HIGHLAND HEIGHTS, Ky. – With the Major League Baseball (MLB) season set to begin next week, the discussion surrounding America’s pastime has already reached a fevered pitch in one Northern Kentucky University course this semester. In 2017, the Sports Business 480 class has focused on consumer research methods as related to sports rivalries.
Dr. Joe Cobbs, associate professor of sports business in the Haile/US Bank College of Business and instructor of the course, has been studying sports rivalry for over seven years with a colleague from Western Carolina University, Dr. David Tyler, and several NKU students and alumni.
Together Drs. Cobbs and Tyler developed the website www.knowrivalry.com to highlight their research on rivalry in sports, which now includes survey data from fans of almost every team in Major League Baseball.
“By studying sports rivalry, we have not only learned research methods but also realized that rivalry is not only a hot topic on sports talk radio. Rivalries drive television ratings, merchandise sales, and generally ignite fans’ passion for their favorite team,” said Joe Trammell, a senior student in the course.
Dr. Cobbs added, “Without a proper understanding of fans’ perspective of rivalry, teams and leagues risk misaligned marketing strategies, improperly structured compensation incentives, and inaccurate forecasts of attendance and viewership demand.”
To quantify rivalry in baseball, students led by Drs. Cobbs and Tyler asked 1,277 MLB fans to allocate 100 “rivalry points” for their favorite team across up to 10 opponents. Cobbs and his students aggregated the responses of each team’s fans and calculated the mean point allocation, or “rivalry score,” toward each opponent (100 maximum). Using network analysis, they then determined the strongest mutual rivalries, the most lopsided rivalries, the most hated rivals in the network of professional baseball.
What rivalries are the most intense?
The most intense rivalries are the ones that see each other as a rival, which is reflected in the study by high aggregated reciprocal point allocations. For example, the Red Sox versus Yankees rivalry received 143 points, with Red Sox fans allocating 81 (out of 100) rivalry points to the Yankees, whose fans assigned almost 62 points to the Red Sox; this total ranked the rivalry as the second-most intense rivalry in the study.
The most intense MLB rivalry according to the fans’ aggregated points was the San Francisco Giants versus the Los Angeles Dodgers (85 + 68 = 153 points). Locally, the Cincinnati Reds most intense rivalry was with the St. Louis Cardinals, with Reds fans assigning 51 points to the Cardinals, but Cardinals fans reciprocating with just under 13 points to the Reds for a total rivalry score of 63.65 points. That aggregate score ranked the rivalry as the eighth most intense in MLB, and sixth most lopsided (see further explanation below).
Which rivalries are the most lopsided?
“Large disparities in how fans of opposing teams allocate points to each other’s team provide evidence of unbalanced rivalry, where one team’s fans view an opponent as a rival but the opposing fans do not share the same perspective,” Dr. Cobbs explained.
The greatest allocated point disparity was observed for the Arizona Diamondbacks, where fans assigned 61 points to the Dodgers, but Dodgers fans reciprocated with less than 4 of their possible 100 points—a disparity of 57 points. The second highest disparity also involved Dodgers’ fans, who allocated less than 3 points to the Padres, but Padres fans reciprocated with 50 points (47-point difference). For marketers and broadcasters, the potential for unbalanced rivalry is important to recognize – designating a contest as a “rivalry game” can depend on which side of the baseball diamond one sits.
Which team is most commonly identified as a rival?
To determine the most hated teams in MLB, Cobbs, Tyler, and NKU students aggregated the mean rivalry points assigned to each team by all other teams’ fans in the league. The New York Yankees were allocated the most rivalry points (305) across MLB and were named by 23 other teams as a rival. Following the Yankees as the object of other teams’ rivalry were the St. Louis Cardinals (295 points, named by 20 teams), and Los Angeles Dodgers (236 points, named by 12 teams). The Reds were the fifth least hated team in the league (28 points, but named by 10 teams), followed by the San Diego Padres (26 points), Miami Marlins (20 points), Houston Astros (17 points) and the least recognized rival, the Colorado Rockies (10 points).
For the sports business professionals trusted to oversee the economics of professional sports, data on the intensity of rivalries provides insight into fan passions and likely consumption trends. Rivalry drives ticket and broadcast demand, fosters stronger fan identification with favorite teams, and affects sponsorship activation strategies as sponsors seek involvement with prominent games that evoke enduring loyalties rather than a waning, one-sided competition.