Rivalry games are the best. No matter the sport or the circumstance, a win over a rival feels so much sweeter than a run-of-the-mill victory. That’s not a groundbreaking thought. In fact, it’s stupidly obvious, but I’ve been thinking about rivalries a lot in recent days. Why do we get so much satisfaction from beating a geographical or historical rival? The beauty of being a sports fan is the idea of being a part of something bigger than your individual self, the connective tissue that unites our collective passion, and nothing’s better than feeling that collective superiority over those you despise (with proper perspective, of course) the most. I don’t believe I know, or talk to, or have to deal with, any Baltimore Ravens fans…but I want those fans to be sad Friday morning.
The rivalry games come fast and furious for teams I support over the next few weeks. As I write this, the Pirates are wrapping up their series against the Cardinals. After that, they conclude the regular season against the Reds (and if you don’t worry about the kind of nonsense the nothing-to-play-for Reds might muster to hinder the Pirates’ playoff prospects, then you haven’t been paying attention the last few seasons). If the Pirates somehow manage to make up the deficit against the Cardinals (not looking good based on Monday’s result coupled with Charlie Morton’s first inning in the second game of the double-header) by beating St. Louis and Cincinnati, wouldn’t that be so much sweeter than beating, say, the Marlins and the Padres to achieve an identical result?
When the Ravens come to town on Thursday night, we’ll hear the commentators wax poetic on the hard-hitting, but mutually respectful, nature of Steelers-Ravens games. It doesn’t matter that that reputation might not reflect the reality of the games as much as it did a few years ago. That’s the storyline, that’s how the fans think of the game, and that’s how it will be packaged. And we’ll eat it up, because nothing would feel better for Steelers fans than effectively ending the Ravens season in week four, on primetime television, with the backup quarterback.
If you listen to NBCSN, the Penguins are rivals with the Red Wings, Capitals, Islanders, Blackhawks, Bruins, and Rangers. They’re not fooling anyone. Penguins’ fans know that games against the Flyers draw the most heat, and wins or losses against Philadelphia affect the moods of Penguins’ fans more than any (non-playoff) game ever could. I have a friend who was a student at Penn State during the 5-overtime game during the 2000 playoffs, and he says the atmosphere on campus that night was incomparable to anything he’s experienced in his life as a sports fan. Screw you, Keith Primeau.
College football is built on rivalries. As a Notre Dame fan, I do not have a lot of first-hand experience with the intensity of a true college rivalry. Michigan will always have Ohio State, and USC will always have UCLA, but virtually every team on Notre Dame’s schedule will view the Irish as their second-biggest game. That makes every weekend feel important. Pitt fans, understandably, dislike that neither West Virginia nor Penn State have been on their schedule recently, but as long as people cheer on the Panthers, they’ll talk about 13-9, and they’ll swell with pride. No one cares that team finished 5-7, but they’ll remember with great fondness that their team denied the Mountaineers a trip to the national championship game. When it comes to rivalries, schadenfreude is a powerful force.
The Riverhounds were knocked out of the USL playoffs by New York Red Bulls II last weekend in painfully Riverhoundsy fashion (twice giving up the lead). It was a disappointing result, to be sure, but the team achieved their ultimate season-long goal of reaching the playoffs in head coach Mark Steffens first year with the club. In order to reach that goal, they needed to defeat their in-state derby rival, Harrisburg, on Harrisburg’s home pitch, in the final game of the season. Short of winning a championship, it’s hard to imagine a better way to end a season.
This weekend, Everton hosts Liverpool in the Merseyside Derby. That might not mean much to many of you, but as an Everton supporter, it means everything. Neither team is going to win the Premier League any time soon, and neither team is likely to realistically compete for a spot in the Champions League, so beating your rival across Stanley Park would provide a measure of success in campaigns that are otherwise frustrating and disappointing. Last season, Everton were dreadful. The high point of the season, by far, was Phil Jagielka’s 91st minute rocket of a goal at Anfield, Liverpool’s home ground. It wasn’t even a winner! Everton and Liverpool drew that day, but Evertonians will remember our captain’s Kop-silencing wonderstrike for years to come.
Next weekend, the US plays Mexico at the Rose Bowl in a one-game playoff to determine the North American representative at the Confederations Cup. It will be an incredible spectacle that wouldn’t have the same cache if you replaced either team with, say, Honduras. Both teams want to defeat and discourage their biggest rival. Getting to the Confederations Cup is just a really nice bonus.
Heck, I could even throw in the impending Presidents Cup singles matchup between Jordan Spieth and Jason Day to add some juice to their burgeoning rivalry. I know Rory McIlroy will be watching.
We watch sports because we like watching talented people plying their trade for our entertainment. We cheer for players, sure, but at the end of the day, we’re cheering for our school, or our city, or our country, more than the specific players that wear our teams’ jerseys. If Sidney Crosby was traded to the Flyers tomorrow, Pens fans would loathe him just as much as Flyers fans do now. That’s how it works. If someone told you the Steelers were going to go 2-14 next season, but gave you the option the pick the two games they would win…wouldn’t you choose the Ravens games (assuming the Patriots weren’t on the schedule)? In sports, victories are sweetened and losses softened by the communal nature of it all, and nothing replicates the emotional toll of a game against your rival. I better go buy a stress ball. The next couple of weeks will be rough.