Chapter 6 – Rivalry Lessons for Sport Managers

To this point, we have covered fan identification with a favorite team, what sport rivalry means and how it begins, how rivalry impacts the way fans treat in-group and out-group members, how people perceive rival teams, and how people react to rival failure in direct and indirect competitive settings.  Now, we turn our attention to what practitioners can learn from the study of rivalry and its impact on sport fan behavior.  There are several lessons that managers can take from the research discussed so far, and in this chapter we will focus on those things that can help sport managers provide a better sport product to consumers.

First, it is very important that sport managers understand how the presence of an opponent impacts the sport fan.  For example, people tend to rate rivalry games to be more violent than non-rivalry games (Raney & Kinally, 2009).  College students tended to describe fellow students at their institution to be more similar to them leading up to a rival game (Smith & Schwartz, 2003).  Additionally, rivalries can carry positive benefits for fans such as uniqueness and cohesion (Berendt & Uhrich, 2016).  The presence of rival team can make fans more likely to attend, watch, or read favorite team games (Havard, Eddy et al., 2016; Havard, Shapiro et al., 2016; Paul, 2003; Sung, Mills, & Tainsky, in press), and pay premium prices to attend games (Sanford & Scott, 2016).  Additionally, playing a primary rival rather than a secondary rival influences fan likelihood to consume their favorite team (Havard & Reams, 2017).  These findings, along with others we have discussed so far, namely intentions to consume the favorite team, clearly illustrate that rivalry impacts sport fans in ways that regular contests (i.e., not against a rival team) do.  It is important that managers recognize this as it can help them market, promote, and plan for rivalry games.  For example, administrators could market games involving rivalry games to help increase interest in the sport product.  This could also include games involving rival teams playing someone other than the favorite team.  As we have seen so far, fans are not willing to support their rival in indirect competition, and are likely to watch a rival play if they think they will lose.  This information tells us that perhaps games featuring rivals playing a third team could be promoted to favorite team fans.  For example, how many Auburn fans would show up to a party to watch Alabama play in the football national championship in hopes the Crimson Tide would lose?

In the United States, sport organizations and athletic department use rivalry and opponents to promote the on-field product their team offers.  For example, many college athletic departments have created year-long competitions between rival schools to increase interest in all sport competitions between the two programs.  For example, in the Civil War Series, athletic teams from the Oregon Ducks and Oregon State Beavers compete for points.  At the end of the school year, the school that collects the most cumulative points is crowned winner for the year and presented with the Civil War Series trophy.

The website is a resource that can be used by sport managers and fans alike.  The website features historical records of college football and men’s basketball teams, along with NFL, MLB, and NHL teams. contains podcasts detailing select historical rivalries, such as the Havard/Yale, Michigan/Ohio State, and Texas/Oklahoma football rivalries, the Duke/North Carolina men’s basketball rivalry, and professional rivalries from the NFL and MLB.  Also of importance to sport mangers, a ranking of intensity of fan rivalries in college athletics can be found on the website, which includes over 2500 participants aggregate scores from the SRFPS.  The lists below include (1) Most Intense Fan Rivalries in NCAA, (2) Most Teams identified as a Rival, and (3) Identified as a Rival by Most Teams.

Most Intense Fan Rivalries in NCAA

Rank Team Team SRFPS Aggregate
1. Arizona Arizona State 64.24
2. Nebraska Colorado 62.55
3. Kansas Missouri 62.47
4. Alabama Auburn 62.4
5. Oklahoma Texas 62.23
6. TCU Texas Tech 61.93
7. Connecticut Syracuse 60.26
8. UCLA USC 59.34
9. Oklahoma State Texas Tech 58.86
10. Alabama Tennessee 58.41
11. Kansas Kansas State 57.12
12. Oregon Washington 57.07
13. Texas Texas A&M 56.26
14. Indiana Purdue 55.23
15. Iowa State Iowa 55.06
16. Duke North Carolina 54.78
17. Michigan Ohio State 54.6
18. Michigan Michigan State 52.83
19. Ohio State Wisconsin 52.8
20. Georgia Tech Georgia 52.63
21. Texas Texas Tech 52.22
22. Iowa Nebraska 51.79
23. Baylor TCU 51.25
24. Minnesota Wisconsin 50.93
25. Auburn Georgia 50.92


The intensity rankings on the preceding page are entertaining for fans while also helpful for sport managers while.  First, sport fans and personalities enjoy debating what are the most intense rivalries in every sport.  The above information was compiled using the shared average aggregate SRFPS score from 2500 data points.  This is unique in that it is a measure of intensity among fans.  It is helpful for sport managers because they can use the data to help promote the sport product between favorite and rival teams.  Knowing what we do about fan likelihood to consider anonymous aggression, the list could also assist managers in preparing for a rivalry contest in an attempt to control negative sentiments and behavior between fan bases.

