Leicester City Could Become The Most Unlikely Sports League Champion

By Ty Duffy

Leicester City beat Manchester City 3-1 at the Etihad on Sunday. They have a five-point lead at the top of the Premier League, over perennial also-rans Arsenal and Tottenham.

The Foxes play Arsenal next weekend. Spurs and City could take points from each other. Leicester’s lead after next weekend could be formidable. Their schedule afterward is everything but. Leicester have the added advantage of not playing in Europe.

This is no longer a cute story. Heading into the season’s final third, Leicester City are the best team, in the best form, and should be favorites to win the title. That is crazy. This team may be the most unlikely champion in sports history.

Last season, the Foxes finished 14th. Their manager was babbling about ostriches. Before that, the club was outside the top division for 10 years. Historically, Leicester has won neither the top division title nor the FA Cup. They have not finished higher than fourth in the top league since 1929.

Leicester City did spend about $60 million upgrading its squad before the season. But, that was less than, say, Manchester United spent on teenager Anthony Martial. Their squad still has the fourth lowest market value in the league. Their new manager was 64-year-old Italian Claudio Ranieri, who has never won a league title at top level. Many had the Foxes pegged for relegation.

It’s hard to find a strong parallel in English soccer. Blackburn Rovers were the only outside champion in the Premier League era. They won the title in 1994-95, in their third year after promotion to the top league after a 26-year absence. Though, their owner spent heavily on big-name players, notably legendary English striker Alan Shearer. They had finished top four the previous two seasons.

Nottingham Forest won the league in 1977-78, the year after promotion from the 2nd division under Brian Clough. They went on to win back-to-back European Cups the next two seasons. Forest, though, were not as off the radar. They had won an FA Cup in the 1950s, and finished 2nd in the league in the 1960s. Clough had also won the English League in similar circumstances, after bringing up Derby County.

It’s harder to find a close American sports parallel. American sports leagues have far more parity and distribute financial resources and talent more equitably. There are no lower divisions. The best player entering the league each year ends up with a bottom feeder.

Before the 2015-16 season started, Leicester were 2,500-1 shots to win the title. They were 1,000-1 to be in first place at Christmas. For comparison, the longest futures odds for Super Bowl 51 are the Cleveland Browns at 200-1. Preseason odds for the Los Angeles Lakers to win the title were 100-1. The notable underdog 1999 St. Louis Rams were 200-1 before the season.

The odds are for somewhat different tasks. Winning an EPL title is having the best record. An NFL title can mean going 10-6, getting hot as a wild card, and having a few lucky breaks. But, it still shows just how unlikely Leicester was to be in this title race.

Ignoring the mathematical odds, perhaps the 1969 Miracle New York Mets might provide one parallel. They won the Pennant with a 100-62 record and won the World Series. In their previous seven seasons, they never finished above 9th in the NL. Their closest finish was 24 games behind the year before.

Of course, the Mets were in a far more equitable financial position.  They hired the best GM in baseball, Bing Devine, to build that team between 1965 and 1967. They were also in position to shell out the cash for Tom Seaver by matching his signing bonus. Leicester City didn’t get to have Arsene Wenger work for them for a few years and sign Sergio Aguero.

Leicester City winning the EPL is hardly a fait accompli. If Arsenal beat the Foxes at home this weekend, that’s a six-point swing. Their lead would be just two points and they would be under all the pressure. Arsenal won the reverse fixture earlier this season. But, we’re in the significant portion of the season, and what seemed impossible is still possible. With the right results this weekend, it could be probable.