Cinderella or Fairytale: March Madness v. the FA Cup

by Julian Ryan

In America, March is the month of the Cinderella story for even the most casual of college basketball followers.  Millions of fans will turn on their televisions in the hope of watching the next Butler make a run at winning it all.

England has its own equivalent of the Tournament: the FA Cup. Cinderella teams who progress further than they reasonably should are not referred to as such but rather as ‘fairytale teams’. While Americans will staunchly defend the utmost unpredictability of their fabled Dance, which competition is more likely to produce the David who smites Goliaths? Which is greater: the madness of the tourney, or the magic of the cup?

To be clear, I am not trying to ascertain which competition has more upsets. Since the talent distribution in professional English soccer is much more skewed towards the top teams than in college basketball, March Madness almost certainly has more underdogs winning individual matchups. However, it is still possible that there are more fairytale teams in the FA Cup as bad teams can manage to sneak their way into the latter stages. I want to ask the question of which tournament has the greater probability of a magical underdog story in any given year.

The FA Cup’s structure is what generates its crazy unpredictability. The FA Cup runs parallel to the regular season of league play and features every single professional team in the country along with a large number of non-professional teams. There is a whole mass of qualifying rounds as the bad teams knock each other out at the beginning of the season and then the nation actually starts paying attention when the “third round” is played in the first week of January. The “third round” is when the twenty premier league teams are added to the forty-four lower league teams who have made it that far. From then on a single-elimination format proceeds, and at this point the FA Cup begins to resemble the NCAA baskteball tournament.

Unlike the Big Dance, however, there is no seeding in the FA Cup. Teams are drawn out of a hat at each round and which team is home or away is also completely random. This breeds chaos, as in each round good teams knock each other out and bad teams keep each other in the competition. And so the fairytale story is born. Soccer also has far fewer scoring plays than basketball, which adds to the randomness and increases the possibility of an upset.

To compare which effect is greater – no seeding and fewer scores or greater parity and amateur players – we need to find a ranking system to compare Cindarellas from each tournament. Because the FA Cup runs parallel to league play and does not substantially interfere with performance, the best ranking system in English soccer is end of season league position. This is a fairly good determinant of the overall quality of your team over the course of the season. Such that all teams are ranked, we can take the league as one big whole rather than the reality of several divisions. So for example, in our ranking system if you finished tenth in the championship you have a ranking of thirtieth after the twenty premier league teams and the nine championship teams above you.

We now need to find something similar in college basketball. Taking regular season record as our ranking system is nonsensical as it does not account for strength of schedule at all. A reasonable analogue is RPI ranking from before the tournament. If we used end of season RPI, then Cinderella teams would have a boosted ranking having just won several games against top opposition. Taking rankings from before the tournament eliminates this bias. As our own John Ezekowitz noted, RPI really is not that good a predictor of tourney success compared to the Kenpom rankings or John’s own Survival system, but Kenpom rankings from before the tournament were not available and thus the RPI system will have to suffice.

So we now have an equivalency: a team finishing tenth in the Championship making the semi-finals is as big a Cinderella as the team ranked thirtieth in the pre-tournament RPI rankings making the final four. We are now in a position to compare the relative fairytale status of the two competitions.

Data from 2001-2012 Average Final Four Rank Average Elite Eight Rank Standard Deviation of Final Four Teams Standard Deviation of Elite Eight Teams
NCAA Tournament 9.79 11.29 9.93 11.48
FA Cup 10.30 14.11 11.71 11.81


From the table we can see that the average rank of teams reaching the latter stages of NCAA competition is in general better than the average of those respectively for the FA Cup. Indeed, the standard deviation is also lower for NCAA teams, so this would suggest that there are more poorly ranked teams going on runs in the FA Cup.

These numbers are just a rough guide though, let us categorize three groups of Fairytale teams and see which is more likely in each competition.

The first group is the “Regular Cinderella”: a team from outside the top 20 making it all the way to the final four. This is not to diminish the accomplishments of such team by describing them as ‘regular’ since they are anything but, and yet as a fan it is approximately the standard requirement to be described as a fairytale story. Recent examples include VCU and Butler in 2011 in the NCAA, or West Brom, Barnsley and Cardiff City in the crazy 2008 FA Cup.

The second group is the “Cinderella Cut Short”: a team from outside the top 20 making it to the elite eight. This aims to capture teams that may have gone on but came up against eventual champions and the like in this round. Examples here would be Florida in 2012 and Davidson in 2008 for instance, or Leicester’s run in 2012 and Reading’s runs in 2010 and 2011 in the FA Cup.

The final group is the “Ultimate Cinderella”: a team from outside the top 40 making it to the elite eight or further. Only Temple in 2001, Missouri in 2002 and VCU in 2011 (all the more impressive as they won to progress even further) have accomplished this feat in the past 12 years of the tournament. Meanwhile in the same period for the FA Cup, Tranmere accomplished the feat twice in 2001 and 2004 and Wycombe went to the semi-finals in 2001.


Probability of Cinderella Average Rank of Cinderella
NCAA Tournament FA Cup NCAA Tournament FA Cup
Regular Cinderella 12.5% 16.7% 31.2 32.1
Cinderella Cut Short 17.7% 22.9% 32.7 31.6
Ultimate Cinderella 3.1% 3.1% 50 51


From the data it would appear that the FA Cup is the more likely to produce fairytales. Both competitions produce Cinderellas of roughly equal rank but the FA Cup produces more of them. Only the “Ultimate Cinderella” is equally likely in both competitions.

So it would appear that seeding overshadows parity in producing wild runs for teams in comparing these two tournaments. To illustrate this let us take this year as an example. Wichita State had to beat both Gonzaga and Ohio State (and a good Pitt team) to make its final four dream a reality. Meanwhile, Millwall has beaten Preston North End, Aston Villa, Luton Town and Blackburn to make the semi-finals. Of those teams only Villa are in the Premier League, and they are currently lying in the relegation zone at 18th.

If one of your friends makes a comment about the craziness of the Big Dance in advance of tonight’s final, you might want to ask them if they’ve heard of the FA Cup.

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1 Comment

  • nice breakdown, I like it. A big discrepancy between these two tournaments is that the Tourney is the pinnacle of the season and every team plays their best players. Conversely, the FA Cup is not the top priority for many top Premier League teams, they commonly play less than full strength squads through almost the entire tournament. So, in the end, it’s probably not surprising that the NCAA teams tend to hold truer to their ranked strength than in the FA Cup, where the teams on the field may be considerably weaker than the teams that earned their league position…

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