After witnessing another great round of the Federer – Nadal rivalry on Sunday, I got to thinking about what the top 10 sports rivalries are right now, extending back the past 10 years. Historical significance is a very important factor, but clearly not paramount when it comes to creating the ideal atmosphere of hate and mutual respect necessary for a rivalry. What matters right now?
For example, the Cubs and the Cardinals have supposedly been the Hatfield’s and the McCoy’s of the Midwest since the mound was raised. But while the Cardinals have enjoyed a healthy amount of success since the turn of the millennium, the Cubs have treated their fans to a Rollercoaster-like combination of high hopes, precipitous lows, and an ultimately predictable abridged ending. In the last two years, the Reds have produced more bad blood moments with the Cardinals than the Cubs did in the past 8, so in my mind there’s no question what the real rivalry is.
Still, in most sports, the big rivalries of the past still hold all the clout today. The Yankees and the Red Sox have shared two all-time great playoff series over the past 10 years, trading celebratory and agonizing results in back to back years. The Lakers and the Celtics treated NBA fans to two outstanding NBA finals, and David Stern to stratospheric ratings. Kevin Garnett and Kobe Bryant re-injected some much needed vitriol into the long dormant alpha rivalry in the NBA. Although boxing has had several great rivalries in the past 10 years (Pacquiao v. Morales, Morales v. Barrera, and the immortal Gatti v. Ward), the only one still active is Manny Pacquiao and Juan Manuel Marquez.
The three rivalries listed above are the obvious ones in major sports, aka the one’s that aren’t as fun to write about. However, I’m still very much up in the air in three major categories: NFL, College Football, and College Basketball. I don’t watch nearly enough hockey to even pretend to have an educated opinion of where the boiling blood can melt the ice there. The same can be said for soccer. There are certain qualifiers I have for prospective rivalries to be included.
· The team have to play in the same division:
The teams need to play within a reasonable proximity of each other, and that almost guarantees that they must play within the same division. This disqualifies the Patriots vs. Colts, and Texas vs. Ohio St arguments. When the teams do meet, it’s almost always the pinnacle of football perfection on the field. Cream of the crop players and legendary coaches are almost always a given. The games take on the feel of watching two chess grand masters seamlessly executing their game plans, and manipulating the pieces almost flawlessly.
But where these games fall short is the emotional gravitas resembles…a game of chess. One team wins, and one teams loses. The coaches practically fall all over each other praising the genius of their counterpart. Tom Brady and Peyton Manning shoot the shit like a couple of best friends who had to be split up during a game of pick up basketball because of how dominant they both are, and everyone goes on their merry way.
This is not a rivalry. Ray Lewis welcoming Rashard Mendenhall to the NFL with a sling is a rivalry. Wes Welker sounding like a doctor of podiatry, and “I don’t watch that show, I hate the Jets” also fits. Rivalries aren’t just separated with state lines, and different colored shirts. They’re separated with Red Rivers, and Tobacco Roads. The bowls aren’t Super, they’re Iron, and blood, tears, and sweat should be produced in that order. If the word respect doesn’t have the prefix of begrudging, then you need not apply.
As a fan, I’ve created a very simple litmus test for this. The THEM test. As in, “we didn’t just lose, we lost to THEM.” If both teams and fanbases don’t have a solid argument for the THEM test, it’s not worth mentioning.
It needs to mean something today:
Not as much of a determining factor, but still very important. This is a 10 year span, but weighed more heavily the closer the games get to the present. Redskins – Cowboys had it’s stint where both teams were good, but going into next year there’s nothing to see. Michigan – Ohio St is almost undoubtedly the all time king of College Football, but both programs will start 2011 rebuilding and undetermined respectively. When the teams in question step on the field/court in 2011, will it matter?
Harrison Barnes and Austin Rivers matching supreme athletic prowess to determine North Carolina supremacy. The Eagles trying to induce another agonizing second half of the season in East Rutherford when their human pyrotechnic show comes to East Rutherford Week 11. Or maybe Tony Romo and company trying to sweep both of those teams in the penultimate and final games of the year to prevent a Jerry Jones spring cleaning.
So let me know if I’m missing anything. I’ve already got my list of rivalries in my head that I’ll be paring down from the NFL, College Basketball, and College Football. I may be missing a few but right now I’ve got:
Jets vs. Patriots
Ravens vs. Steelers
Giants vs. Cowboys
Giants vs. Eagles
Eagles vs. Cowboys
Packers vs. Bears
Duke vs. UNC
UConn vs. Syracuse
Kentucky vs. Louisville (Calipari and Pitino and in state rivalry allow for breaking of first rule)
Kansas vs. Texas
Texas vs. Oklahoma
Auburn vs. Alabama
Florida vs. Alabama