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What can academic research tell us about sports rivalries?

A lot, actually.

St Louis Blues v Chicago Blackhawks Photo by Dave Sandford/NHLI via Getty Images

There seem to be two types of hockey fans. One’s the noted stats nerd, who can turn anything into a number through the miracle of quantification. The other is the eye test guru, who can learn everything that they need to know by watching the game.

There are pros and cons to each approach. Sometimes numbers can limit interference, like how we feel about a player or a team on an emotional level. There’s an assumption that there is a lack of emotionality in quantitative research. If everything is a number, then what purpose can the eye test serve?

As a social scientist (squint and you can see it, I promise), I tend to be in the eye test camp more often than not. I’m mathematically adverse. I see the value in numbers, and I respect people who can quantify the world to explain human actions and interactions. However, I question if everything can or should be quantified. This isn’t a “facts don’t care about your feelings” situation, it’s a matter of what type of data applies to certain scenarios, and yes, qualitative information is data. It’s just a different kind of data. A squishy kind of data, if you will.

You can apply either type of data to the study of people. Sure, people are irrational beings who do stupid things and who support awful sports teams sometimes, but that doesn’t mean that they’re not worth a good old fashioned academic study. I’ve always had questions about the nature of sports rivalries. Why do we hate other teams so much?

Why is it that the Blues and the Blackhawks - and their fans - dislike each other? Is it the intertwined history between the two franchises (thanks for helping us get the Blues, Dollar Bill, now go take a long walk off of a short pier)? Is it geographic proximity? Is it the bleed-over of the Cardinals/Cubs rivalry? Does it run deeper? Maybe it goes all of the way back to that time that St. Louis stole the Olympics from Chicago.

That has to be it.

Unsurprisingly, my hypothesis was incorrect. But! I’ve always had a sneaking suspicion that the Blues/Blackhawks rivalry was more lopsided than it appears. By “lopsided,” I mean that one franchise’s fans care more about the rivalry than the other’s. I’ve heard the Blues referred to as the “little brother” of the Blackhawks and, before the conference re-alignment, the Red Wings. St. Louis didn’t have the Cups. St. Louis didn’t have the Original Six history. So, according to Wings and Hawks fans, St. Louis fans wound up compensating for this with contempt. To be honest, I’ve felt there was a smidge of truth there. Blues fans were a little jealous of Chicago and Detroit’s successes, and it contributed to how much we disliked those teams.

But this is all the “eye test” of the situation. What if someone could actually quantify sports rivalries? What if someone could prove my sneaking suspicion that Blues’ fans cared more about the rivalry than Blackhawks’ fans?

Lo and behold, someone did.

The Know Rivalry Project was established by Dr. David Tyler of the University of Massachusetts and Dr. Joe Cobbs of Northern Kentucky University in order to study the weird dedication that sports fans have to hating other teams. It’s not only focused on the NHL; they’ve done research into every major North American sports league’s rivalries. Did you know that Cardinals fans hate the Cubs, but Cubs fans hate the Cardinals more? Now you do. It’s the reverse of the Blues/Blackhawks rivalry.

Here’s the study’s methodology:

To quantify rivalry, fans represent their favorite team by allocating 100 “rivalry points” across their team’s opponents. The responses of each team’s fans are aggregated an the average point allocation, or “rivalry score,” toward each opponent (100 maximum) is calculated. The strongest mutual rivalries and the most lopsided rivalries in professional hockey are determined using network analysis.

What does this mean? Luckily, Dr. Cobbs was kind enough to participate in an e-mail interview with Game Time to break it on down. There’s something here for stat nerds, eye test gurus, and everyone in-between:

Hildy - What motivated/inspired you to study fan rivalries and fan perceptions of those rivalries?

Dr. Joe Cobbs - Before pursuing the full-time academic route (i.e., professor), I worked in sports marketing for several teams. In one of those roles, when I would write radio and TV commercial copy, my boss would always add “rival” to any intra-conference opponent when proofreading. Although we were friends, we used to argue about the legitimate or authentic use of the term “rival” as it refers to various opponents. Then when I arrived at UMass as a PhD student, I had the good fortune to be paired with David Tyler in my cohort. David shared a curiosity about the social phenomenon of rivalries between groups, and we soon started the line of research that eventually became the Know Rivalry Project.

Hildy - What research methodology did you use for this study, and why did you select the research methodology that you did? Could you explain it in layman’s terms for our audience?

J.C. - Our core methodology is consumer survey research, but we started with open-ended, fan interviews because there was not much prior research that took a broad perspective of rivalries. Hence, there was not enough core knowledge of the phenomenon to write a useful survey at that time. A few scholars had done some very interesting case work around particular rivalries, but there was minimal broad investigation of sport rivalries. Once we completed a couple rounds of fan interviews across a diverse range of sports, we used qualitative coding techniques to discern rivalry categories, antecedents and consequences. That knowledge was the basis for our pilot surveys and from there, we have refined it over the years.

