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 best expected.[1][2] Cinderella stories tend to gain much media and fan attention as they move closer to the championship game at the end of the tournament.[3]

The term comes from the well-known European folk tale of Cinderella, which embodies a myth-element of unjust oppression and triumphant reward, when the title character's life of poverty is suddenly changed to one of 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.[4] The term was used by Bill Murray in the 1980 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."[5] 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.[6] 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.[7]

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.[8]

Cinderella teams are also referred to as a surprise package or surprise packet, and their success would be termed a fairy-tale run.[9] A related concept is the giant-killer, which refers to a lesser competitor who defeats a favorite, reflecting the story of David and Goliath. In Soviet sport, particularly team sports like football and hockey, there appeared a term Thunder to the Dominant [teams] (Russian: Гроза авторитетов, Groza avtoritetov) that referred to underdog, often a strong mid-table team, of which the dominant teams were afraid. The title is still in use in the post-Soviet period and sometimes is given to "dark horse" teams which manage to win a major tournament.[10] There was an official sports award that was introduced by the Soviet sports weekly "Sportivnaya Moskva" in the 1970s and 1980s for football and hockey top competitions awarded to teams that managed to take away the biggest number of points from the last season top-three placed teams.[11]

Examples of "Cinderellas"

Many teams are considered "Cinderella teams" when they seemingly overachieve. For example, the Tampa Bay Rays, the Arizona Cardinals went all the way to their respective leagues' championships in 2008, and the Vegas Golden Knights went all the way to the 2018 Stanley Cup Finals by winning the Clarence Campbell Bowl in 2018. In all three cases, these teams only “turned into a pumpkin” in the end. This list is confined mostly to "Cinderella teams" that won championships. A list of Cinderella teams that did not win their championship is below this one.

Alpine skiing

American football

National Football League

College

Arena football

Association football

Australian rules football

Baseball

Major League Baseball

College

Nippon Professional Baseball

Basketball

National Basketball Association

College

European

International

Boxing

Canadian football

Cycling

Esports

Dota 2

Golf

Ice hockey

National Hockey League

International

Motorsport

24 Hours of Le Mans

Formula One

Grand Prix Motorcycle Racing

IFMAR World Championships

World Rally Championship

NASCAR

Rugby union

Pro12

Snooker

Sumo

Tennis

Examples of Cinderellas that did not win the championship

These Cinderellas made it to the finals/playoffs in their respective leagues, but they were unable to win the championship.

American football

National Football League

College

Association football

Australian rules football

Baseball

Major League Baseball

College

Basketball

College

European

National Basketball Association

Esports

League of Legends

Golf

Handball

Ice hockey

College

National Hockey League

International

Motorsport

Rugby league

Rugby union

Tennis

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