Opinion Piece: A Closer Look at Rivalry

MLS Rivalry Week | Women United FC

Steve Jobs and Bill Gates, Magic and Bird, Real Madrid and FC Barcelona, Roma and Lazio… At the heart of epic rivalries across all disciplines lie a few consistent threads – history, equality or at least perceived parity, and a competition for scarce common resources. Rivalries create some of the most innovative and creative products, individual results and competitions that make the world salivate with anticipation. Rivalries intensify group dynamics and a sense of belonging. They are a way of compartmentalizing a chaotic world into a storyteller’s dream. This past weekend, rivalries sparked to life across the MLS stage. Amongst all the fun and festivities, violence erupted pre-game in NYC. One of our own members was punched in the face, not once, twice. All she had done was step off the subway.

In her own words… (and I’m keeping her contact private) “My entire body hurts right now. the bruises on my legs, the cuts on my hand and my swollen face. but it was all worth it.”

Rivalry and competition are bedfellows. Yet they are distinct. Whereas competition is results-driven, goal-oriented and objective, rivalry is an emotionally-fueled construct consumers (in sports, fans) and media thrive on, bringing with it sometimes a ratings and profit boost. Rivalry is a natural byproduct of competition that is frequent and relevant to a market of scarcity.

The perfect competitive rivalry state in economics is said to bring an industry closer to a least profitable state according to one of Porter’s Five Forces. In sports a perfect rivalry state is less likely to exist due to the enhanced emotional factor often lacking in other industries. As opposed to a tangible product race, in soccer and other male-participatory sports we have a globally consistent but perhaps correlative product of testosterone-driven drama on the field. In a study by Nick Neave and Sandy Wolfson, British soccer players had higher levels of testosterone before matches against their biggest rival. Testosterone is correlated with status-striving as well as aggression. In another study an analysis of 2,788 matches played between 2002 and 2009 in Serie A showed that the average number of yellow cards issued was significantly higher in rivalry matches as compared to non-rivalry matches. Those are byproducts of rivalry at a team level.

What happens when a rivalry is newly created and bolstered by marketing smoke and mirrors, ahead of the natural growth curve in competition? It’s feasible that rivalry without competition is immature and may actually amplify the negative effects of rivalry (unethical behavior, bullying/violence) alongside the positive – fan unity, pride, group cohesion, a wild display of testosterone-driven goals.

Yesterday’s New York Derby in MLS is a prime example. A lopsided scoreline and an underlying depth of violence not often seen in this league highlighted the match. The NY Derby has other contributing factors that some rivalries who have stood the test of time have – a shared border, a shared name and perhaps a border (real or perceived) — i.e. Virginia Tech and U. Virginia, or the NY Mets and NY Yankees). The Mets versus Yankees rivalry is a great example of the ‘creation’ of rivalry by a league. Although a severe distaste for one another was rampant among fans on either side, the interleague Subway Series, which the Yankees lead 60–44, didn’t start until 1997. Yet at the core of the newly formalized rivalry is a rich history related to the creation of the Mets who purposefully adopted the Giants NY insignia and orange on top of the Brooklyn Dodgers blue. They even played in the Giants old stadium before heading to Queens and Shea.

Can we say the same for the NY Red Bulls versus NYCFC? There are arguments for the pros and positives of this rivalry culture which will be discussed in Part 2 of this series tomorrow. There are factors contributing to what should become an evolving rivalry.

1) Rooted deep within this is that the creation of NYCFC was the beginning of a new frontier for MLS and business model that is trying to transform the young 20-year landscape. The ties to Manchester City make it unique too and the wealth of their MLS-linked club are often discussed.

2) NYCFC is only in its second year. Wherease the Red Bulls history traces back to 1995. The series is new and began from year one – the Red Bulls are 4-0 in the Hudson River Derby.

3) NYCFC play at Yankee Stadium. Depending on your point of view, it’s a privelege or a feature deserving constant criticism.

4) There’s always been a rivalry between NJ and NYC. This needs no explanation. After all, the saying goes, “NJ houses NYC’s trash.” (As someone who was born in NYC and grew up in NJ, the writer has a not-so-unique perspective from both sides since it’s so common there.)

Conclusion: Let the history build, the rivalry will grow, but there will always be a sense of ‘one of these things is not like the other’ until the origins of the teams blend into a rich game history. Is there a feeling of ‘we were here first, yet we play in NJ?’ among Red Bulls fans? Is there a sense of inferiority among NYCFC fans for being so new and for playing in a baseball stadium, albeit one of the most incredible stadiums in the country?

Only time will tell how this rivalry will build. In the meantime, perhaps tone down the rhetoric and let the fans and teams work it into their daily language or play more friendlies between the two and force the two sides to work together towards community outreach projects. After all, NJ and NYC will always be two halves of a whole economic and cultural system – one cannot exist without the other. Much of NYC’s workforce resides in NJ. Must of NJ’s life is in NYC.

