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Top Ten Sports Rivalries

This month my coworker Brian and I (with an assist from another coworker) decided to tackle the list of the top ten rivalries in sports. This was a bit tough to pull together because rivalries tend to wax and wane depending on the strength of each team in any given year. It's also difficult given that neither of us has ever lived on the west coast. Throw in on top of that the sheer number of sports considered (not necessarily represented, but considered): college football and basketball, and professional baseball, football, basketball, hockey, tennis, and golf. I'm sure there are omissions to the list, so let me know what we missed!

10. Montreal Canadiens vs. Toronto Maple Leafs (NHL)

This one was tough, do you choose this rivalry or Edmonton vs. Vancouver? When you throw in French vs. English Canada, the Habs and Leafs is the rivalry to choose. This one would have ranked higher, but it cooled in my mind a bit given that they played in separate conferences from 1981 - 1998.

9. Texas vs. Oklahoma (NCF)

People in Texas and Oklahoma love football as much as Canadians(ens) love hockey. While always significant, this rivalry has gained some luster as of late given the high rankings that these two teams have had. 6 times since 2000, one of these teams has played for the national championship.

8. Army vs. Navy (NCF)

In many respects this is one of the most fun college games to watch each year. What could be bigger than bragging rights between the different service branches? Unfortunately the military academies are tough places to recruit to, so at least one if not both teams are not usually very good, dropping this game further down the list than it would otherwise deserve.

7. Auburn vs. Alabama (NCF)

Yup, a third college football rivalry in a row! The Iron Bowl always turns out to be a great game no matter how good or bad each team is. In the past ten years, 8 out of 10 Iron Bowls were decided by 10 points or less.

6. Federer vs. Nadal (ATP)

At first glance this may seem to be surprising and may seem short lived compared to the other rivalries on this list, but the intensity and importance of this rivalry cannot be overlooked. Federer may be the greatest ever, but Nadal has had his number, amassing a 13-7 record against him. They have been number one and number to for 5 years straight now.

5. Cubs vs. Cardinals (MLB)

First, it's gotta be up there just for the sheer number of times they've played each other; over 2,100 times! Add in proximity and the fact that both towns love baseball and you have all of the ingredients for a great rivalry. I think jealousy plays a role too as the Cardinals have had postseason success that Cubs fans can only dream about (10, second most all time, but only 2 since 1980).

4. Bears vs. Packers (NFL)

This is without a doubt the greatest NFL rivalry of all. There's just something about cold weather division rivals who both play outdoors that makes it extra special. The surprising thing about this one is that they've only played each other in the playoffs once, back in 1941 (a Bears victory).

3. Yankees vs. Red Sox (MLB)

This really doesn't need much explanation. In terms of peak intensity, I don't think anything quite matches this one. Over the last decade, it's been unparalleled with a number of notable playoff match-ups. Who can forget Grady Little or the bloody sock? If anything this is a rivalry that has gone too far and has caused too much rancor between fan bases.

2. Duke vs. North Carolina (NCB)

After the first weekend of the NCAA tournament there are no college basketball games I look forward to more than Duke vs. UNC. Both teams are so good and so close (only 8 miles separate the campuses) and everyone seems to care so much. Sweeping the season series is almost as important as reaching the final four. It's also fun to see incredibly smart college students acting so ridiculously over a basketball game.

1. Michigan vs. Ohio St. (NCF)

This one has benefited from the quality of the programs as well as its location on the schedule. It's the last game of the regular season for each and the Big Ten title has been on the line on 22 different occasions during this rivalry. No other rivalry can match the sustained intensity. It's been the fiercest in college football for more than 40 years now.


  1. Being a Red Sox fan, I may be biased, but I'd still put the Sox-Yankees at #1. My younger brother, who attended the University of Michigan, would agree. I actually think it's harder to maintain the intensity of a rivalry in baseball, because it's harder to "get up" for 19 games a year than it is for 1. That isn't to knock down football rivalries, and I agree with most of what you say here (though I may rank Auburn-Alabama higher).

