the group, was the subject of United Nations sporting sanctions following its civil war. They advanced from the group stage after winning their last match against France and then through goalkeeper Peter Schmeichel saving a penalty in the semi-final penalty shoot-out from Marco van Basten of defending European champions, the Netherlands. They won the tournament by defeating reigning world champions Germany 2–0 in the final.
- Greece (Euro 2004) – Greece were the second-least favorite in the competition to win, with Latvia being the least favorite. Greece was also considered as outsiders and underdogs and was given odds of 150-1 of winning before the tournament. They were drawn in Group A, ending up with Portugal, Spain, and Russia, a "group of death"; Portugal, hosts and favourites to win, Spain, former European champions, and Russia, who won the first-ever Euro as the Soviet Union. Very few people expected Greece to proceed to the quarter-finals, let alone win the tournament. Greece won the final 1–0, defying odds of 80–1 from the beginning of the tournament, with Angelos Charisteas scoring the winning goal in the 57th minute. While the dedication of the side and the victory were celebrated by their nation, Greece were dubbed by Barry Glendenning of The Guardian as "the only underdogs in history that everyone wants to see get beaten", due to Greece's rough defensive strategy.
- Leicester City F.C. (2015–16 Premier League) – Leicester City became 2015–16 Premier League champions, the first in their 132-year history, two seasons after gaining promotion to the Premier League in which they narrowly avoided relegation on their return. Bookmakers had them at 5,000-1 odds to win the title and forced bookmakers to payout £25 million, which is the biggest loss on a sporting event in British history.
- New York Mets (1969) – The Mets won their first ever World Series title after beating the heavily favored 109-win Baltimore Orioles in the 1969 World Series; previously, the Mets had finished either last or next-to-last in the National League every year.
- Florida Marlins (2003) – The Marlins used a strong second half to win the World Series, after upsets against the San Francisco Giants, the Chicago Cubs, and the New York Yankees. The NLCS was especially memorable for the Marlins' rally and another Cubs collapse, as it extended the alleged Curse of the Billy Goat.
- Boston Red Sox (2004) – The 2004 Red Sox ended an 86-year World Series drought by winning eight straight games to come back from a 3-0 ALCS deficit against their rival New York Yankees. While most Cinderella teams come from relative obscurity to win a championship, the 2004 Red Sox won 98 regular season games and were a dominant team throughout the 2004 regular season. They did however beat a NY Yankees team which won 101 games, along with sweeping the St. Louis Cardinals who won a league best 105 regular season games. However, their Cinderella status was established after becoming the first Major League Baseball team to overcome a 3-0 deficit in a 7-game series and only the third team in Major American professional sports to achieve such a feat.
- Fresno State (2008) – In one of the more improbable Cinderella stories in American sports history, the Bulldogs surmounted a daunting array of obstacles on their way to the NCAA title. Fresno State had never won an NCAA championship in any men's sport going into the 2008 tournament. The Bulldogs entered the Western Athletic Conference tournament at 33-27; they would likely not have made the NCAA tournament without winning the WAC tournament, which they did. They subsequently played a total of six elimination games in their NCAA tournament run, winning all six.
- Boston Celtics (1969) – The Boston Celtics were coming off a championship against Jerry West, Elgin Baylor and the Los Angeles Lakers and superstar Center Bill Russell was heading into what would be his final year. The aging Celtics had won 10 of the previous 12 NBA Championships, but with offensive powerhouse Wilt Chamberlain joining the already powerful Lakers, it appeared as if the Celtics, who were practically limping into the Finals, would easily be taken care of the old squad. The Celtics fell into a quick 3-2 deficit but came back to force a Game 7 in Los Angeles, with Bill Russell calmly stating "One thing the Lakers cannot do, is beat us". With the Lakers preparing balloons and confetti for "when, not if, they win", the Celtics took inspiration from their arrogance and went on to win it with a key circus basket by Don Nelson that bounced high from the back of the rim before sailing through the net. The win sent Russell and fellow hall of famer Sam Jones to retirement as champions, with Russell winning his 11th championship and Jones his tenth.
- Houston Rockets (1995) – The Rockets were the 6th seeded team in the 1995 NBA Playoffs and managed to become the champions for the second straight year in the 1995 NBA Finals by sweeping Shaquille O'Neal and the Orlando Magic, setting playoff records for most games won on the road as well as defeating three 60-win teams en route to defending their championship.
