What Makes a Great Rivalry?

Joe GSenior Writer IOctober 3, 2008

Yankees-Red Sox, Arsenal-Tottenham, Raiders-Broncos, Lakers-Celtics, and Duke-North Carolina. These are some of the most famous and most vicious rivalries in all of sports. Rivalries like these are what make sport worth watching.

What makes these rivalries so fierce? Why are the fans so involved? I’ll take a look at some of the elements that go into creating a great sporting rivalry.

Geographic proximity

I’m talking natural rivalries here. Teams that have to fight for wins, respect, and fans on the same turf. These are rivalries born out of necessity, because each team needs to win in its own house to get that respect and those fans.

Having two sets of opposing supporters in such close proximity only serves to add fire to the rivalry. Even when the two teams involved are not facing each other, fans will be stoking the flames by talking-trash to anybody they see wearing enemy colors.

These fierce rivalries are prevalent, but not limited to, big cities and metropolitan areas. The East Midlands Derby, between Nottingham Forest and Derby County, is an intense geographical rivalry. David McVay of The Times summed it up best, “Derby is a passionate football town. Possibly more so than Nottingham...Even in Division Two, it's a reasonable bet that crowds at Pride Park would not fall far below 20,000. It's historical, it's geographical, it's in the blood. Some places have it, some don't.”

Aggressive action by one party

Sometimes an aggressive action by one team foments hatred between rivals. Teams and fans often view aggressiveness directed towards them as disrespectful.

My personal favorite example of this comes from the world of college football.

The Big-10 conference as we know it today was established in 1917, though it can trace its roots back as far as 1896. My school, the Michigan State Spartans, did not join the conference until 1950 and did not fully participate in conference activities until 1953. The Spartans are the last team to have joined the Big-10.

But that move almost didn’t happen.

Our lovely neighbors to the southeast attempted to block our move into the Big-10 conference. They apparently felt that MSU’s academic and athletic standards weren’t up to snuff with the rest of the conference. If that’s not a huge sign of disrespect, I don’t know what is.

Another very famous aggressive action was taken by Arsenal F.C. back in 1913. The club had an established home ground in southeast London but moved to the north side of London where Tottenham Hotspur had put down roots many years before.

To put it simply, Tottenham did not exactly roll out the welcome mat for their new neighbors.

The fact that the two teams are in close proximity and have spent a great deal of time in the same division means that the North London Derby is one of the oldest and most hotly-contested rivalries in all of sports.

Switching allegiances and backstabbing

Players change teams all the time; it’s a fact of sports. Free agency and greed mean that loyalty is a rare commodity these days. But while we expect players to move about during their careers, we always get upset if they move to a rival.

The finest and perhaps strangest example of this comes from the world of college basketball. Kentucky and Louisville have had a long-standing rivalry, but thanks to dominance from Rick Pitino and Tubby Smith, the rivalry was largely one-sided in the 1990s.

The climate of college basketball in the state of Kentucky changed drastically on Mar. 21, 2001. That’s the day that Pitino officially took over for Hall of Fame coach Denny Crum at Louisville. Before that coaching change, the state of Kentucky was fiercely Blue in their basketballing allegiances, aside from a small red patch around Louisville.

When Pitino moved to the Cardinals, many loyal UK fans, myself included, were confused. How could we hate the man who brought the UK program out of scandal and back to national prominence?

In the long run, most of us couldn’t and will grudgingly root for Louisville until they come up against the Wildcats. Had anybody besides Pitino (like say, Eddie Sutton) taken over for Crum, the rivalry would be just as fierce today.

The backstabbing element is also an interesting one. Cleveland fans will remember former Browns owner Art Modell moving the team to Baltimore in 1996 after numerous promises to keep the team in Cleveland.

For years, the fans had no team to cheer for but undoubtedly rooted against Modell. Now with the Browns back, the atmosphere is hot whenever the Ravens roll into town.

One can expect the same kind of animosity to develop if Seattle ever gets another NBA franchise. In fact, the hatred Seattle fans have for Clay Bennett is greater than what a lot of Cleveland fans feel for the Ravens.

One great game

If teams don’t have geographical proximity or a history of aggression towards each other, all it can take to jumpstart a rivalry is one great game.

