Sports Nut

5,000 to 1!

Just how slim was Leicester City’s slim chance of winning the English Premier League?

Leicester City players celebrate winning the Premier League title during a training session  at the Leicester City Training Ground on May 3, 2016 in Leicester, United Kingdom.
Leicester City players celebrate winning the Premier League title at the Leicester City Training Ground on Tuesday in Leicester, England.

Plumb Images/Leicester City FC via Getty Images

If you live in the United States, your odds of getting the flu this year are 1 in 8. If you seek relief at a hospital, and are admitted, the odds are 1 in 25 that you will go home with a new infection. That’s twice the chance, at 1 in 50, that Rick Santorum or George Pataki had of winning the Republican nomination for president, at least according to the English bookmaking firm William Hill in May of 2015. When you were born, your chance of greeting the world with an extra finger or toe was 1 in 500. Your chance this year of losing a finger, a toe, or a limb to which you are attached is, if you are an American, about 1 in 2,000. That’s roughly the chance you had in 2014 of being bitten, if you were a professional soccer player, by Uruguayan striker Luis Suárez. It’s also your chance of fatally slipping, if you are anyone, in a shower or bathtub. If you live in the United States, the likelihood you will be struck by lightning in your lifetime is 1 in 3,000. If you live on Earth, the likelihood your planet will be struck by the asteroid 1950 DA on March 16, 2880—a probability originally assessed at 1 in 300—has since been reassuringly reassessed to 1 in 4,000.

This is all to say that odds of 5,000 to 1 are steep indeed. And yet Leicester City Football Club, spectacularly, preposterously, wonderfully, has just beaten those odds and won the English Premier League. There is no analogue—not one, not by a long shot—in sporting history. Sportswriters, reaching for the usual cliché, have called Leicester’s a Cinderella story, but that would be true only if Cinderella were a one-eyed hunchback who spoke with a lisp and slurped her soup.

To bookmakers, odds of 5,000 to 1—which, to be technical, mean a probability of 1 in 5,001—are positively freakish. In recent years, William Hill has offered 5,000 to 1 on the chance that Barack Obama will play cricket for England after he vacates the White House. Also on the chance that Kim Kardashian will be elected one of his successors, specifically in 2020. Also that Ms. Kardashian and Kanye West will name their next child Sinner (which, if you ask me, seems a good deal likelier than their taking up residence at 1600 Pennsylvania Av.). In 1993, a William Hill branch in Hammersmith took a £250 bet from one Ciara Parkes, at 500 to 1, that Elvis was still alive—a line that Hill has since raised to 5,000 to 1 since, after all, an extant King would be in his 80s. The firm offers the same odds on whether the Loch Ness monster will turn up. It stands to reason, then, that a punter who wanted to bet on whether both Elvis and Nessy are alive and well would get at least 25 million (5,000 x 5,000) to 1. Yet Hill gave only a stingy 20 million to 1 to a postman in Glasgow who bet that Elvis would one day appear riding a UFO that he crashed into Loch Ness, clattering into Nessy in the bargain.

Here is another way of thinking about 5,000 to 1. Last fall, a few unhinged evangelicals prophesied that the rapture would begin within a month of the blood moon of Sept. 27–28. (A blood moon is a red-tinged lunar eclipse.) This augury prompted the Irish bookmaking concern Paddy Power to perform an in-house exegesis of our final day. “[A]fter much study of the Book of Joel from which the claims are interpreted,” the bookmaker’s spokesman said, “Paddy has installed September 28th—the shortest price, 200/1—to be our last.” He added helpfully, “If it’s value you’re looking for, September 24 is currently available at 500 to 1, while any date in October is 250 to 1.” In sum, a large and profitable bookmaker gave odds that the world would end that were roughly 10 to 25 times shorter, depending on your date, than 5,000 to 1.

Of course, betting odds aren’t the same as actual probabilities. A bookie has to consider the ideal odds for enticing a mug to open his wallet. The apocalypse at 500 billion to 1 may shout “sucker’s bet” even to a sucker, but at 500 to 1 the sucker might just think someone in the know is hearing the Four Horsemen’s approach. Then, too, the sucker being played—or at least playing along—is often the media, whose habitués would see a rapture at 500 billion to 1 as dog-bites-man stuff but a rapture at 500 to 1, especially if foretold by the Book of Joel, as man bites dog—just the thing to get a reporter his byline, an editor her readers, and a bookie his publicity. Everyone goes home happy except the poor chap who plunked down 5 quid.

But those sorts of odds—gimmick odds—weren’t the kind Leicester was facing. The biggest U.K. bookmakers employ entire divisions to assign probabilities to all kinds of odd occurrences. There are political divisions that try to work out who’ll be the next chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, cultural divisions that try to predict the shortlist for the next Dylan Thomas Prize, and royal divisions that try to divine the name of the next princely offspring. But all of these substantial enterprises are dwarves next to the titanic divisions that parse the Premier League. It’s only slightly hyperbolic to say that, between the bookmakers, the league itself, the scouts, the reporters, the academics, and the great many other interested parties, nearly every movement of every player in every Premier League game is under scrutiny: every touch of the ball, every stop and start, maybe even every gulp of water on the touchline.

