Just what are the best rivalries in sports?
By Ray Hamill
One of the oldest and most enduring rivalries in all of sports was back on center stage Saturday when Army played Navy for the 115th time.
And that got me wondering, just what is the greatest rivalry in sports?
It’s a question I’ve raised before with a variety of guests on my weekly radio show and one that always results in a passionate discussion, and about the only certainty from it all is there never is a consensus top pick.
But what makes a great rivalry?
Well, there’s no simple formula for it, but there are several attributes that help define a rivalry as a great one, such as competitive balance and success for both sides, a competitiveness that transcends the fields of play, and geographical proximity.
Some off-field drama also helps and rivalries always work best when each side genuinely hates the other.
History also plays a part in defining a great rivalry, and if your father, and your father’s father, and his father’s father, all hated Michigan, there’s a pretty good chance you will too.
For the sake of my discussion here, I’m going to break down rivalries into three categories – American team sports rivalries, worldwide team sports rivalries and individual sports rivalries – writing about each in the coming days.
(For the record, breaking each category down to just a top-five was a challenge all on its own.)
Here then are my top five American team sports rivalries …
5 – Redskins/Cowboys
This is a storied rivalry between the two wealthiest teams in the richest sport and two of the most successful franchises ever, and when they meet it’s always one of the most anticipated games on the NFL calendar.
Okay, so neither has tasted success anytime recently and the Redskins are in turmoil on and off the field (that name controversy isn’t going away anytime soon), but history counts for something here, with eight Super Bowls and 28 division titles between them.
Oh yeah, and the fans hate each other.
4 – Duke/UNC
Undoubtedly college basketball’s biggest rivalry between two of the top-five most successful programs in the sport, and two schools separated by a mere nine miles.
Adding to the intensity of this rivalry is the private school versus public school factor, as well as a healthy recent success rate with seven national titles between them over the past 24 years.
3 – Yankees/Red Sox
ESPN wouldn’t have it any other way.
Regardless of media biases, this rivalry is still the best in American pro sports. The teams hate each other, the players and coaches usually hate each other, and the fans hate each other.
It may have been one-sided for 86 years, but not any more.
1T – Ohio State/Michigan and Alabama/Auburn
Why are several college football rivalries among the best in all of sports?
You could argue Oklahoma and Texas should also be included here, but the two I did include have a little more history on their side.
The Iron bowl played between the two in-state Alabama rivals dates back to 1893 and has significant recent history on its side with four of the past five national championships going to the two programs.
Ohio State/Michigan, meanwhile, is a rivalry that transcends sports between two neighboring states that have a dislike for each other dating all the way back to the Toledo War of 1835.
Lakers/Celtics – the two most storied franchises in pro basketball with more than half (33 of 65) of all NBA championships between them.
Giants/Dodgers – a rivalry that travelled across a continent, it was difficult not to include this one in the top five.
Packers/Bears – the oldest rivalry in pro football between the two most successful teams in league history, although it’s lost a bit of its intensity.
Cubs/Cardinals – often overlooked by the sports public at large, but just as intense as Giants/Dodgers.
Canadiens/Maple Leafs – Canadian sports fans are just as passionate.
Bruins/Canadiens – not as nationally recognized as many of the rivalries on this list but every bit as bitter (anyone else notice how many times Boston teams appear on this list? … Do they hate everyone?)
Army/Navy – once the best rivalries not just in college sports but all of American sports.
Next up, I’ll take a look at the most intense worldwide team rivalries …