Notre Dame fans will try and tell you that their annual matchup against Michigan State is fairly meaningless, but that couldn’t be further from the truth.

In 1966, those two teams played the original “Game of the Century” in East Lansing. Both teams came into the game ranked No. 1 in one poll and No. 2 in the other. Essentially, this was the National Championship game. Duffy Daugherty and Ara Parseghian, two legendary coaches, battled to a 10-10 tie.

Since 1966, the rivalry has continued to grow. Michigan State is currently enjoying a record winning streak down in South Bend, which doesn’t sit well with Irish fans. The rivalry finally boiled over in 2005, when, after a hotly-contested game, Michigan State players planted a flag with a block ‘S’ on it at midfield in Notre Dame stadium.

The Irish players were pissed, the Irish fans were pissed, and Lou Holtz was so upset that he actually left ESPN’s set for several minutes.

This incident led to Charlie Weis’ now-infamous, “We will never lose to Michigan State again on my watch” comment. The players are into it, the coaches are into it, and the fans are into it. A great rivalry, sparked by a single great game.

Local pride

Sometimes sports rivalries are born out of elements that having little or nothing to do with sports at all. I maintain that the Boston Red Sox and New York Yankees would still hate each other even if Babe Ruth had never existed.

Why? City pride. The citizens of each make claims to their superiority. Boston played a huge part in the American Revolution, while New York has long been the hub of immigration in this country, the city of dreams for new Americans.

Local pride even played a part in the creation of one of college football’s best rivalries. The Michigan-Ohio State rivalry supposedly goes back to when Ohioans would call Michiganders “Wolverines,” then a derogatory term (still a four-letter word in my house).

The University of Michigan adopted the moniker as its own and has been hating Ohio State ever since.

That rivalry grew in 1973 when both teams entered their contest in the last game of the season undefeated. With a Rose Bowl berth on the line, the two played to a 10-10 tie. It was up to the Big-10 athletic directors to vote and decide which team would go to Pasadena.

Despite Michigan outplaying OSU in the tie, the conference voted 6-4 in favor of Ohio State. Rumor has it that Michigan State President Jack Breslin pushed MSU’s vote for the Buckeyes.

Subversive actions

This is quite possibly my favorite aspect of great rivalries because it can lead to so many wacky conspiracy theories. I’ll just cut straight to my example.

At the end of the 2005-2006 Premier League season in England, Tottenham had a chance to pip Arsenal for fourth place in the table, gaining entry to the UEFA Champions League in the process. All they had to do was beat West Ham United in their last match of the season and fourth place would be theirs.

Several Tottenham players were vomiting in the dressing room before the match, with an alleged case of food poisoning the culprit. The conspiracy theories began flying, with some fingers pointed towards their North London neighbors, Arsenal.

Spurs’ hotel was later cleared by the health inspector and manager Martin Jol admitted that a case of gastroenteritis was at fault. Still, the saga made for an interesting end to the season.

The greatest subversive action of all time comes from the aforementioned Michigan-OSU rivalry though. The drum majors in each band use the same style of baton, but used to order them from two separate manufacturers. The manufacturer that made Michigan's baton closed down, so they had to begin using OSU's company.

Now every baton that gets shipped up to Ann Arbor has "Go Bucks, Beat Blue" engraved on the shaft. This is why the Michigan drum major tapes the shaft of their baton.

When good rivalries go bad

Unfortunately, some fans have a tendency to take good rivalries too far. Fans let their political and religious differences into the equation, usually with ugly results. Sectarian and political violence, along with overt racism have tainted rivalries all over the world. At the risk of offending some readers, I will briefly mention a few instances.

Religious and political differences have reared their ugly heads at the Old Firm Derby, though efforts from Celtic FC and Glasgow Rangers have gone a long way towards reducing this. That rivalry has seen Catholicism vs. Protestantism as well as Unionism vs. Republicanism.

But again, many steps have been taken to change this, including Celtic’s Bhoys Against Bigotry program and the similar Follow With Pride program at Rangers.

A similar rivalry exists in Egypt, between the Cairo clubs Al Ahly and El Zamalek.

Thankfully there are several campaigns in sports designed to stamp out violence and racism at matches and keep rivalries just about sport.