The dictionary defines a “rival” as: One who attempts to equal or surpass another, or who pursues the same object as another; a competitor. Furthermore, a “rivalry” is defined as: The state or condition of being a rival. Both definitions hardly do a good job of defining what true sports fans would consider a “rival” or a “rivalry.” Quite honestly, I don’t think they even come close. On the weekend that the Ravens and Steelers are playing each other, in a matchup that many consider the best rivalry in football, I thought I would take the time to tell you what I believe are the criteria for a great rivalry.
First and foremost, the teams involved have to play each other frequently. This is most likely attained by being in the same division, in their respective sport. This can also happen if the 2 teams are the best in their conference and meet in the playoffs regularly, i.e. Cowboys/Niners. Although the meetings would be less often, the magnitude of the games would be more significant. This formula also works for overall championships. It’s not often that 2 teams from different conferences, see each other in the finals multiple times, i.e. Lakers/Celtics, but when it does happen, a rivalry is created.
Secondly, the games themselves have to have a different feel to them. By this I mean the players and coaches, perform and act differently on the field, court or ice. More aggression, more penalties and an overall less professional attitude toward the opponent. Overall, the players have to dislike the opponent just as much as the fans. Maybe not after the game, but certainly before and during. If they don’t like each other all year long, that’s just a bonus. A bonus the fans will LOVE.
While we are talking about the fans, let’s state the obvious. There is no rivalry without the fans. They are the true dictators of what is or isn’t a rivalry. They truly despise their rival. What’s more, they truly KNOW their rival, in every way. As a Bostonian, I could name every guy on the Lakers in the 80’s. Likewise, with the last 20 years of the Yankees. If the fans aren’t invested than you have nothing, and in a great rivalry they are beyond invested.
There is no better example of this than in college sports. From Ohio State and Michigan to North Carolina and Duke. The depth of these rivalries is almost unmatched. This is due to proximity as much as anything. The bragging rights of being able to say you are the best around. This is certainly a major factor in a great rivalry. With the exception of the Lakers/Celtics and the Cowboys/Steelers, and a few others, I would say that being near each other is almost mandatory. I think this is due to the ability of the fan to attend the game in the opponents building. If it’s too far away, than you can’t do it, and nothing builds a rivalry better than having a large crowd, cheering for the “away” team. It makes my hair stand up just thinking about it, and I’m bald. 😉
College sports may have all the best rivalries. However, I would contend that the ONLY professional sports rivalry that stands up against colleges, is Red Sox/Yankees, which in my opinion is the greatest rivalry in all of sports. At least in this country. It has everything. Same division, close proximity, and probably the longest and most storied history, EVER. You may not agree, but that’s probably because you think your rivalry is better.
And isn’t that what this is all about? Defending your turf against all comers. Especially the ones from just down the road. Your Dad hated them. Your GrandDad hated them. Everyone you know hates them. It’s also your duty to make sure your kids hate them, too. In the end, the most accurate gauge of the rivalry, is how much you respect them. Behind closed doors, of course. The coach you hate to death, even though you recognize how good he is. Yes, I mean you Coach K. These will always be the cornerstones of a great rivalry. I am just glad that I am from the city with 3 of the 4 biggest in pro sports. So suck it Habs, Yanks, and Lakers. 😉