- Texas Western Miners (1966) – Little-known Texas Western College (now the University of Texas at El Paso) advanced to the NCAA Championship Game where they defeated perennial powerhouse Kentucky 72-65 to win the school's only men's basketball national title to date. The Miners' championship is best remembered for the fact that the team utilized an all-black starting lineup versus Kentucky's still all-white squad. The team's story was subject of the 2006 film Glory Road.
- North Carolina State University Wolfpack (1983) – The Wolfpack defeated the heavily favored "Phi Slama Jama" Houston Cougars, led by future hall-of-famers Akeem Olajuwon and Clyde Drexler, 54-52 to win the NCAA Men's Tournament on Lorenzo Charles' last second dunk.
- Villanova Wildcats (1985) – The eighth-seeded Wildcats (unranked in the final AP poll) beat defending champion and ten-point-favorite Georgetown, who had already beaten Villanova twice in the regular season. The Wildcat squad remains the only eighth-seed and the lowest overall seed in tournament history to win the championship.
- 1989 Saskatchewan Roughriders – The Roughriders finished the season with a 9-9 record and made an improbable run to the 77th Grey Cup. The team went into the playoffs on a three-game losing streak, but upset the 10-8 Calgary Stampeders 33-26 in the West Division Semi-Final before upsetting the heavily favoured Edmonton Eskimos (who finished the season with a 16-2 record) in the West Division Final, 32-21. This victory set up the Grey Cup game against the 12-6 Hamilton Tiger-Cats. Dave Ridgway's 26-yard field goal in the final minute gave the Riders a 43-40 victory, along with the franchise's first Grey Cup championship since 1966.
- Chicago Black Hawks (1938) – The Black Hawks would struggle with a 14-25-9 record. However, they earned a playoff spot, and in the first series, took on the Montreal Canadiens. Although they lost the first game of the series, The Hawks would win the next two games including a shocker 3–2 OT victory at Montreal. Then, they faced the New York Americans. Like the first series, the Hawks would drop the opening game, before winning the next two games. In the Stanley Cup Finals, they took on the Toronto Maple Leafs. The Black Hawks won the first game before dropping the second game. Then the Hawks won the next two games to take home their 2nd Stanley Cup. They are considered the biggest Cinderella story in NHL history and they became the first pro sports team to win a championship with a losing record.
- United States men's national ice hockey team (1980) – The American team, consisting entirely of amateur and collegiate players, won the Olympic gold medal. Along the way, they defeated the Soviet Union, considered the best hockey team in the world at the time, by a score of 4-3 in a medal round game, an event known as the Miracle on Ice and widely considered to be the greatest U.S. sports achievement of the 20th century.
- Los Angeles Kings (2012) – The first eight seed of a conference to win the Stanley Cup. The Kings entered the 2012 Stanley Cup playoffs despite finishing with 95 points. In the first round, they defeated the first overall seed and Presidents' Trophy winning Vancouver Canucks in five games. They proceeded to sweep the second seed St. Louis Blues and eliminate the third seed Phoenix Coyotes in 5 games, going undefeated on the road in all 3 rounds. They started the finals against the New Jersey Devils by winning the first three games of the series. They lost games four and five to the Devils before winning game six and their first ever Stanley Cup championship in Los Angeles.
- Brawn GP – Prior to the 2009 Formula One season, Honda Racing F1 announced their withdrawal from Formula 1. It had been a fully factory supported team that had achieved lacklustre results despite a $300 million budget and staff of 700. A few weeks before the season was about to start, the team was subject to a management buyout by Ross Brawn and chief executive Nick Fry and was subsequently rebranded as Brawn GP. The team were not expected to be competitive following the loss of 270 jobs, necessary to ensure the teams survival and having only three cars available as opposed to eight in better funded teams. The team began its season with Jenson Button and Rubens Barrichello scoring a 1–2 victory respectively with Button starting from pole. The team then won 5 of the 6 following races, all by Button before the well funded and factory supported opposition began to catch-up. By the end of the season, two further victories from Barrichello was enough for the team to take the Constructor's Championship. Button won the driver's title.
