Taylor Swift vs. Kanye? Microsoft vs. Apple? North Carolina vs. Duke? Do rivalries capture your attention?
When the Eagles face the Cowboys on Sunday and the Patriots face the Jets on Monday night, two fierce N.F.L. rivalries will be renewed. But where do they rank among all the bitter rivalries in North American sports?
Any list of “greatest sports rivalries” is bound to be disputed. Make such a list, and be prepared for an onslaught of comments like “How could you leave out Maple Leafs-Canadiens?” and “What about Toledo-Bowling Green?”
So two business professors set out to try to find the biggest rivalries on an objective, statistical basis.
“People don’t agree,” said B. David Tyler, an associate professor at Western Carolina. “Some people say you can only have one rival. We decided to get some clarity on the idea.”
The professors sought out hard-core fans of North American professional teams and college football teams and asked them to allocate 100 points among their most hated rivals. A Minnesota fan might allocate 50 points to Wisconsin, 40 to Iowa and 10 to Michigan. Other fan bases might target their dislike more sharply. A U.C.L.A. fan might give 80, 90 or even all 100 points to Southern California.
The top-scoring rivalries by these criteria are not necessarily the most famous, or the fiercest. Rather, they are the ones where neither team has any other significant rivals to steal away points. Topping the college football chart is Arizona-Arizona State. With no other serious rivals, Arizona fans gave an average of 89 points to their cross-state rival, and Arizona State averaged 83 points back.
In second place is a rivalry nearly everyone would cite as one of the biggest. Michigan fans gave 69 points to Ohio State (with Michigan State and Notre Dame also getting some support). And Ohio State fans were even more unanimous, giving 91 points to Michigan.
As for the N.F.L., Patriots-Jets ranks fourth and Eagles-Cowboys fifth, after Falcons-Saints, Steelers-Ravens and Packers-Bears.
“What surprised me was how long fans hold a grudge or remember defining moments,” said the other architect of the study, Joe B. Cobbs, an associate professor at Northern Kentucky. “Fans name specific moments from specific games and remember the players, even 15 years ago sometimes.”
Anyone who spends time with a superfan will see how dislike of a rival can drive fandom. And the professors are clear that these passions are rooted deeply.
“Fans are more likely to outwardly display their connection to a team after a win: University students wear more logoed apparel to class on the Monday after a football win,” Tyler said. “People use more of ‘we’ and ‘us’ when describing the team following a win.
“That shows why the threat posed by a rival is so acute, especially for highly identified fans. The rival isn’t just a threat to the favorite team’s place in the standings — it can be a threat to the fan’s own sense of self.”
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