I got to watch one of my favorite rivalries in all of sports yesterday. Duke vs. North Carolina. For a change, I didn’t have to deal with the hype machine that is ESPN. You see, CBS had the latest ‘Battle for Tobacco Road,’ and I noticed one very important thing. They didn’t hype the rivalry up like ESPN does. They let the game do the hype job on its own. It was a joy to watch. There was no Dick (Duke) Vitale screaming on top of his lungs, telling you how it doesn’t get any better than Duke and Carolina baby. It was just the game. And it was a novel concept.
This is not to rip on ESPN, not by any stretch. It just made me realize that the folks in Bristol, CT have a tremendous influence on the way we watch our sports. The way they hype up certain rivalries (not just Duke v. Carolina – it’s whatever rivalry they happen to be airing), well let’s just say it comes off as less hype and more shoving it down your throat than anything else.
Is Duke-Carolina the best rivalry in all of sports? There are plenty of people that think so and plenty who don’t. But, watch ESPN during the week leading up to their coverage of Duke-Carolina. Is the hype just a bit much? Maybe it is.
After all is said and done, there’s no doubt that Duke-Carolina is a great rivalry. But is it the best in sports? Not in my book, but then again, this is a subjective thing. What works for me may not work for you. What works for ESPN certainly doesn’t work for me.
So, that being said, here is a list of my favorite sports rivalries. The ones I get juiced up to watch. Again, these are mine. Mine alone. I don’t expect everyone to agree. I’m sure plenty will disagree. But, that’s what makes it a great debate. And, that’s what ESPN fails to realize before they put their hype machine into action.
10. Roger Federer-Rafael Nadal: Federer is chasing history, specifically Pete Sampras’ record of most career Grand Slams. Nadal is the man who stands in his way. When these two meet, it’s normally in the finals at a major, like the Australian Open, French Open, Wimbledon, or the U.S. Open. It has become this era’s version of McEnroe-Borg, McEnroe-Connors, and – more recently – Sampras Agassi. It has become must watch television for me.
9. Cowboys-Redskins: Both teams have seen their ups and downs, but they always put on a show when they get together. These are two NFC East rivals that just don’t like each other. That kind of animosity always gets me to watch. I got hooked on this one when I was a kid in the early 80’s, and the Redskins were winning Super Bowls while Dallas was trying to prevent their eventual fall from grace.
8. Mets-Cubs: I wasn’t around during 1969. But, I was around in 1984. That was the year the Mets turned the corner. For the first time in my life, my team was a contender for the NL East title. The Cubs ruined the dream. I still haven’t gotten over it.
7. Tiger-Phil: I know. For it to be a rivalry, it’s got to be competitive from both sides. Phil hasn’t kept up his end of the bargain against Tiger. But, as sick as it may sound, that’s what makes this rivalry so much fun for me. Phil jokes about Tiger’s weak equipment. Yet, Phil almost never beats Tiger. I enjoy watching Tiger make Phil eat his words.
6. Cubs-Cardinals: I think you have to live in the Midwest to understand this rivalry. This rivalry is really all about the fans. I’ve been to Cubs-Cardinals games at Wrigley. The first thing that sticks out when you watch a Cubs-Cards game in Chicago is how many Cardinals fans are actually in the stands. Cards fans travel well, know their baseball, and are some of the most polite fans you’ll ever come across (even when they are plastered). Cubs fans, well, let’s just say they can be unruly and leave it at that. This is a fun rivalry to take in.
5. Duke-North Carolina: I know a few people in Bristol, CT that are in shock right about now. How in the world could anyone have this rivalry this low on his personal list? Actually, it’s really simple. It’s one of those rivalries where you have to be from there, or be an alum of one of the schools to really get. If you aren’t, then it’s nice to watch. It’s excellent basketball. But it isn’t the be all and end all. Quick, someone check on Dickie V. and make sure he’s going to be okay.
4. Kobe-Lebron: I grew up during the Larry vs. Magic days. The Celtics and Lakers were always battling for the NBA championship, but for me, it was always Magic vs. Larry, not Lakers vs. Celtics. These two great players never gave an inch in their personal rivalry. You can sense the same thing developing between Lebron James and Kobe Bryant. And, if the Lakers and Cavs make the finals in June, you can bet this rivalry will explode.
3. Yankees-Red Sox: So, you say you’re surprised that this New York native doesn’t have this rivalry higher on his list? Well, it’s simple. This rivalry has always been more important for Sox fans than Yankee fans. Sox fans always looked at the Yankees with jealous eyes. The Yankee fans never did because they had all the titles. Then things changed in 2004, when the Sox won it all. Now Yankee fans have caught up. With both fan bases fully engaged, this is easily the best rivalry in the big leagues.
2. Michigan-Ohio State: Even as a kid growing up in New York City (not a college football hot spot), this was always a game I watched. I watched because my father did. This is one of those rivalres that gets talked about for 365 days a year. The trash talk is non stop. I’ve worked with Michigan and Ohio State fans. They really do live and breathe this rivalry. And, normally both teams are at the top of the polls (with 2008 being the rare exception). That means there are normally BCS implications involved. This is great stuff to watch.
1. Packers-Bears: In my mind, this is the only professional rivalry that has the feel of a college rivalry. I’ve lived in the Midwest for ten years now. I’ve lived in Chicago for six years, and now I’m in Wisconsin. I’ve seen it from both sides. It really is true. Fans of both teams truly believe that if you’re only going to win two games a year, it better be the two games these two teams play against each other. I’ve seen this rivalry break up families. You wouldn’t believe how many Packer fans I know who live in Chicago. There are also plenty of Bears fans who live in Wisconsin. There’s a lot of bad blood flowing in both directions. The jokes fans fire at each other are funny (mean spirited but funny). It might not have the same ‘sizzle’ that some of the other great sports rivalries in sports do. It doesn’t get the ESPN treatment. It deserves it, but it doesn’t get it.
So, there you go. That’s my list. Again, what works for me may not work for you. But, that’s the point I was trying to make. Remember that the next time any media outlet (ahem, ESPN) tries to shove something down your throat.