April 24, 2017

WCU researcher helps identify top NFL rivalries

With the NFL season rapidly coming to a close as four remaining teams vie for a spot in the 2017 Super Bowl, what will be the next big rivalry that develops?

Western Carolina University assistant professor of sport management David Tyler and Northern Kentucky University colleague Joe Cobbs, an associate professor of sports business, have spent more than seven years studying sports rivalry, which has led to their release of survey data that names the NFL’s top rivalries. It comes on the heels of their 2014 release of college football’s top rivalries.

“We are interested in rivalry as a whole,” Tyler said. “From an academic standpoint, we wanted to know if the properties we found in college football applied more generally. So we started looking at professional leagues, as well. We found that they did hold true.

“From a larger standpoint, people who are doing studies and want to know about the NFL, the NHL or all these different leagues need to know about the rivalries within that league. It’s important to do this research in each league,” he said.

Tyler and Cobbs asked 2,166 NFL fans to allocate 100 “rivalry points” to as many as 10 teams. They then aggregated the responses of each team’s fans and calculated the mean point allocations, or “rivalry score,” toward each opponent (100 maximum). Using network analysis, they determined the strongest mutual rivalries, the most lopsided rivalries and the most hated rivals in the NFL.

Surely the league’s top rivalry would have to be Pittsburgh-Baltimore, Dallas-Washington, or Green Bay-Chicago? Nope. Try Atlanta-New Orleans, which had 139 aggregate points. Atlanta fans assigned New Orleans with 74 points while Saints fans gave the Falcons 65. That rivalry was followed by the Packers-Bears with 126 points, Steelers-Ravens with 123, New York Jets-New England (106) and Dallas-Philadelphia (101).

“The Atlanta-New Orleans rivalry might seem surprising at first, but it’s because those teams see fewer opponents as rivals, so there are fewer teams to siphon off the rivalry points,” Tyler said. “That puts more emphasis on just those specific rival teams.”

The team named most frequently as a rival, or the most hated team in the NFL, is New England. The Patriots received 317 points from fans of other teams. Next was Dallas (227), followed by Pittsburgh (225) and Green Bay (209).

The most-lopsided rivalry, or one with the greatest allocated point disparity, was Indianapolis-New England. While Colts fans assigned the Patriots 68 rivalry points, New England fans gave Indianapolis just nine points.

“We do see that a lot, these one-sided rivalries,” Tyler said. “We see that across all the different sports.”

Tyler said the data collected pertaining to these rivalries could be beneficial to marketers, sponsors, event managers and television networks. From a marketer’s perspective, it allows them to properly market rivalry games. If a game is a big rivalry, the team can promote it more. Tyler warns that sponsors have to be wary of rivalries when it comes time to select which team to sponsor.

“If you’re a Pittsburgh company who sponsors the Steelers and you’re looking to possibly sponsor the Ravens, too, you have to be really careful about how your Steelers’ consumers are going to perceive that sponsorship if you’re also sponsoring a rival team,” Tyler said.

Event managers may have to staff games more heavily when rivals are involved. For broadcast network partners, the data can help when selecting which games to show nationally. Tyler said rivalry data for the NBA, the NHL and Major League Baseball will be available soon.

For more information about their rivalry study, visit the website knowrivalry.com.

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