Friday, December 11, 2009

Never Underestimate the Power of a Rivalry

ri·val·ry (rī'vəl-rē) noun : one of two or more striving to reach or obtain something that only one can possess

Never underestimate the power of a rivalry.

"It means everything," Browns do-it-all wide receiver Josh Cribbs said. "There are a lot of Steelers fans around the city so I hope people go to work and kick those Steelers fans."

As witnessed in the Steelers/Browns game, rivalry games mean more than records and can change the outcome of seasons. Pittsburgh was defending Super Bowl champs and coming off a four-game losing streak, went into Cleveland to face the lowly 1-11 Browns. However, with nothing on the line except pride against its rival, the Browns pulled off the upset, beating the Steelers for the first time in 12 tries, sending Pittsburgh’s record to 6-7, and most likely out of the playoff race.

Some rivalries become dormant or one-sided, due one team’s dominance, like the Steelers. It has happened in other rivalries too, since USC has owned Notre Dame recently, as has Ohio State over Michigan. However, this should not end the rivalry, but merely lessen its greatness for the time being. So, what factors help maintain a great rivalry?

Here are some of the top rivalries I can think of in the major American sports to explain the criteria:

Here are the criteria to consider (in no particular order):

Standings – The rivalry should mean something on a championship level for the sport. While Army/Navy is a historic rivalry, neither team has won a title since 1945. Many other college football rivalries are heated within the state, but are not noticed outside the state since it usually does not influence national titles (Oregon/OSU, Alabama/Auburn, VT/UVA, Cal/Stanford, USC/UCLA, Texas/T A&M). Meanwhile Ohio State/UMich has affected the Big Ten Title/Rose Bowl berth 47 times and the two teams have combined for 18 national titles. The USC/ND game contributed to 22 titles and the Red River Shootout hosts combined 11 titles between Texas/Oklahoma. In NCAA Basketball, the UNC/Duke rivalry has two of the winningest programs, but since they rarely, if ever, meet in the NCAA tourney, the national title implications are limited when they play. In the professional rivalries, most teams are in the same division so they meet often in the regular season, but their rare nationally significant meetings are in the conference championship games (Yanks/Sox, Colts/Pats), with the exception of Celtics/Lakers in the Finals.

History-A good rivalry has lasted for generations and can date back to the origins of the game. The college rivalries mentioned all started from 1890-1926. Yankees/Sox started in 1901, Packers/Bears in 1922, while Canadians/Maple Leafs were part of the “original six”.

Geography- Rivalries are fueled by constant interaction and proximity. The campuses of Duke and UNC are only separated by 8 miles. OSU/UMich and Oklahoma/UT share state borders. This is an important argument for the lesser college rivalries mentioned earlier since these in-state rivals could grow up together, recruited together, see each other in the workplace/streets every day. Most professional rivalries share similar geographies, for the exception of the Cowboys and Celtics/Lakers. In fact, if you drew a map, by conference in the NFL, each division’s team’s city locations would not overlap. USC/ND does not fit in this category.

Current – Great rivalries need to pass the test of time as well, similar to standings earlier. If the newest generation doesn’t know or see the rivalry then it can fade away. This is also true of the “top ten rivalries of the 2000’s” types. The Colts/Pats are a great rivalry and can top this category (4 Super Bowls, 4 MVPS, met in AFC playoffs 3 times in 4 years), but it didn’t really exist before Brady and Manning. The OSU/UMich game in 06 with the teams meeting as #1 and #2 and the two classic Sox/Yanks series in 03 and 04 help their causes as well. But in the “what have you done for me lately” culture in sports you can say the OSU/UMich rivalry as lost its luster recently since the Buckeyes have won 6 straight. The current one sided nature of some of the other rivalries also contributes, since Notre Dame, Redskins, and Browns have not held up their end of their important rivalries in the past 10-15 years. The rest of the NFC East and AFC North teams have combined to win 4 Super Bowls in the 2000’s, so most of those rivalries have stayed relevant. The Lakers and Celtics met two years ago in the Finals renewing their old rivalry and maintain the best records this year.

Memorable Games- Similar to current play and standings, rivalries will attract more national attention and gain in greatness due to “instant classic” type games. Obviously each rivalry has plenty to choose from: Aaron “bleeping” Boone, The Red Sox 3-0 ALCS comeback, Bucky Dent, OSU/UMich 06 shootout, Howard Heisman, Bush Push, Baby Hook, No K, on and on. If you look at the Colts/Pats, in their 10 meetings since 2003, only 2 were decided by more than 10 points. Meanwhile some of these rivalries have produced clunkers over the years.

Frequency-Going hand and hand with memorable games is the frequency these rivalries occur. The Red Sox and Yanks played each other 18 times in the 2009 regular season, making each one more memorable. The college football rivalries mentioned have played 18 times since 1991. UNC/Duke and the NFL rivalries play at least two but no more than a possible three-four times a year. Therefore, one individual game has drastically different significance depending on the rivalry. 44% of the time UMich and OSU play it is for the Big Ten title. Meanwhile, only 26 out of 2,064 times the Yankees/Red Sox have played has it been for the American League title (3 ALCSs, a play in game, and 2 regular-season ending series).

Background Stories-The last factor going into a great rivalry is the background stories that sports writers love. The most famous in this group could be the Curse of the Bambino, fueling the Sox/Yanks for so many decades. These also include individual rivalries like Magic/Bird, Brady/Manning, Woody/Bo, past betrayals, like Ravens/Browns, or controversial plays that come up every year like the Bush Push.

If you can think of more criteria or rivalries, let me know.

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