Reds-Cards may get our blood flowing, but NKU class measures hotter baseball rivalries

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CINCINNATI -- Think the Cincinnati Reds-St. Louis Cardinals rivalry is the strongest in baseball?

Not quite.

A group of Northern Kentucky University students recently conducted a survey of Major League Baseball fans to see which rivalry ranked highest in that sport.

The answer? The Los Angeles Dodgers and San Francisco Giants was the strongest based on the criteria put forth by the Sports Business 480 class, taught by Dr. Joe Cobbs.

For the study, 1,277 MLB fans allocated 100 “rivalry points” for their favorite team against up to 10 opponents. Dr. Cobbs and his students collected the responses and awarded a “rivalry score” toward each opponent to determine the strongest mutual rivalries, the most lopsided ones and the most hated rivals in baseball. The Dodgers-Giants rivalry topped the survey with 153 rivalry points, topping the New York Yankees-Boston Red Sox rivalry, which totaled 143 rivalry points.

“I wasn’t too surprised by the results, but I think that one of the surprising things was the big gap between those top two rivalries and everybody else,” Cobbs said. “I figured Cubs-Cardinals would also be in the top 5. There was a 30-point gap from Yanks-Red Sox to third place, which I think speaks to how intense the rivalries are between those fan bases.”

The study can be taken for a variety of sports on the website knowrivalry.com, which is run by Cobbs and Dr. David Tyler of Western Carolina University. The survey was posted to message boards for each of the 30 Major League Baseball teams, in order to get a wide range of responses.

“The data comes from highly identified fans who are very engaged,” Cobbs said. “But we’ve only been doing baseball for about a year. When we first started studying rivalry, we looked at some of the research that had been done in politics and nation-states. There was very little scholarly research published about rivalry in sports.”

The website addressed multiple areas that can spark a rivalry, which fall into three basic categories - conflict, peer and bias - themed according to how sports fans responded to an initial study about rivalry. Conflict takes into account such factors as frequency of competitions, both historical and recent parity, star factors, and defining moments. Peer includes geography, competition for personnel and cultural similarity between teams or cities. Bias is perceived dominance, unfairness in treatment by leagues or governing bodies and cultural disparities between teams or cities. 

Locally, the Reds-Cardinals rivalry ranked the eighth most intense in the survey, but also the sixth most lopsided. Reds fans assigned 51 rivalry points to the Cardinals, but Cardinals fans only reciprocated with 13 points against the Reds.

“There are downfalls to every measurement system, and with 100 points, you’re creating an artificial limit on how much rivalry you can express as a fan,” said Cobbs. “For the Reds, some of their rivals, like the Cardinals and the Cubs, have other rivalries that are pretty intense, the fans allocate a lot of points for those, and they don’t have a lot left for the Reds.”

The Reds were the fifth-least hated team in the survey, accumulating a mere 28 rivalry points. The only teams less hated than the Reds were the Padres, Miami Marlins, Houston Astros, and the least-hated team of all, the Colorado Rockies, who only bothered other teams’ supporters for 10 points.

However, he did have a suggestion for a natural rival for the hometown nine that mirrors a heated pro football rivalry: the Pittsburgh Pirates.

“I’ve heard a lot of people, Reds fans, talk about the Pirates. The Cardinals don’t really reciprocate that rivalry,” Cobbs said. “A better potential rival for the Reds is the Pirates, because of the geography and the cultural similarity of the cities, the Bengals-Steelers rivalry, but we don’t have many respondents from the Pirates fanbase.”

“If they both become prominent again, or meet for some significant games, I would hope that rivalry would be rekindled, as a Reds fan,” said Cobbs, who admitted to being a lifelong Reds fan. “We’re working on trying to get more of their fan data. Locally, that’s of interest to us.”

From a business perspective, data can be used to determine how to take advantage of a rivalry, or a lack of one.

“How do you maximize revenue? That’s always the biggest question,” said Cobbs. “With a lot of teams, it’s fairly obvious who the top rival is for a particular team, but where our data is very useful is for that second or third rival from a fan’s perspective, and the quantification of that rivalry, because that’s not always obvious.”

“There’s so much coverage that being able to put some quantitative data behind those other rivalries helps with packaging, promoting, with TV scheduling,” Cobbs said. “This data can be a useful guide for teams, and from a sponsorship standpoint, the idea of rivalry and packaging that to sell it to a sponsor has caught on in the last five to 10 years. Understanding the passion, or lack of passion, behind the rivalry could be helpful in making some of those decisions.”

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