  2. In Marcus' defense, he did have Yankees / Red Sox as his number one rivalry. I had them third. Since Marcus knows that I'm smarter than him, he put them third on the "official" list... I'm kidding! We had the same #2 (OSU/UM), and our #1 and #3 were flipped. So Marcus called on Joe to break the three-way tie.

    I think that proves that these are three of the top sports rivalries, and any one of the three could legitimately be #1.


  3. I think that what it boiled down to for the others was duration of intensity. Michigan/Ohio St. and Duke/UNC have been in the national spotlight longer.

  4. After I posted my comment I called my brother to see what he says. While agreeing the Michigan-Ohio State is huge, he still thought the Sox-Yankees was significantly bigger. But he also admitted that he grew up a Red Sox fan, whereas he attended UM, so he isn't a lifelong fan.

    He also brought up a good point, which also applies to the UNC-Duke rivalry. He thought college rivalries are heightened by the college atmosphere, but it can be a false heightening. As he put it, college students + alcohol = crazy stupidity. That may appear to give greater intensity to a rivalry, but in reality it's just college students being stupid. Interesting thought. Either way, all of them are huge rivalries.

    And I mentioned that I'd rank Auburn-Alabam higher. I spent a little time in AL (had a roommate from there in college), and I was greatly impressed by the rivalry. The entire state shuts down when they're playing; it's ridiculous.

  5. I think you make a good point about the stupidity of the college students adding falsely to the perception of the rivalry. Duke and UNC fans camping out in tents during winter? Admittedly it is North Carolina, but it isn't that warm.

  6. Even the Eastern Seaboard Programming Network agrees with me :p As of 2000 they had UM/OSU as #1. Ali/Frazier should probably be on the list, I had entirely forgotten about them, and Palmer/Nicklaus was amazing also for those who consider golf a sport :)

  7. 'Eastern Seaboard' hahahaha.

    A lot has happened since 2000 in the Red Sox/Yankees rivalry to push it to the forefront in my opinion. We didn't include boxing as an option, and I wanted to keep the rivalries current, hence our pick of Nadal and Federer over Sampras and Agassi.

  8. Individual rivalries are a completely different animal, in my opininon. What makes the team rivalries so intense is rarely the athletes themselves (though there are exceptions, as the numerous fights over the years between the Sox and Yankees show). The Ali/Frazier rivalry was incredibly personal (thanks to Ali) in a way that team rivalries never will be.

    I should also point out that we're showing our age. The thought that the Sox-Yankees rivalry has grown in the last decade (not that you were saying exactly that, Marcus, but many do) is simply not true. The Sox-Yankees teams in the 70's absolutely hated each other. There were a bunch of fights, players refused to talk to each other, and so on. The bottom line is that they have always hated each other, ESPN has (wisely) chosen to make a buck off it.

  9. I can confirm that Marcus was *not* drunk when putting together his list. Neither was I. :)

    It's a good point about alcohol. But correct me if I'm wrong - during the actual game, collegiate athletic events are not allowed to sell beer at games. Professional games can have some real moron fans when they are over served.

    When it comes down to it, I think that college sports have a greater rivalry than professional sports. The reasoning is simple. When you attend a school, you feel a sense of loyalty because you are a student there. The school in some ways defines who you are. There is that direct attachment. With professional sports, there is definitely a loyalty component, but you really don't have the direct connection to that team.

  10. I don't know if college games can sell beer or not, but a lot of kids get hammered before the games anyways.

    Besides that, I think you're making an excellent point. College rivalries do strike me as very intense, hence all of the collegiate rivalries on the list. You may be capturing what's at the essence of it, identity is bound up in the rivalry.

  11. Marcus is right, most students get loaded before games anyway, so it doesn't matter if alcohol is served.

    I think where you live makes a difference. I live in Boston, where college sports take a backseat to professional ones. Thus, the "loyalty" you speak of regarding collegiate sports is exactly what I'd say about our professional sports teams. If I grew up in North Carolina or Alabama, I might see things differently.


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