Sports Rivalries Explained: The Science Behind the Fiercest Rivalries in Sports

Dr. Joe Cobbs

The Know Rivalry Project

Sport is full of legendary rivalries: Yankees and Red Sox, Duke and North Carolina Basketball, Lakers and Celtics, Alabama and Auburn, and so many others.


But what, exactly, elevates a competition to the level of rivalry? Is it a defining moment, such as the Christian Laettner buzzer beater that propelled Duke to shatter a thousand dreams across Kentucky during an NCAA Tournament game? Is it simple geography, such as Green Bay’s proximity to Chicago? Is it a storied past colliding in the present, as with the Yankees and Red Sox? Or two cities, states or organizations which are so similar that they, much like siblings, can’t help but clash (say, Ohio State vs. Michigan)?


How about all of the above?


Our guest this week on The Secrets to Winning is the Founder of the Know Rivalry Project Dr. Joe Cobbs, an associate professor of sports business at Northern Kentucky University and former sports marketing executive who dreamed up the “Battle of the Bricks” brand to promote the football rivalry between Miami (OH) and Ohio University. Cobbs developed and leads class on rivalry in international sport at NKU, the first course of its kind in the nation.


What surprised me in doing this was how long fans hold a grudge or remember defining moments. Fans can name specific moments from specific games and remember the players, even 15+ years ago sometimes.


Over the course of several years, Cobbs and co-author Dr. David Tyler of Western Carolina University have identified 11 key ingredients to a legendary sports rivalry. They are:


Defining moments: Specific incident, positive or negative, between the competitors

Frequency of competition: Recurring competition between the opponents

Historical parity: Comparable success over a long period (greater than 10 years)

Recent parity: Comparable success within the last 10 years

Star factor: Extraordinary individuals (performers, personalities, or legacies)

Geography: Teams are located close to each other

Cultural similarity: Shared values between the teams/institutions/cities

Competition for personnel: Competition for recruits, coaches, players

Cultural difference: Disparate values between the teams/institutions/cities

Relative dominance: One team aspires to overcome the historical success or dominance of the other team

Unfairness: Perceived preferential treatment toward one team by league or competition authorities (e.g., governing bodies, referees)



4:00 – Fan behavior that drives fierce rivalries in sports


9:40 – The 10 elements of a fan’s perception of rivalry


15:40 – Team vs. conference identity


17:45 – The element of threat as it pertains to rivalry


19:45 – Political rivalry and The Righteous Mind


23:40 – Sports rivalries in the United States vs. the rest of the world


25:40 – Influence of legalized sports gambling in rivalries


29:00 – Per Joe’s research, the most heated rivalry in the NFL


32:10 – Reciprocating rivalries, an example from Big Ten Football


38:45 – Alabama’s emerging rivalry with Clemson due to Dabo Swinney’s ties to Alabama


42:30 – College football fans using their school’s academic ranking as a rebuttal to a loss on social media


45:50 – Why Joe is known around the NKU campus as Dr. Green Shoes

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