Our most popular measure of rivalry among fans and the media is the 100-point allocation, which provides each survey respondent (i.e. fan) with 100 rivalry points to allocate across any of their favorite team’s opponents. The metrics you see on our website are based on the average point allocation of the fans of a particular team. So for the Blues, fans allocate almost 68 of their 100 rivalry points to the Blackhawks, and then 11 points to the LA Kings, and a few points here and there to other opponents. Our method also allows us to assess the reciprocal nature of rivalry, meaning that Blackhawks fans allocate almost 40 of their points to the Blues, but the Kings fans only reciprocate with less than a point, on average. When we add the points Blues fans allocate to the Blackhawks and those allocated by Blackhawks fans to the Blues, we arrive at a rivalry intensity score of about 108 points, which places the Blues-Blackhawks rivalry as the fifth most intense rivalry in the NHL.

On the ‘Research’ page of the website, you can find an even more detailed explanation of the method: https://knowrivalry.com/research/

Hildy - What were the most surprising findings regarding NHL rivalries?

J.C. - While perhaps not surprising, I think one of the most interesting findings in the NHL is the contrast to the NBA. While their seasons overlap and share the same duration in number of games and basic playoff format, the rivalries in the NHL are much different and unique compared to NBA rivalries. The NHL rivalries are considerably more intense by our metrics and more highly influenced by spatial proximity (i.e., geography) and the values and culture of the clubs, as compared to the NBA where the team rivalries were less intense and more predicated on the star characters involved.

Using survey scales of prejudice and discrimination, we also measure the hostility toward rival fans. Of the five major leagues, the NHL was second to the NFL in the hostility fans exhibited toward rivals. Again, this finding may not be surprising in the context of the physicality of the sport, but we did find it very interesting to demonstrate this phenomenon quantitatively.

Hildy - What do you feel explains the lopsidedness of some of the perceptions here (i.e. Sens/Leafs)?

J.C. - The consistency of competition is one of the primary rivalry elements we’ve discerned in our research. Related to consistency are the conspicuous moments within competition, meaning that the more you compete against an opponent, the more likely you are to experience moments remembered for years to come. In several of the lopsided rivalries, you will notice that one of the teams (typically the one allocated the majority of rivalry points) is an expansion team from the last few decades. Hence, that franchise does not have the same consistency of competition with its opponents and as a result, less opportunity for conspicuous moments to occur. You will also notice that many of those lopsided rivalries have not been competitive over history, so the ‘fear’ or challenge in the rivalry is one-sided.

Hildy - Did you find that geographic proximity contributed more towards rivalry perceptions, traditional sports rivalries from other professional leagues, or historical city rivalries (Chicago vs. St. Louis)?

J.C. - The most interesting aspect of our research on geographic proximity is the comparison between the leagues. More specifically, spatial proximity—or being close physically—to your opponent contributes more to perceptions of rivalry in MLS and the NHL, as compared to the NBA and NFL where it was not as prominent of a rivalry element. MLB fell in the middle of those groups—less important than in MLS or the NHL, but more important than in the NBA or NFL. That finding probably has a lot to do with how league competition is structured in terms of the divisions and impact on consistency of competition, as well as the historical migration or expansion of the leagues geographically.

Hildy - Were you able to interview survey participants? Would interviews or a case study of a particular rivalry be a direction for future qualitative research?

JC - I like your thinking! ...just like a teacher or researcher yourself (editor’s note: nailed it). Because the survey has reached over 30,000 fans at this point, we have not interviewed survey respondents. However, we have continued to conduct fan interviews (I use it as a course project for my students), and the survey includes several opportunities for open-ended feedback, which we later code and hope to eventually get up on the website in a future developmental phase.

Hildy - How do you plan for others to utilize or build off of your research?

J.C. - Academically, we have collaborated with several co-authors on various research publications, and we always welcome ideas for addressing interesting and relevant research questions with our data. Our next research stage is to dive into specific formulas—or mixes of our 10 comment elements of rivalry—that characterize particular rivalries. We want to better understand how a certain mix of elements creates intense but friendly rivalries, or conversely, rivalries that are especially hostile or antisocial. Further understanding the interaction of rivalry ingredients will help us advise teams, leagues, sponsors and broadcasters on how to realize the benefits of rivalry without encouraging the detriments.

We have also recently fielded surveys for foreign leagues, including the English Premier League, Women’s Super League, Australian Football League, and Indian Premier League. Capturing that data will allow us to compare our findings in North America to other sports and global regions.