The Life And Death of a Sports Rivalry

By: Brianne Dempsey

One of the reasons I love sports so much is all of the tradition that comes with it. Whether it is family gatherings, superstitions or rivalries, sports culture is one that fascinates me. Rivalries are especially intriguing, as in many cases, a rivalry is only perpetuated by tradition and not due to current opposition or contention between teams.

Some of the greatest rivalries in sports history have ceased to exist except for in the memories of those fans who lived through their peaks. Take for example the Pittsburgh Steelers and Oakland Raiders. After the NFL-AFL merger, the Steelers excelled in the AFC and managed to steal a divisional playoff game from the Raiders in 1972 with Franco Harris’ Immaculate Reception. Over the next four seasons the teams would meet each year in the playoffs, and this meeting became a Super Bowl of its own, as the winner usually went on to win the championship.  However if you ask fans of either team who their biggest rival is now, they certainly would not tell you each other. A Steeler fan is sure to tell you it’s the Ravens, while a Raider fan is likely to tell you they can’t stand the Chargers. Those fans who lived through the Steeler/Raider rivalry may list them as a 3rd or 4th string rival, but this rivalry has certainly cooled off.

With the Final Four games just around the corner, I have to admit as a University of Maryland fan, that I’m hard pressed to find a team I want to win the tournament. If you ask any UMD fan who their biggest rival is now, I think many would struggle to give a definitive answer. Maryland Men’s Basketball has always struggled with their identity when it came to rivalries. Fans always claimed Duke to be the biggest rival, though year in and year out the chants from Cameron Indoor Stadium were taunting the Terps, claiming “We’re not your rival”. Duke has always identified UNC as their biggest rival. With Maryland’s transition into the Big 10, they have left behind the traditions and rivalries of the ACC, but have not yet established themselves enough to have a true Big 10 rival. If the program continues on what looks to be a successful path, especially with the return of Melo Trimble and the addition of Diamond Stone, I can see Terps establishing a rivalry with either Wisconsin or Michigan State. I can especially see it happening with the Spartans as the Terps have had some heartbreaking losses to Tom Izzo teams over recent years. But I’ll always hate Duke.

The psychology of a rivalry is an interesting concept and can explain a lot about the birth, life and death of a rivalry. In a December 2011 article posted by Art Markman in The Statesman, Markman talks about the three dimensions of a rivalry. These three dimensions are similarity, frequency and parity. In order for a rivalry to flourish teams should have commonalities, play each other often and be of somewhat equals over a sustained period of time. One team beating up on the other every match up will not foster the environment for a true rivalry, hence why Duke sees UNC as a more worthy rival than Maryland, the parity between the Blue Devils and Tar Heels is much closer than that of Duke & UMD.

Frequency is probably the most important dimension of a rivalry. When the NFL expanded and realigned divisions, rivalries were a huge factor in which teams went where. They weren’t going to split the Cowboys and Redskins or the Packers and Bears; they are some of the greatest rivalries in sports. The NFL needs games like these to draw fans and ultimately generate revenue. When the Raiders organization began to decline and ceased to be a perennial contender, the animosity between them in the Steelers faded, as the frequency in which they played each other went from yearly to every four years. The energy and parity were no longer there.

With all of the talks of expanding leagues, realigning divisions and the annual announcements of teams moving to new NCAA conferences, it will be interesting to see what rivalries survive the changes, which ones will die off and what new rivalries will be established.


Brianne Dempsey
About Brianne Dempsey 14 Articles
Bri is from Southern Maryland. She is a UMD alum and is a Redskins, Caps, Terps and O’s fan.

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