Battle Scars

An Inside Look into Rivalries in Sports

It’s the bottom of the ninth inning, Derek Jeter of the New York Yankees is at the plate, and Fenway Park, the home of rival Boston Red Sox, is raining with boos that ring through the historic ballpark like fireworks on the Fourth of July. This is what rivalries are made of… situations like this. Rivalries have been around since the beginning of organized sports, the first football game between the Army Black Knights and the Navy Midshipmen was played in 1890 and the rivalry will be renewed for the 140th time this November. The question that analysts have wondered for years is what exactly makes a rivalry?

First, it is important to understand what some of the greatest rivalries are to see what makes them great. From Basketball to NASCAR, from High School to Professional, great rivalries are sprinkled all over. Some notable ones include the Boston Red Sox and the New York Yankees, the Green Bay Packers and the Chicago Bears, the Chicago Cubs and the St. Louis Cardinals, the Los Angeles Lakers and the Boston Celtics, the Alabama Crimson Tide and the Auburn Tigers, the Duke Blue Devils and the North Carolina Tar Heels, even Dale Earnhardt, Sr. and Jeff Gordon. These rivalries all stand the test of time as all-time greats. From information gathered through surveys, there are three main factors that go into great rivalries: Proximity, Evenness, and Tradition between the two teams.

Many great rivalries are in-state rivalries and are based on proximity. The Philadelphia Flyers and the Pittsburg Penguins of the NHL have a notable rivalry because they are in the same state. Control of the home state is a major component into the intensity of the rivalry. With the Flyers and Penguins, you have two teams that both have history in Pennsylvania, and both are consistently good year in and year out. “Both of the teams have a good skill set,” Penguins fan, Junior Nick Burke said, “every year they are really competing to take control of the state.” This even expands into high school sports, where most rivalries are mainly based on how close the two schools are.

The competition and evenness of the two teams is also a major factor into the rivalry. Time has proven that rivalries fall off when the competition of the two teams dip. This is usually due to one team being much better than the other. Take the Cincinnati Bengals and the Cleveland Browns for example. Again, a rivalry in the same state, but this rivalry used to draw national attention in the 1980s and 1990s because these two teams were always consistently good. Towards the end of the millennium with both teams decline in performance, the rivalry suddenly fell off a cliff and has not recovered even to this day. In contrast, take the Boston Celtics and the Los Angeles Lakers… the two most storied franchises in the NBA who have a rivalry solely because for so many years if one team didn’t win the championship, the other did. In five different decades the Lakers and Celtics have played in the NBA finals against each other. In 1964, 1965, 1967, and 1968, the Celtics and Lakers met in the NBA Finals… that’s not just four times in the decade, that’s in five years. This rivalry remains in recent memory as in 2008 and 2010 they played in the Finals again with each historic franchise hoisting a banner as the champion.

The tradition between two teams is another spark of a rivalry. The intense games, the dislike of the other team sometimes boiling over, the important games… this all makes up the tradition of a rivalry. The St. Louis Cardinals and Chicago Cubs are one of the biggest rivalries in baseball and they are a perfect example of tradition being the drive of the rivalry. They are two teams that are very similar yet the complete opposite. The rivalry began in 1892 and has been intense to say the least ever since. Two storied franchises, two diehard fanbases that do not like each other, two teams that model class and dignity in their histories, but the Cardinals won eleven World Championships in the Cubs’ 108-year drought and that is where a lot of this rivalry comes from. The NL Central rivals consistently fight for a shot at the NL Pennant every year and many years it is the Cubs and the Cardinals as the favorites to make the World Series.

Rivalries are what makes sports popular. The feeling of competition, in the worlds of the late Jim McKay, “the thrill of victory and the agony of defeat.” Rivalry is what draws people to sports and what has taken sports from a schoolyard activity 200 years ago to the national stage it is on today. It is rivalry that makes sports a uniting factor between people that wouldn’t be united otherwise… and that is the power of sports and rivalry. Story by: Tristan Fluhr