Most Teams identified as a Rival

Rank Team Number of Rivals
1. Syracuse Orange 11
2. Nebraska Cornhuskers 9
3. Arizona Wildcats 8
4. West Virginia Mountaineers 7
Wisconsin Badgers 4
6. Kansas Jayhawks 6
Texas Tech Red Raiders 6
Illinois Fighting Illini 6
9. Kansas State Wildcats 5
Oklahoma State Cowboys 5
Texas Longhorns 5
Iowa Hawkeyes 5
Kentucky Wildcats 5


It is important for sport managers to know how many teams their fans consider as rivals.  To collect this data, and the data below, every team that at least one individual considered a rival was counted.  The lists contain the teams that identified the most rivals and those teams that were identified as rivals most by other fans.  Looking at the rankings, what stands out most to you?  Three of the top four schools, (Syracuse, Nebraska, and West Virginia) all recently changed athletic conferences.  As a result, some fans identify teams from the previous conference as rivals while others identify rivals from the current (i.e., new) conference.  This is important because it shows managers that when a team changes athletic conferences, they cannot expect their fan base to immediately jump behind supporting a rivalry in the new conference (more on this later in the chapter!). 

Identified as a Rival by Most Teams

Rank Team Number of Rivals
1. Texas Longhorns 11
2. Duke Blue Devils 7
Michigan Wolverines 7
Ohio State Buckeyes 7
Penn State Nittany Lions 7
6. Georgia Bulldogs 6
Iowa Hawkeyes 6
Nebraska Cornhuskers 6
USC Trojans 6
10. Alabama Crimson Tide 5
Kentucky Wildcats 5
Michigan State Spartans 5
North Carolina Tar Heels 5
Notre Dame Fighting Irish 5
Oklahoma Sooners 5
Wisconsin Badgers 5


Think about non-sport products, such as mobile phones.  The leading mobile phone product is currently the iPhone manufactured by Apple.  When you watch television, you probably see commercials from other mobile phone manufacturers that somehow favorably compare their product to the iPhone.  The commercials will find a way to derogate the iPhone or show their product is superior in a given category.  This practice is also prevalent in other product categories such as mobile phone service providers, cable or satellite television providers, sport clothing, car, and beer companies.  By having other groups compare to you, the perceived value of your group is enhanced.  The more companies and groups that compare to you the stronger your brand.  If we apply this logic to the sport product, then we could conclude that the teams on the above list enjoy a very strong brand.  This is important for sport managers because it provides evidence of their brand strength and possible promotional merchandise.  For example, Texas Longhorns fans (along with fans of pretty much every team) can buy shirts that read, “Loved by Few, Hated by Many, Respected by All”.

When promoted responsibly, rivalry and opposing teams can be a very good way to engage a fan base and possibly attract new consumers.  However, because of researchers’ assertions about rivalry (Dalakas & Melancon, 2005; Havard, Gray, Gould, Sharp, & Schaffer, 2013; Lee, 1985) and findings regarding fan aggression (Wann, Haynes, McLean, & Pullen, 2003; Wann, Petterson, Cothran, & Dykes, 1999; Wann & Wadill, 2013), we know how important it is that rivalries are promoted in a way that (1) increases fan excitement and engagement while (2) not creating animosity between teams and groups that causes fans to become deviant.

Recently, my colleagues Dan Wann and Rick Grieve joined me in an experiment to test the influence of fans seeing either a neutral or negative promotional title (Havard, Wann, & Grieve, 2017).  We collected data from students at The University of Memphis and Western Kentucky University regarding teams they believed would develop into the biggest rival of the men’s basketball.  We chose Memphis and Western Kentucky because both schools were joining new athletic conferences in which they did not share continuous annual rivalries.  We first asked students which schools would represent their biggest rival and found that Memphis students identified Cincinnati, and Western Kentucky students identified Middle Tennessee State.  We then developed promotional titles and logos (below) using the word Rivalry (neutral) and Hate (negative).