- Connacht (2015–16) – Traditionally the "weak sister" of Ireland's four provincial sides, having nearly been shuttered by the Irish Rugby Football Union in 2004 and never finishing higher than seventh in Pro12 prior to 2015–16, Connacht finished the home-and-away season level on points with traditional power Leinster atop the table (with Leinster claiming the top play-off seed on a tiebreaker) and went on to claim their first-ever title with a convincing win over Leinster in the final.
Examples of Cinderellas that did not win the championship
These Cinderellas made it to the finals in their respective leagues.
- Blyth Spartans (1977–78) – Blyth Spartans reached the last sixteen of the FA Cup, after starting in the first qualifying round of the competition, nine rounds prior. They became only the third non-league side to reach the FA Cup fifth round since the end of the second World War. The side was composed of part-time players earning £7 per week. They were eventually knocked out by Wrexham, following a replay at St James' Park.
- Barnsley (2008) – Barnsley advanced to the semi-finals of the FA Cup after knocking out Liverpool and Chelsea, two of the top clubs in English football, in the last two rounds. However, they lost the semi-finals to Cardiff City.
- Colorado Rockies (2007) - On September 16, the Rockies had a record of 76-72 and were 4 1/2 games out of the NL Wild Card. However, Colorado went on a hot streak, winning 14 of their last 15 games of the season to force a one-game playoff for the wild card berth, which they won in 13 innings. Back-to-back sweeps of the Philadelphia Phillies in the NLDS and the Arizona Diamondbacks in the NLCS gave the Rockies their first ever pennant. However, the team's fortune then ended, as they were swept in the World Series by the Boston Red Sox.
- Tampa Bay Rays (2008) – The Rays were the long-time doormats of the American League East, having lost at least 91 games in each of their 10 years of existence. After a 66-96 campaign in 2007, the Rays broke out in 2008, compiling a 97-65 record to clinch the AL East title. They went on to beat the Chicago White Sox in the ALDS and the Boston Red Sox in a seven-game ALCS, but lost the World Series in five games to the Philadelphia Phillies—the city of Philadelphia had a championship after 25 years.
- Kansas City Royals (2014) - The Royals, who had not qualified for the postseason since 1985, won the Wild Card Game against the Oakland Athletics through two late-inning comebacks to advance to the ALDS. From there, they swept the Los Angeles Angels and the Baltimore Orioles in the ALCS to reach the World Series, which they lost in seven games to the San Francisco Giants.
- Loyola Marymount University (1990) – After averaging an NCAA record 122 points per game, the Lions lost senior leader, and former scoring and rebounding champion, Hank Gathers, to a heart condition as he died on the court. However, the Lions fought their way to the Elite Eight where they lost to eventual champion UNLV Rebels. Their run included defeating defending national champion Michigan 149-115.
- Macedonian men's national team, Eurobasket 2011. FYR of Macedonia hadn't had any success in basketball before and were considered one of weaker teams of the tournament. In group stages they unexpectedly beat Greece, Croatia and Slovenia and advanced to playoffs. In the quarterfinal they were considered underdogs against hosts Lithuania, but they managed to defeat the Baltic team 67-65 in one of the biggest upsets of the tournament. Macedonia finished fourth with a record of 6 wins and 4 losses only losing in double digits to Spain.
- Phoenix Suns (1976 NBA Finals) – Despite entering the playoffs with only a 42–40 record, the Suns would upset the defending champion Golden State Warriors to enter the NBA Finals against the Boston Celtics. Despite giving the Celtics a triple-overtime thriller in Game 5, the Suns would lose to the eventual champion Celtics 4 games to 2. That season's team was given the nickname of the "Sunderella Suns".
- New York Knicks (1999 NBA Finals) – The Knicks became the only eighth-seeded team to make it to the NBA Finals, before losing to the eventual champion San Antonio Spurs, 4 games to 1.
- RIT Tigers (2009–2010) In their fifth season of Division I play, the RIT Tigers won the Atlantic Hockey Tournament, receiving their first bid to an NCAA Men's Hockey Tournament. They defeated #1 Denver and #3 University of New Hampshire in the East Regional in Albany, New York to make it to the Frozen Four. They were the only team to make it to the Frozen Four in their first NCAA tournament appearance, as well as the only Atlantic Hockey team to make it to the Frozen Four. They lost to Wisconsin in the Frozen Four semifinals.
