The New York Red Bulls’ 2-1 win over the Philadelphia Union was one of sports’ most fascinating events last week, if for reasons completely unrelated to soccer and the result: it continued a bizarre trend of so-called rivalries feeling less like emotionally tolling grudge matches and more like forced hype.
Since coming into the league, Union fans have been adamant about calling the Red Bulls their rivals, and Red Bulls fans have continually responded by ignoring Philadelphia — with good reason. In sports, the need to turn every team into a pair of rivals has become overwhelming.
College sports is the worst offender. Notre Dame, for example, is rivals with everything that moves, and it was refreshing when football coach Brian Kelly dismissed the media’s hype of his team’s “rivalry” with Michigan last year. The NHL is not alone among major leagues in creating “Rivalry Week” as a way to build excitement for some otherwise boring matchups, including Buffalo Sabres-Detroit Red Wings — a tame game by anyone’s standards. And the most topical case is the Los Angeles Clippers and Golden State Warriors, who — while battling each other in the NBA playoffs for the first time — are being called rivals because both teams have been pretty good lately and the players don’t seem to like each other much.
This ubiquitous presence of rivalries across sports cheapens the real thing, like the Oakland Raiders and Kansas Chiefs or the Red Bulls and their real rivals, D.C. United. Not only have those teams’ fans passionately loved to hate each other for a very long time, but everyone in those organizations — from the coaches down to strength and conditioning coaches — has good reason to feel the same way. A win over United is something to savor for the rest of the year for the Red Bulls fans, regardless of whether it’s a meaningful game or not.
That’s what a rivalry is, and why ESPN should be hesitant to call the Clippers and Warriors one: any ill will that with a life expectancy of a few years doesn’t do justice to actual rivalries. In five years’ time, the fans and players won’t hate each other, just as the Notre Dame faithful don’t have much reason to dislike Michigan and Sabres fans will never get excited about playing Detroit.