It is from this Talmudic accretion of data and many layers of related analysis that bookies assigned Leicester its 1-in-5,000 chance. Not that they were singling out Leicester. Most bookies gave half a dozen other teams the same dim odds of winning the league, and none of those teams sits higher than 12th place, the spot currently occupied by Watford. Four other teams got odds of between 1,500 to 1 and 2,500 to 1, and only one of them, sixth-place West Ham, sits above 10th. In short, with the minor exception of Leicester—“and other than that, Mrs. Lincoln, how was the Premier League season?”—the bookies were spot-on about the bottom of the table. (As for the top of the table, how do Chelsea at 13 to 8 and Manchester City at 5 to 2 sound just now?) That minor exception, however, seems to have cost British bookmakers their biggest payout ever, at least £25 million. The payees tend to be fans who put down an ale-soaked guinea or two on their team and are now picking up notes for £5,000 and £10,000. At least one check has been cut for £72,335—a check that, alas for the gambler, could have been £250,000 had he held on to his £50 bet rather than cashing out when his bookmaker, Ladbrokes, offered him a settlement in March. Bettors of smaller sums who held firm are making down payments on new houses.

The tale of Leicester’s astounding success, for anyone still uninitiated (or for the initiate who never tires of a good underdog yarn), is briefly this. Thirteen months ago, in the twilight of the 2014–15 season, Leicester had won just four of 29 games, tied an inadequate seven, and lost a staggering 18, which left them with a meager 19 of 87 possible points. (In soccer, a team gets three points for a win, one for a draw, and none for a loss.) April 2015 was Leicester’s fifth consecutive month in last place. You could have pub-crawled the length of England and, provided you didn’t linger too long in Leicestershire, not found half a dozen brass-rail analysts who would have picked Leicester to avoid relegation in May. (“Relegation,” of course, is the bland name for the cruel, end-of-season guillotine that severs the worst three teams from the league and sends them rolling down to the second division.) Leicester escaped the guillotine by winning seven of its last nine and losing just one—a rate of success ordinarily reserved for champions. Still, a surge from 20th to 14th, especially against the weak teams Leicester confronted at season’s end, was merely making good on a long shot, not achieving a moonshot. No one saw an omen of greatness.

Leicester, everyone knew, was out of the running before the first whistle blew. Only, someone forgot to tell them. And so, knowing no better, Jamie Vardy proved that lurking within his gawky frame was the unlikeliest scoring sensation in English history; Riyad Mahrez racked up assists and goals with a finesse so exquisite that Barcelona is said to be pursuing him; N’Golo Kanté stoppered the midfield and led the league in tackles, interceptions, and baby-faced charm; Wes Morgan and Robert Huth built a wall of Trumpian proportions at the back; and everyone—absolutely everyone—played every minute of every game with an abundance of those banal qualities that high school coaches like to spout at their charges and that usually get trumped by talent and money but that this time didn’t. Grit. Gut. Hustle. Heart. Not for nothing is there talk of statues being built to the lads and of a knighthood being bestowed on manager Claudio Ranieri.

Just how improbable was their title run? In 1990, when overwhelming underdog Buster Douglas knocked out Mike Tyson for the heavyweight title, his odds were just 42 to 1. In 1920, when the finest racehorse of the century, Man o’ War, lost the only race of his career—to Upset, naturally—the odds of Upset’s upset were 100 to 1. The 1969 Mets, a team that since its founding in 1962 hadn’t finished better than ninth in a 10-team league, won the World Series at 100 to 1. A measly 100 to 1, and they have been known ever since as the Miracle Mets! The St. Louis Rams of 1999, who hadn’t finished above .500 in a decade, were 300 to 1 before they went on to win the Super Bowl. The Minnesota Twins took the World Series in 1987 at 500 to 1, the same odds rookie Ben Curtis had to overcome when he won golf’s 2003 British Open. And at the top of the underdog heap, there is the Miracle on Ice, Team USA’s 4–3 victory over the USSR in the men’s hockey semifinal of the 1980 Winter Olympics—the greatest moment in sports history, if you believe the somewhat jingoistic Sports Illustrated. The Americans pulled that one off at a mere 1,000 to 1.

Was Leicester City’s Miracle on Grass five times more miraculous than the Miracle on Ice? Fifty times the marvel the Miracle Mets engineered? Those are questions for the ages. What can be said with some certainty is that if you had stopped 5,000 blokes on any English High Street in August and asked who was likelier to win the Premier League—Leicester City, or a team of Elvises riding the Loch Ness monster atop a UFO—4,999 of them would have needed to give it a good think before answering. The 5,000th bloke, I suspect, is putting £100 on Senegal right about now to take the gold in men’s basketball at this summer’s Olympics. At 3,000 to 1, the odds are just too good to pass up.