Next, we exposed students to either the promotional title and logo using the word Rivalry or the promotional title and logo with the word Hate.  After students were exposed to the titles and logos, they indicated their perceptions of their rival teams (using the SRFPS).  We found that students exposed to the title and logo containing the word Hate indicated fans of the rival team behaved more poorly than those exposed to the title and logo containing the word Rivalry.  However, students that saw the title and logo containing the word Rivalry were less likely to support their rival against another team than those who saw the title and logo with the word Hate in it.  It donned on us that possibly using a word like Hate increased the level of animosity toward a rival team, however using a word such as Rivalry increased feelings of rivalry.  This is very important because as sport managers develop ways to promote rivalry between teams, using a word such as Rivalry possibly instills in fans minds that this is a rivalry, whereas a negative word such as Hate potentially only increases animosity or negativity toward the rival and their fans.

Let’s discuss a few examples of organizations promoting rivalries in a questionable manner.  We will use the Memphis Grizzlies of the National Basketball Association as a reference, but we should be clear that promotions such as these occur across the NBA, other professional leagues, and at the college and high school level as well.  The first example we will discuss is a common skit where an employee from the organization wears a shirt of the visiting team and proceeds to act obnoxiously during a timeout.  Most of the crowd does not know the person in the opponent’s shirt is an employee of the organization so to the majority of people it just seems like a fan of the opposing team taunting the hometown crowd.  The fan is then displayed on the big screen so fans of the Grizzlies can boo and jeer the individual.  Then, beloved Memphis mascot, Grizz, approaches the individual and gets their attention.  The fan continues to be obnoxious and starts taunting Grizz.  This makes the crowd boo and jeer louder, and then erupt in applause when Grizz sprays silly string in the opposing fans face.  Depending on the importance of the game or the opponent, sometimes Grizz will physically accost the fan to the enjoyment of the crowd.

Another example again features the Grizzlies mascot when the team played the San Antonio Spurs in the first round of the 2015-2016 NBA Playoffs.  During a timeout, Grizz appeared in the terrace of the arena, where a fake San Antonio Spurs mascot was laying on a table.  Grizz climbed to the top of a latter and jumped onto the fake Spurs mascot, breaking the table and crushing the mascot to the floor.  Video of the skit can be found at Grizzlies/Spurs skit or through SB Nation.  Finally, the Memphis Grizzlies hold a pretty intense and negative rivalry with the Los Angeles Clippers because the two teams have played in the playoffs on multiple occasions.  Fans in Memphis, and around the league I should add, sometimes refer to the Los Angeles Clippers and the Los Angeles Floppers.  For a regular season game against the Clippers, the Grizzlies gave away promotional flip-flops to fans entering the arena.

Alone, these skits are meant to be fun and entertain the crowd, especially in a place with a history of professional and amateur wresting like Memphis, Tennessee.  To be clear, they can be fun and entertaining.  However, there are multiple problems with skits and promotions such as these.  First, if a fan became deviant, which we have seen examples of (e.g., Bryan Stow in Los Angeles), and we know roughly 1% of fans at an athletic event indicate they would strongly consider committing the most heinous acts of anonymous aggression (more people indicate they would consider committing less heinous acts), the organization would attempt to distance itself from the action right?  It is hard to do so if the organization very publicly promotes the rivalry to fans in a negative or irresponsible way.  Fallout from an issue like this can carry negative financial, legal, and fan engagement consequences.

Think about taking a child, younger sibling, or relative to their first sporting event, which happens to be against a historical rival.  After all, research shows that people are typically introduced to sport and a favorite team through family members and loved ones (Wann, et al., 2001).  You have built up the experience in the child’s mind where they are very excited when the day finally arrives to attend the game.  Imagine during the later part of the game you and the child are having a great time, and you are thinking that he or she will be a fan for life.  During a time out, the home team uses a skit that in someway derogates fans and players of the rival team.  Following the skit, you hear two rival fans start yelling insults at each other two rows behind you.  The confrontation worsens and one fan throws a drink on the other or worse, a physical altercation breaks out.  Now, you are thinking how do you keep the child with you safe and get out of the situation as quick as possible.  However, that child may be thinking this is activity that regularly happens and sporting events and may not want to attend future games.  From a fan perspective, it is sad that someone, of any age, would have to endure that type of encounter.  From an organization perspective, you may have just lost someone that could have become a loyal fan for his or her life.  Sport practitioners claim a great thing about sport is that it brings people together and allows people to escape their outside lives.  Now, you are faced with someone who may not want to consume your product again.

