An Academic Take on Sports Rivalries

An Academic Take on Sports Rivalries

When the Eagles face the Cowboys on Sunday and the Patriots face the Jets on Monday night, two fierce N.F.L. rivalries will be renewed. But where do they rank among all the bitter rivalries in North American sports?

Any list of “greatest sports rivalries” is bound to be disputed. Make such a list, and be prepared for an onslaught of comments like “How could you leave out Maple Leafs-Canadiens?” and “What about Toledo-Bowling Green?”

So two business professors set out to try to find the biggest rivalries on an objective, statistical basis.

“People don’t agree,” said B. David Tyler, an associate professor at Western Carolina. “Some people say you can only have one rival. We decided to get some clarity on the idea.”

Their data, collected at, highlights some of the rivalries we know well, but also unearths some surprises.

The professors sought out hard-core fans of North American professional teams and college football teams and asked them to allocate 100 points among their most hated rivals. A Minnesota fan might allocate 50 points to Wisconsin, 40 to Iowa and 10 to Michigan. Other fan bases might target their dislike more sharply. A U.C.L.A. fan might give 80, 90 or even all 100 points to Southern California.

The top-scoring rivalries by these criteria are not necessarily the most famous, or the fiercest. Rather, they are the ones where neither team has any other significant rivals to steal away points. Topping the college football chart is Arizona-Arizona State. With no other serious rivals, Arizona fans gave an average of 89 points to their cross-state rival, and Arizona State averaged 83 points back.

In second place is a rivalry nearly everyone would cite as one of the biggest. Michigan fans gave 69 points to Ohio State (with Michigan State and Notre Dame also getting some support). And Ohio State fans were even more unanimous, giving 91 points to Michigan.

As for the N.F.L., Patriots-Jets ranks fourth and Eagles-Cowboys fifth, after Falcons-Saints, Steelers-Ravens and Packers-Bears.

“What surprised me was how long fans hold a grudge or remember defining moments,” said the other architect of the study, Joe B. Cobbs, an associate professor at Northern Kentucky. “Fans name specific moments from specific games and remember the players, even 15 years ago sometimes.”

Rivalries often go back many years: The Lakers and the Celtics met in the N.B.A. finals 12 times from 1959 to 2010. But they also spring to life quickly: The Canadian Classique, between the Montreal Impact and Toronto F.C. of Major League Soccer, dates to 2008.

“It’s what distinguishes a rival from a competitor,” Tyler said. “A rival is part of a larger narrative. Every moment is bigger than the moment itself.”

It may be satisfying to hate a team when you know it hates you back. In a more forlorn position is the fan who can’t stand a certain team that shrugs with indifference in return. The Brewers may despise the Cardinals, but Cardinals fans fixate more on the Cubs, the survey shows.

The study rates the most unbalanced rivalry as Boston College-Notre Dame. It is famous enough to have earned a nickname, the Holy War. But the war is fairly one-sided, at least in terms of antipathy. B.C. fans assign Notre Dame 74 rivalry points. Notre Dame fans, far more preoccupied with U.S.C. and Michigan, give B.C. only 2.

Boston College fans cannot even turn to their second biggest rival, Virginia Tech, for some mutual contempt: Hokies fans care little about the B.C. game. They rank Virginia, Miami and seven other teams higher than Boston College.

What will it take to get a real rival for the Memphis Grizzlies? Though Memphis fans get worked up about the Clippers (38 points) and the Thunder (34), those N.B.A. teams could not care less in return. In the same boat are the N.H.L.’s Tampa Bay Lightning (little reciprocal dislike from the Bruins and the Canadiens, fellow Atlantic Division teams) and M.L.B.’s Tampa Bay Rays (who have one-sided rivalries with two teams that have eyes only for each other, the Red Sox and the Yankees).

The Diamondbacks cannot get any attention from their perceived chief rival, the Dodgers, who rank the Giants, the Cardinals and the Angels higher. Same with the Sacramento Kings, who consider their chief rival to be the Lakers, whose fans dislike the Celtics, the Clippers, the Spurs and others far more.

“A rival has to be a perceived threat,” Tyler said. “In those imbalanced rivalries, with a better team not caring, it’s because there is not that perceived threat.” (Notre Dame has won its last six football games against Boston College.)

“A rivalry should be two-sided,” a San Diego State fan who took the survey wrote. “For example, a hammer does not consider a nail to be its rival.”

One curious thing about rivals is that they are often very similar. Harvard and Yale, Texas and Oklahoma, and Arsenal and Spurs seem to have more in common than not. And this is not lost on all fans.

A Portland Timbers fan wrote, “Seattle looks down on Portland as a cheap copy, and Portland looks down on Seattle as a snooty version of Portland.” But, the fan ultimately acknowledged, “They’re not very different at all.”

“We don’t perceive a threat from someone not so similar to us,” Tyler said. “We are not measuring ourselves against them.”

Anyone who spends time with a superfan will see how dislike of a rival can drive fandom. And the professors are clear that these passions are rooted deeply.

“Fans are more likely to outwardly display their connection to a team after a win: University students wear more logoed apparel to class on the Monday after a football win,” Tyler said. “People use more of ‘we’ and ‘us’ when describing the team following a win.

“That shows why the threat posed by a rival is so acute, especially for highly identified fans. The rival isn’t just a threat to the favorite team’s place in the standings — it can be a threat to the fan’s own sense of self.”

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