There’s two things sports fans love: rooting for your team, and hating the other guys.
I’m not talking your casual dislike, your run-of-the-mill distaste for another team after yet another stinging defeat. I’m talking the “I can’t stand my daughter’s boyfriend because he’s a [insert team here] fan,” the chorus of boos raining down from a hostile crowd, the rivalries that lead to hatred that lead to all-out, blood-for-blood fistfights.
Yet rivalries aren’t created equal. Some burn furiously, but run their course in mere moments. Others are passed down from generation to generation, fathers teaching sons what team to love and–more importantly–what team to hate.
Rivalries can be analyzed through five different frames. Any game that fits at least one of these descriptors can fairly be called a “rivalry,” lowercase “r.” Those games that fit three, four, or even five of these categories are Rivalries, those games that we have to watch because we love to hate the other team.
Familiarity breeds contempt. The more you see an opponent, the more you know their strategies, their personalities, their weaknesses–and the more they know yours.
In a sense every divisional match-up is a rivalry, small “r.” The teams see each other constantly–19 times per season, in baseball. Divisional rivals are more likely to harbor animosity towards the other team, or play games that have immense significance on the final season standings–both factors we’ll discuss a bit later.
The lack of familiarity can also nip a potential Rivalry in the bud. Take the Cubs and the Indians. In the 2016 World Series, they played a hard-fought, instant-classic of a Series that culminated in a heroic comeback, a gift-from-God rain delay, a motivational speech straight out of a Hollywood script, and a storybook ending that broke one of the longest curses in sports. A tight, emotional series like that one can be the beginning of a fierce rivalry.
There’s one problem with that, though: since the Cubs and Indians are in separate leagues, they hardly ever face each other. Sure, they’re both in the Cactus League, but that’s Spring Training–who cares. Had they followed up the 2016 World Series with another classic in 2017, the rivalry could have fully bloomed. As it stands, the Cubs-Indians rivalry is largely confined to Brett’s disillusioned anger with the world.
Axiom: Divisional foes are more likely to have a Rivalry than teams in different divisions/leagues/conferences.
Similarly to “familiarity,” the more two teams play each other the more likely a Rivalry will emerge. This doesn’t refer to number of times the teams face off in a season, but how often they’ve played each other throughout history.
The best example of these types of rivalries come from the NHL and their “Original Six” rivalries. Regardless of any other animosities between the teams, any match-up between “Original Six” teams is a rivalry simply based on the long history of competition between the teams.
The Detroit Red Wings and the New York Rangers are both Original Six teams, but there’s no strong history of hatred between the two teams, and in the current league alignment they’re in different divisions. It’s still a rivalry in the sense that the Rangers and Red Wings have faced-off 613 different times, but that particular match-up is not a Rivalry, capital-R.
We shouldn’t ignore the importance of history in a rivalry, though. Newer teams across all four major US sports, like the Houston Texans, Arizona Diamondbacks, and Las Vegas Golden Knights, don’t have vitriolic rivalries because they lack the history of hatred that other teams and fanbases can draw from. Fans and broadcasters have long memories–try making it through a single Packers-Cowboys game without seeing at least one photo of the famous “Ice Bowl” from 1967. Teams with longer histories have more potential examples of bad blood to draw from to turn a rivalry into a Rivalry.
Axiom: Teams with a long history of competition are more likely to have a Rivalry than newer, expansion teams.
3. Shared Success
It’s hard to get up and get excited for a potential Rivalry when the two teams are fighting for last place in the conference. Even for bitter rivals, there’s nothing on the line. But when two teams are fighting for a championship…watch out.
One of the most fearsome Rivalries in all of sports came during the late-90s and early-2000s between the Detroit Red Wings and the Colorado Avalanche. Between the 1995-96 season and the 2003-04 season, the Avs and Red Wings both finished in the top four of their conference every season. Three of those seasons they finished 1-2. Five of those nine seasons, either Colorado or Detroit represented the Western Conference in the Stanley Cup Finals.
In short, they were both great at the same time, and only one of them could hoist the Cup at the end of the day.
The “shared success” category lends itself to short-term Rivalries, match-ups that don’t have “history” but fit every other descriptor of a Rivalry. The modern-day spat between the Cavaliers and the Warriors best fit this mold: both have dominated their respective conferences for the past few years, only to run into each other in the NBA finals. The Seattle Seahawks and the Green Bay Packers have played a number of tight competitions in the past ten years: they’ve both consistently been Superbowl contenders out of the NFC. On the other side, the AFC almost always seems to come down to a match-up between the Pittsburgh Steelers and the New England Patriots.