In the example above, the organization could be (and has been) held liable for the actions of fans fighting at their games.  This could carry large legal consequences along with having to pay legal fees and possibly a large settlement amount.  Additionally, you may have a number of fans that do not wish to attend games again because they witnessed the fan confrontation.  This issue is only magnified if some of the offended fans are children, as you have possibly lost out on a lifetime of fandom and consumption.  If a fan is offended enough by seeing the fan altercation, they could choose to not only stop going to games, but stop watching on television and purchasing merchandise.  So as you can see, from an organization’s perspective, you run the risk of losing attendees and future consumers.

Sport organizations can also use rivalry to responsibly promote the sport product.  There are many examples of teams and schools hosting food or blood drives leading up to rivalry games.  Doing so allows fans to identify with two in-groups.  First, they can identify with their favorite team’s in-group and second with the in-group of the people donating food or blood for a positive cause.  Possibly the clearest example of administrators ability to promote a rivalry in a responsible manner occurs following competition realignment.  Competition realignment refers to conference realignment at the college level, or teams changing leagues or divisions at the professional level.  From 2010 to 2013, over 40 schools changed athletic conferences, meaning virtually every school at the highest level of college athletics was left having to replace a historical rivalry (either because they or their rival were joining a new conference).

When starting a new rivalry, it is important to have fan support, as they are heavily responsible for ensuring that rivalries grow and sustain over long periods of time (Livingston, 2015).  As a practitioner faced with starting a new rivalry, it is important that you either (1) get fan ideas on identifying teams and forming rivalries, or (2) have key fan trend setters buy in to the rivalry and spread excitement to other fans.  For example, administrators at Missouri and the University of Arkansas started the “Battle Line Rivalry” in hopes of engaging fan bases and increasing interest in the new football rivalry.

Research on conference realignment has found that fans feel a fundamental need to identify a rival team (i.e., out-group).  Through interviews with fans whose teams were changing conferences, I and Terry Eddy (2013) found that fans tended to show excitement for the conference they were joining, and stated they felt sorry for their rival that they were left in the old conference.  Additionally, fans were ready to identify a potential rival in the new conference and were looking forward to beginning their competitive relationship.  Survey research found that before teams actually played in the new conference, fans reserved more negative perceptions of the rivals in the conference they were leaving than the one the team was joining (Havard, Wann, & Ryan, 2013).  Also, since we have discussed fan behavior, and deviant behavior throughout the text, fans reported they were more likely to consider acts of anonymous aggression toward participants and fans of the current rival than the anticipated rival.  Recent research found that after playing in the new conference for three or four years, fans started to change the amount of negativity they attribute to former and current rivals (Havard, Wann, & Ryan, 2016a).  Specifically, fans reserved more negative feelings for the current rival regarding fan behavior and academic prestige than for the former rival.  However, fans still reserve stronger negative feelings for the former rival regarding playing a team other than the favorite team, and the sense of satisfaction they experience when their team defeats the rival.  Additionally, fans reported they were still more willing to consider committing anonymous acts of aggression toward the former rival than the current rival.

Recently, Dan Wann, Tim Ryan, Norman O’Neal, and I (Havard, Wann, & Ryan, 2016b) compared fan rival perceptions of three teams that changed conferences.  The Texas A&M Aggies and Missouri Tigers both left the Big 12 Conference for the SEC.  At the same time, the TCU Horned Frogs left the Mountain West Conference for the Big 12.  The data we collected in the 2013 Conference Realignment study included fans from all three teams.  Remember, this was the study where fans reported their perceptions of the rival in the current conference (this was before schools actually changed conferences) and the anticipated rival in the new conference.  In that study, Texas A&M fans identified the Texas Longhorns as the current rival and the LSU Tigers as the anticipated rival.  Missouri fans identified the Kansas Jayhawks as the current rival and the Arkansas Razorbacks as the anticipated rival.  Fans of TCU identified Boise State at the current rival and the Baylor Bears as the anticipated rival.  In the most recent data collection, fans of the three teams identified the same teams as the former rival and current rival.  Therefore, we were able to compare whether fans reported different perceptions of their relevant rivals in the former and current conferences after competing in the new conference for three seasons.  We found that fans of the Texas A&M Aggies and the Missouri Tigers did not report significantly different perceptions of their former (i.e., Texas Longhorns; Kansas Jayhawks) or current (i.e., LSU Tigers; Arkansas Razorbacks) after competing in the SEC for three seasons.  On the other hand, fans of the TCU Horned Frogs reported less sense of satisfaction from beating the Boise State Broncos and more satisfaction from beating the Baylor Bears after conference realignment.  Additionally, they perceived the behavior of Baylor Bears fans to be more negative after competing in the Big 12 for three seasons.