The Positive Side of the Rivalry Coin

There are some clear benefits to rivalries that have been delved into by theorists over the years. Rivalries give birth to staggering numbers in attendance and the growth of awareness of a sport. Tennis star Pete Sampras reflected on his rivalry with Andre Agassi before the U.S. Open final in 1995 and the famous Nike commercial that capitlalized on it: “[Even] people not following tennis ended up following our rivalry,” Sampras says. “It was an iconic spot and they nailed it. We nailed it as players.”

Rivalries push record-breaking results and progress. An analysis by psychological scientist at NYU, Gavin J. Kilduff of competitive runners showed that they cut over four seconds per kilometer off their times when racing against a rival. In another study, Kilduff and colleagues found that NCAA basketball teams play stronger defense competing against rivals. According to Kilduff, rivalry can be used as a tool to mold success and increase motivation towards a goal as long as there isn’t room for cheating the system. “Motivation is a holy grail of management,” Kilduff concludes. 

Group cohesiveness and community love also grows during rivalry season. No one can argue the beauty of tournaments like the World Cup building unity and national pride. For a month every four years, the news is filled with World Cup glow an the world is transfixed on the fascinating display. Though many classic rivalries will never see the light of day due to early eliminations, the thought of them alone propell a marketing machine. Even still, as Zach Goldman pointed out, the shared sense of loss by all but the victorious props up a global unity, a shared rivalry towards a common enemy that leads to a bonding experience.

“The only thing that counts in Genoa is the derby. If you don’t win it, it’s like robbing a bank and getting out with a suitcase full of rags” (Flamigni, 1995). Hyperbole aptly describes the Derby Della Lanterna. Genoa and Sampdoria share the Luigi Ferraris Stadium and have been rivals since Sampdoria’s beginnings from a merge in 1946 between Sampierdarenese and Andrea Doria. The fans are not divided by class or politics. It’s a pure rivalry dividing a city painting Genoa with passionate color.

Derby Della Lanterna - Getty Images
Derby Della Lanterna – photo credit: Getty Images

The Flip Side is not Pretty

Rivalries promote group activism that is known to have both a good side (community outreach and neighborhood strengthening) and a bad side, unethical behavior and hooliganism in extreme cases of fandom.

Studies by Kilduff and others have found that rivalry is associated with over-reporting of performance, deception, and unsportsmanlike behavior and that the extent of that depends on relationships and prior interactions. “Ethical decisions are often snap judgments governed by impulses, emotions, and decision frames rather than rational deliberation.” (Haidt, 2001; Kern & Chugh, 2009; Reynolds, 2006; Sunstein, 2005; Tenbrunsel & Messick, 1999; Tenbrunsel, Diekmann, Wade-Benzoni, & Bazerman, 2010). Thus these are not necessarily conscious decisions. Rivalries can mask otherwise unacceptable behavior under the guise of group dynamics during gametime.

Last night’s clash in NY wasn’t an isolated incident.

As rare as these events are in the U.S., they occur with regularity in other countries more accustomed to the process.

Argentina’s famous River Plate – Boca Juniors rivalry is considered to be one of the most incredible sporting events in the world. The Superclásico begun in 1913 ended in tragedy in 1968 when a stampede resulted in the death of 71 fans being crushed to death. The cheer for River Plate even includes a line: “We’re going to kill all the bosteros.” The federation has even experimented with a ban on all away fans across the nation in response to surges in violence, something that was provisionally lifted in 2015.

It’s hard to forget the Milan Derby incident in 2007 when AC Milan’s goalkeeper Dida was hit with a flare thrown by Inter Milan fans. The soccer war between FC Barcelona and Real Madrid was born in a stew of ugly politics and divisiveness at the start, even though bandwagon fans distant from Spanish history, culture and politics often reduce it down to a Lionel Messi versus Cristiano Ronaldo spectacle. Their rocky history however is what much of the rioting off the pitch and violence on the pitch traces back to. It’s a psychological known that experience of competition can leave a lasting ‘residue’ that have consequences for relationships going forward. Those are handed down from one generation to the next, sometimes being diluted but other times being fomented by current state of affairs if they are serious enough and relevant to modern times.

Final Thoughts

Sports rivalries have created some of the most incredbile tales of human achievement and epic events, yet gone unchecked by a set of tangible goals and standards, can bring out the worst in humanity becoming an excuse for bad behavior. Fairly new to the U.S. professional soccer landscape in MLS, itself being relatively new to the American sports world, rivalries forged by marketing forces alone could be a recipe for trouble. By allowing them to develop naturally within the evolving culture of sports politics and group dynamics, the best and worst of rivalry psychology will be more likely to balance out into a product that is lasting and palatable to generations. In spite of other contributing factors that support it (geography, shared values, resource or goal sharing) at the base of quality rivalry that stands the test of time is a competitive equality that matches historical references. In other words, beware the lucrative siren call of rivalry. Cute but thoughtful names and marketing for rivalries are only one component of a complex equation. You may get exactly what you asked for but not be able to control its darker side.

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