Twenty years from now, a game between the Cavaliers and the Warriors might not mean much. Games between the Red Wings and Avalanche don’t mean much of anything anymore, given that both teams are stuck in the cellar. But when fierce competitors are both chasing the singular goal of a championship, sparks are likely to fly.
Axiom: Teams at the top of their respective leagues are more likely to have a Rivalry than teams playing for last place.
4. Player Animosity
Two competitive teams vying for a championship is one thing. Two competitive teams who hate each others’ guts — now that’s got the makings of a Rivalry.
Player animosity can come from two different areas. The first is common among college football programs: indoctrination. Take “The Rivalry” between Ohio State and Michigan. From the day Buckeye players walk into the locker room, they’re taught to refer to their Rival as “that team up north.” The letter “M” is blocked out all over campus during game week. It’s not just another game: it’s The Game, the contest against Ohio State’s bitterest Rival. Buckeye players might have nothing personal against players on the Michigan squad–but since they’re playing for Michigan, they suddenly become Public Enemy No. 1.
The other comes more naturally. Again, the Wings-Avs Rivalry provides an excellent example of this. It was accentuated because both teams were at the top of their game, but the Rivalry only began in the 1996 Playoffs, when Avalanche forward Claude Lemieux smashed Kris Draper into the boards, literally caving in Draper’s face. The Wings’ forward needed emergency reconstructive surgery in the aftermath of the game. Referencing the incident, Detroit winger Dino Ciccarelli said “I can’t believe I shook [Lemieux’s] friggin’ hand after the game. That pisses me right off.”
The Red Wings were angry, and out for blood. On March 26th, 1997, in what became known as the “Turtle Game” in Detroit, they got their revenge.
Axiom: When the players on two different teams hate each other, a Rivalry is far more likely to develop.
5. Fan Animosity
It’s one thing for players to hate each other; it’s another level entirely when the fans are out for blood.
Fan animosity usually doesn’t emerge out of events on the athletic field. Sometimes it comes from proximity of fanbases–English Premier League derbies are a good example of this. Tottenham and Arsenal are crosstown rivals in London; Everton and Liverpool clash in the Merseyside Derby; the famous Manchester Derby pits City against United, one side of the city against the other to determine whether Manchester is Red or Blue–at least until the next Derby.
Rivalries based on fan animosity often emerge from social or economic differences between fanbases. Liverpool and Manchester United have a fierce Rivalry, heightened by the decades-old economic competition between the two mercantile centers for trade in the Irish Sea. The Green Bay Packers are the small-town, fan-owned team; their Rival, the urban-center, hot-shot Chicago Bears, are the polar opposites. National Rivalries are a bit of a cop-out example, but the 1980 ice hockey game between the USA and the USSR wouldn’t have meant a thing without the context of the Cold War.
Fan animosities greatly heighten Rivalries. When you identify with your team against the Rival, it’s not just your team that wins or loses–it’s you.
Axiom: When the fanbases of two different teams hate each other, a Rivalry is far more likely to emerge.
Familiarity, history, shared success, player animosity, and fan animosity: right now in baseball, there’s only one Rivalry that checks all those boxes:
The Yankees and Red Sox are division rivals; they play each other 16 more times this regular season, starting tonight in the Bronx. According to Baseball Reference the two teams have played 2,178 times, with the Yankees having the edge 1181-983. There’s also a long history of animosity to draw from, from “The Curse of the Bambino” to the Pedro Martinez brawl in the 2003 ALCS. The Red Sox hold the best record in all of baseball at 25-9; the Yankees are only one game back at 24-10. While both can make the playoffs, only one of them can avoid the coin-flip of a Wildcard game in October.
If the last series is any indication, the animosity between these two ballclubs is starting to heat up once again. Tyler Austin committed a questionable slide into Boston infielder Brock Holt; in response, Red Sox reliever Joe Kelly plunked Austin with an inside fastball. Austin charged the mound, the benches cleared, and by the time the dust settled MLB had issued multiple suspensions and Joe Kelly looked like a supporting character from The Outsiders.
There’s no love lost between Boston and New York sports fans either. Even outside the realm of sports Rivalries (Rangers and Bruins, Knicks and Celtics, Patriots and Giants), the cities have an antagonistic history. Throughout the 19th and 20th centuries, New York was a melting pot of immigrants from Italy, Eastern Europe, and more recently Latin America. Boston still has a large Irish population, many of whom originally arrived in the mid-19th century. Throughout the 20th century Boston was seen as more elitist, leading novelist John Cheever to remark, “All literary men are Red Sox fans. To be a Yankee fan in a literate society is to endanger your life.”
With respect to the Dodgers & Giants, and the Cubs & Cardinals, the Yankees-Red Sox Rivalry is the most intense in baseball, and has a strong case as the most intense in all of sports. Will we see sparks fly this week in the Bronx?