The key in all three of these findings is history of competition.  Remember, history of competition was identified as an important antecedent and characteristic of rivalry (Havard, 2014; Kilduff et al., 2013; Quintanar et al., 2015; Tyler & Cobbs, 2015).  Texas A&M played the Texas Longhorns 118 times beginning in 1894 (the game was continuously played from 1915 to 2011), and the Missouri Tigers played the Kansas Jayhawks 120 times.  Additionally, Texas A&M has played LSU 54 times, and Missouri has played Arkansas only four times.  Therefore, it could be expected that three seasons was not enough time for new rivalries to supplant ones with such history.  Likewise, the TCU Horned Frogs played the Boise State Broncos only four times compared to the 112 times they have played the Baylor Bears.  The really cool thing about these findings is they strongly support the notion that history is vitally important to the formation and overall health of a rivalry.

These findings show (1) perceptions of rivals and willingness to consider anonymous acts of aggression build over time, and (2) a period of three or four years is not enough to make them completely replace the former rival with a new rival team.  It is very important to know how fans feel about rival teams in their conferences or leagues because it can help administrators promote the sport product but also prepare for contests between teams.  Further, knowing fan likelihood to consider committing anonymous acts of aggression is very important for sport managers of teams trying to start new rivalries because they have the opportunity to promote a rivalry in a way that may help alleviate some of the negative behavior that can occur between fans of rival teams.  Next are some examples of responsibly promoting rivalry.

Remember my experiment with Dan Wann and Rick Grieve?  Well, let’s talk about real world examples of sport organizations responsibly promoting rivalry.  When the Nebraska Cornhuskers joined the Big Ten Conference in 2011, conference officials decided they would play the Iowa Hawkeyes at the end of the football season.  Nebraska and Iowa are neighboring states, and share some competitive history, so it made sense that the conference would try to start a new rivalry between the schools.  In an effort to positively promote the rivalry, officials at Nebraska and Iowa worked together to develop an idea that would (1) increase excitement around the game, but also (2) engage fans of both teams in a responsible and positive way.  The idea they came up with was to call the game the “Heroes Game”.  Among the joint-recognitions during the game, one citizen from Iowa and one citizen from Nebraska are recognized at halftime for positively reflecting on their state.  For example, one citizen was honored during the game for being a military vet while another for saving a family from a burning house.  This is a good example of organizations and sport managers trying to work together to responsibly promote a rivalry.  And remember our discussion about in-groups.  By promoting the “Heroes Game”, fans of both teams could feel like there were part of their favorite team’s in-group, but also part of the larger in-group of people at the game or in the combined two states.

Another example of responsible promotion using Nebraska football is naming the annual football trophy between the Cornhuskers and the Wisconsin Badgers the “Freedom Trophy”, paying homage to active and veteran members of the military.  Just like with the Heroes Game, fans of both teams can feel part of a smaller in-group as supporters of their favorite teams, and a larger in-group as proud national citizens.  These two descriptions illustrate how sport managers try to promote a rivalry game in a responsible manner.

These examples are balanced however with the rivalry trophy between the Cornhuskers and the Minnesota Golden Gophers named the “$5 Bits of Broken Chair Trophy”.  Some background on this trophy.  When Bo Pelini was the football coach at Nebraska, someone started a “Faux Pelini” account on Twitter, where they would send out funny and ironic messages (that obviously was not affiliated with the Nebraska Athletics Department).  One year leading up to the football game between Nebraska and Minnesota, Goldy Gopher, the official Golden Gophers mascot account, and Faux Pelini had an entertaining, and all in fun as best anyone could tell, exchange on Twitter.    The exchange ended with Goldy Gopher suggesting he get to break a chair over the Faux Pelini’s head if Minnesota won the game.  Faux Pelini responded that he would agree to the terms as a long as he could make a trophy from the broken bits of the chair.  Thus, the $5 Bits of Broken Chair Trophy was born.  An interesting note about the three Nebraska Cornhuskers examples is that the administrators tried to create and promote rivalries in a responsible manner with the Heroes Game and the Freedom Trophy, but a very popular rivalry that grew organically from the fan level is the $5 Bits of Broken Chair Trophy.  So, work may also be needed at the fan level to help promote rivalries in a responsible manner.

Activity #10

Using your favorite and rival teams you have identified, plan an event that will increase interest in the rivalry game while controlling for negative behavior among fan groups.  Why do you think this event will be successful?