- Carolina Hurricanes (2002 Stanley Cup Finals) – Though the Hurricanes were seeded third as a division winner, having won the Southeast Division, in actuality they had the second-lowest point total (91) and the lowest win total (35) for a playoff team not only in the Eastern Conference, but also the whole NHL. However, they defeated the New Jersey Devils, the Montreal Canadiens, and the Toronto Maple Leafs all in six games, to reach the Stanley Cup Finals for the first time, where they lost to the Detroit Red Wings in five games.
- Edmonton Oilers (2006 Stanley Cup Finals) - The eighth seed of the Western Conference upset the Presidents' Trophy winning Detroit Red Wings in six games in round one of the 2006 playoffs, then came back from a 2-0 series deficit to defeat the San Jose Sharks in six games in round two. After this, they beat the Mighty Ducks of Anaheim in just five games in the Western Conference Final, becoming the first eighth-seeded team to ever reach the Stanley Cup Finals and were on to their seventh championship, where they played the Eastern Conference Champion Carolina Hurricanes. The Hurricanes won three of the first four games to take a 3-1 series lead, but the Oilers won the next two to force a winner-take-all game seven in Carolina. However, the Oilers' luck finally ran out and they lost the game 3-1, giving the Hurricanes their first Stanley Cup.
- Philadelphia Flyers (2010 Stanley Cup Finals) – The Flyers, inconsistent for much of the season and battling injuries that left them at one point starting their 4th choice goaltender (Johan Backlund), qualified for the playoffs in the final game of the season in a shootout against their rival New York Rangers. As the seventh seed, the Flyers upset rivals and Atlantic Division champions, the New Jersey Devils in five games in the first round. In the second round, the Flyers defeated the Boston Bruins in seven games, in the process becoming only the fourth team in sports history to win a series in which they had trailed 3-0 at one point. In the conference final, they needed just five games to beat the eighth-seeded Montreal Canadiens, who had been on something of a Cinderella run themselves; the Canadiens had defeated the top seeded Washington Capitals and defending champion Pittsburgh Penguins. In the Finals, the Flyers lost in overtime to the Chicago Blackhawks in six games, who won their first Stanley Cup in 49 years.
- In 2004, the North Queensland Cowboys reached the finals for the first time in their 10-year history. Finishing seventh at the end of the regular season, the Cowboys were drawn against the second-placed Bulldogs in the first week of the finals and pulled off a major upset by winning 30–22. They followed this up with a 10–0 defeat of the Brisbane Broncos on their home ground; this marked the first time the Cowboys had defeated the Broncos in their history. However their run would be ended with a close 19–16 defeat by the Sydney Roosters in the preliminary final.
- In 2005, the Wests Tigers, in just their sixth season of existence, won the premiership. They had never previously made the finals in five seasons and had been as low as 12th on the NRL ladder by the middle of the season. However, they were able to find some good form in the second half of the season to eventually finish the regular season 4th on the ladder. In their first ever finals match, the Tigers scored a big 50–6 victory over the previous year's Cinderella story, the North Queensland Cowboys. This was followed up with a 34–6 victory over the Brisbane Broncos in the second week before going on to upset the premiership favourites St. George Illawarra 20–12 in the preliminary final. This advanced the Wests Tigers to their first ever Grand Final, which was dubbed the "Battle of the Cinderellas", as their opponents were the North Queensland Cowboys who fell one game short of the decider in 2004 but went one better in 2005. The Tigers would then win the Grand Final 30–16 and complete their own Cinderella fairytale.
- Twelve months after finishing last in 2009, and seemingly being a club in disarray on and off the field, the Sydney Roosters, under veteran coach Brian Smith, conjured one of the greatest turnarounds in recent NRL history, finishing sixth at the end of the 2010 NRL season and proceeding to reach the Grand Final, in which they had the chance to become the first team since the Western Suburbs Magpies in 1933–34 to rise from wooden spooners to premiers in the space of twelve months but lost to the St George Illawarra Dragons. Star recruit Todd Carney, who spent most of the previous year in exile after being sacked by the Canberra Raiders in 2008, won the Dally M Medal in the lead-up to that season's finals series for his outstanding comeback season.
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