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The Decline of Team Rivalries in Professional Sports

Player mobility, personal branding, and the erosion of the animosity of professional franchises

The NBA has had a busy off-season announcing some tweaks to their game in an effort to make the regular season more interesting. There have been the typical rule changes (this year with a target on eliminating flopping) and the introduction of the new in-season tournament to keep fans engaged when the collective sports consciousness of America is locked into the NFL. Another wrinkle that has been unveiled this week is the introduction of NBA Rivals Week, a slate of games with what the NBA calls “classic and budding rivalries”.


The interesting aspect of Rivals Week is that it features matchups such as the Brooklyn Nets vs Philadelphia 76ers, Memphis Grizzlies vs Minnesota Timberwolves, and Portland Trail Blazers vs San Antonio Spurs. While these matchups are interesting for a myriad of reasons (Scoot Henderson vs Victor Wembanyama has a ton of intrigue for people who followed the draft this past year for instance), they aren’t exactly teeming with animosity between fan bases that one associates with the term rivalry. While some could look at Rivals Week matchups as a loose definition of the term rivals, it raises a different question. Have rivalries in pro sports started to diminish in the modern era?


What Makes a Rivalry?


In my life, I have lived through a few rivalries in both the college and professional sports world. Growing up in New York City in the 1990s I vividly recall the tense moments of the Yankees rivalry with the Boston Red Sox and the Knicks rivalry with the Indiana Pacers. As an adult I lived in Detroit, Michigan. There I was exposed to the hatred that is the University of Michigan versus Ohio State in football and versus in-state rival Michigan State in basketball. I have seen firsthand the impact of these rivalries on their respective fan bases that is filled with passion and at times led to violence. The thing that people sometimes fail to mention when it comes to what makes a great rivalry, both teams need to be winning to make it worthwhile.


This is especially true in professional sports where fans can be a little more fickle. In college sports, teams and fandoms are quite literally institutions. There is no threat of a college relocating to another city in another state. This is of course, not the case with our professional teams. Relocation is a constant threat, which renders geographic animosity as less of a factor. Which means that it is all about winning. The NBA’s most storied rivalry is likely the Boston Celtics and Los Angeles Lakers. The reason for this is because the teams have met in the NBA Finals a record 12 times. All but 2 of these occurred before the year 1990 and the most recent Finals meetup was in 2010 when the rivalry was briefly reignited with Kobe Bryant and Boston’s “Big Three” of Kevin Garnett, Paul Pierce, and Ray Allen. The rivalry is storied because of the players that have been involved and more or less wither away when both teams aren’t playing at an elite level.


Even some geographic rivalries like the Detroit Pistons and Chicago Bulls ceased to truly be meaningful after Isiah Thomas and Michael Jordan were no longer on the court. The reason these rivalries were great was because there were recurring characters. This could be players, coaches, or even broadcasters in the case of Boston Celtics announcer Johnny Most. Rivalries are made because these people take it personally and tie much of who they are to the franchise and city that they play for. Conversely, they put a lot of the negative energy and association towards their contemporaries that become their rivals. But in the modern landscape of player movement and business of the professional athlete, it seems that rivalries have taken a back seat.


The Great Rivalry Shift


If you were to ask sports fans of their favorite sports rivalries of the last 30 years they might not mention a team name at all. They might say Tom Brady versus Peyton Manning, LeBron James vs Stephen Curry, or Patrick Mahomes vs Joe Burrow. The player rivalries have begun to replace the team rivalries fully. This might not be a popular thought or consideration for a lot of NFL fan bases, but in the grand scheme of things it is a reality. In the NFL, teams only play 17 games and 6 of those games are against their division foes every season, which means that they play those division opponents twice every season.


Does this mean that the Jacksonville Jaguars and Indianapolis Colts have a fierce rivalry? Not at all. But rivalries can arise due to this constant familiarity. A perfect example is the Baltimore Ravens and Pittsburgh Steelers. They both play in the AFC North, have been incredibly well run, and have a string of iconic players. This formula equals rivalry, but is not the case for all NFL divisional “rivalries”. Another element that has contributed to the decline of rivalries across the league in all sports has been the advent of player mobility and the increasing brand building era that we are currently in.


As players come up the ranks through the high school and college systems in America, they more often than not are playing against each other at football camps, on the AAU circuit, and the like. They form friendships and compete with each other while preserving those friendships. Generally speaking, these players don’t cling to a rivalry from 40 years ago, since they are too concerned with getting to the league. And once they become professionals the focus shifts. The word legacy gets thrown around a lot by athletes, and in many ways they are defined by it. When we consider someone like LeBron James we ask how many rings he is going to win, not how many rings he won as a Cavalier.


Rivalries also tend to bring out the ugly side of the ego-driven swagger and confidence of high level athletes. This can often be trash-talking or excessive violence. And in an age where every player is trying to capture as many endorsement deals as possible, it becomes a bad business decision to engage in the theater of rivalries. The shift instead has become to one up a contemporary, a dynamic that we are seeing with the aforementioned Joe Burrow and Patrick Mahomes. If both players were traded to different teams tomorrow that rivalry would still persist because we are witnessing two all-time elite talents in their prime at the same time, it goes beyond a simple debate between Chiefs and Bengals fans on social media.


Will It Ever Come Back?


The question now becomes, will we ever see a situation where teams in professional sports have that same blood boiling hatred that they had for one another during the 1970s and 1980s? I would tend to say that we are not heading back towards that path, which is a reality that is tough for many fans to stomach. This is because the players at the end of the day, will not have the same vitriol that their supporters might have. The lack of familiar faces also makes it difficult for rivalries to truly form. We have seen this happen in college basketball, where the presence of one and done players has made rivalries like Duke vs North Carolina lose some shine in recent years.


I think we are seeing a shift in the accepted paradigm of professional sports. Younger generations of fans have flocked to supporting players instead of teams (we all know a few people that loved Kobe Bryant but not necessarily the Lakers, or have followed LeBron James at all of his stops), which means that rivalries are shifting to the player model as well. While this takes away the city pride element of a rivalry, which is usually a fun debate among passionate fans, it does boil down to the truth of many rivalries. And the truth is that it really wasn’t about the Celtics and Lakers for many people, it was about Magic Johnson and Larry Bird.


So in this sense, the tactic for NBA Rivals Week is a sound one to focus on the players and revisit previous matchups. At the end of the day, American sports are far from regional. Sports leagues like the NBA and NFL have global aspirations, which is why we see games played in Paris, Mexico City, and London. Being a fan of a team is not limited to the city limits where they play their games. As such, rivalries should no longer be defined by those city limits. Every league today is a players league, and every rivalry is a players rivalry, which is a reality that many of us more tenured fans need to get used to.


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