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NKU Project Measures Just How Heated - Or Lopsided - Sports Rivalries Can Be

sports rivalries
Aaron Doster
St. Louis Cardinals' Yadier Molina, middle left, grabs Cincinnati Reds' Nick Castellanos, middle, while Mike Moustakas, right, grabs St. Louis Cardinals' Jake Woodford during an April 3 game in Cincinnati. A new NKU project measures sports rivalries.

As fans return to stadiums, not only are they reconnecting with their favorite teams, but their most hated ones, too. One local university is using research methods to track the biggest sports rivalries.

Northern Kentucky University researchers are conducting surveys to gauge rivalries in a project called KnowRivalry. Professor of Sports Business and Event Management Joe Cobbs originally looked at how rivalries impacted attendance. However, something wasn't right.

"The measures of rivalry were, perhaps we could say, rudimentary," Cobbs said.

Now, Cobbs has developed a new method for diehard sports fans. When taking the survey, you pick your favorite team and assign points to the rivals. You answer questions about your love for the team, but that's not all.

"How upset would you be if a fan of the rival team married into your family, or if your child became a fan of the rival team, or if you were hiring somebody, how likely would you be to hire a fan of the rival team?" Cobbs posits.

It also measures how much you enjoy the other team's misfortune.

"That gives us a bit of a 'rivalry recipe' if you will, so it kind of tells us what are the ingredients that make this particular rivalry what it is," Cobbs said.

Credit KnowRivalry (screenshot of website)
KnowRivalry (screenshot of website)
Here's what the homepage of looks like.

People fill out surveys through the project's website each day and students help sort through it. While working on the project, they were dealing with the pandemic, forcing students to work online. Business student Jonah Krebs says it was a blessing in disguise.

"I actually found it almost easier being online," Krebs said. "I had more time to work on the project, so being online definitely helped."

The project found rival fans still hate each other. For example, the research shows the Red Sox and Yankees have the most heated MLB rivalry. And yes, most everyone hates the New England Patriots. But what may shock you is how lopsided some of these rivalries are.

"Reds-Cardinals is an example of an unbalanced one," Cobbs said. "The Reds fans see it as a rivalry; Cardinals fans much less so."

Credit Aaron Doster / AP
Benches clear into the outfield during a baseball game between the St. Louis Cardinals and the Cincinnati Reds in Cincinnati, Saturday, April 3, 2021. The Reds won 9-6.

Now to be fair, the Reds haven't been that successful recently. They made the playoffs last year, but that was the first time in almost a decade. The research shows fans from different generations may see rivalries differently, as not all fans are growing up in the glory days of their favorite teams. Business student Krebs gives an example with the NBA.

"One of the top 10 rivalries was the Warriors and Cavs, which I mean, they played in the Finals four years in a row, but other than that, before that it wasn't really a rivalry. And now, those two teams, I couldn't even tell you when they played," Krebs said. "They used to be the primetime game on Christmas Day, now they're just Tuesday night."

Some fans were able to experience their favorite team's glory days, including my Cincinnati Public Radio colleague Howard Wilkinson. He went to his first Reds game when he was six. In college, he saw the Big Red Machine.

"The Great 8 of the Reds, one of the best lineups that ever - I mean ever - stepped onto a baseball field," Wilkinson said. "And you want to talk about rivalry? In those days, the biggest rivalry in baseball, and I'm not kidding you, was the Reds and the Los Angeles Dodgers."

But not anymore. Now, the Reds don't even measure as a Dodgers rival. So why does Wilkinson consider them one?

"They were two teams where the players, they hated each other," Wilkinson said. "That's what a good rivalry is. You can't have a rivalry in baseball unless the players really don't like each other."

It comes down to your experience and that can vary by generation.

"However recent it is, or in my case, how far back it goes, you're going to view it through that prism and that's just natural," Wilkinson said.

NKU's methods may change in the future to factor in different age groups. The goal is to show accurate data, but NKU senior Lilly Ronan says making changes to the research too soon could throw off the data.

"I think it would be too soon to say definitively 'This needs to change,' " Ronan said. "I think there needs more time for it to kind of hit the ground and get more momentum before things start to get altered."

While the rivalries might not be the same ones they once were, sports fans will have rivalries for generations to come.

Cory Sharber attended Murray State University majoring in journalism and political science and comes to Cincinnati Public Radio from NPR Member station WKMS.