Rivalry Week: What Makes a Rivalry?

There are a lot of rivalries in sports, but what makes a good one? Maybe a better question to start with is, are there good rivalries and bad rivalries? Or are there just simply rivalries? I’m not quite sure. I know there are some rivalries that are better than others. The Cleveland Browns and Cincinnati Bengals are rivals, both being from Ohio, but do they match the relationship that, say, the Bears-Packers have? Not so much… I don’t think I’d call the Browns-Bengals a bad one though. So I think the answer is that there are just rivalries. With some better than others…

This question was asked by a guy at my office a few weeks ago: why are the Giants and Dodgers rivals? Answers came from all different angles.

“Because they’re in the same division.”

“SoCal vs. NorCal”

“They were rivals in New York before they moved west. It stuck when the moved.”

“San Francisco people hate LA people.”

All could be valid answers, but this guy at my office kept pushing on it, asking what event or occurrence happened for them to be rivals. He didn’t understand what caused these two teams to be rivals. He was looking for one thing, one unquestioned reason for why the two teams and their fan bases despise each other. I should disclose that this guy is a Yankees fan… So in his head, he was comparing every rivalry to the Yankees-Red Sox. He wanted there to be a Babe Ruth sale for ever rivalry.

What this led me to realize is that in most cases, there isn’t one occurrence that leads two teams to be rivals. In fact, even if you look at the Yankees-Red Sox, they didn’t immediately become rivals after the ink on the contract selling Ruth to New York dried. It was built over time.

Most rivalries have all, or a mix of several, of the following factors: geographic proximity, historical significance, consistent competitiveness and national relevance.

There are exceptions to all of these (the Lakers and Celtics are on opposite coasts), but for the most part, they’re all common to a rivalry – or at least three of the four. Over on our Facebook page we have polls asking people the best rivalries in all the major sports leagues and college football and basketball. You’ll notice all the choices we propose have at least three of the above factors.

So to go back to that question my colleague asked – why are the Giants and Dodgers rivals – there are a four reasons why:

  • Geographic proximity – they’re both on the west coast
  • Historical significance – each club has a lengthy history, starting in New York and then moving west. More importantly, they have a lengthy history of competing with each other for pennants and division titles
  • Consistent competitiveness – while one club is usually better than the other in a given year, there’s always a competitive spirit that exists between the two when they play, more than what exists between either of the two and any other NL team
  • National relevance – the country looks at the two teams as rivals and acknowledges the significance

Think about other rivalries. I guarantee that they’ll have at least three of the four factors I’ve talked about. Prove me wrong. If you find one, let me know.

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