WCU Researcher Examines Sports Rivalry

Feb 2, 2017

Super Bowl LI is this Sunday between the New England Patriots and Atlanta Falcons.  Hundreds of millions will watch, but if they aren't already fans of either team, who might they root for?  A Western Carolina University professor thinks he knows.

Seven years ago, David Tyler started researching sports rivalries with some academic colleagues.  The assistant professor of sports management at Western Carolina University wanted to shed light on the perception of rivalries from the fans themselves.

“We want to know what, and how, some teams get elevated beyond just simple competitors to this status of being a rival.”

The researchers come at the study from both marketing and social psychology viewpoints. 

“There’s a lot of what is known as ‘neo-tribalism’—where people attach themselves to social groups, and sports are a social group that a lot of people identify with. They see themselves as a part of the team, and the team is an extension of the self.”

As Super Bowl LI is ready to kick-off, Tyler says the New England Patriots are the NFL's most hated team.  This is despite the fact the Patriots didn't top factors like schadenfreude—or the general delight in another’s misfortune. 

“Raiders fans got a lot of schadenfreude—not the highest, but in the top half of the league. Interestingly the Buffalo Bills were the highest.”

As for the Falcons, Tyler says they won't have many fans in Louisiana.  That's because Atlanta's rivalry with the New Orleans Saints  is among the fiercest in the NFL, despite the fact many other rivalries getting more attention from sports media.  It was looking at  college sports however where Tyler got the most respondents to his research queries.   His studies show the dismissive nature of college football fans. For instance, Duke sees UNC as its top rival. However, the Tar Heels see NC State as their top rival. 

“As we dig into rivalry we more, understanding the cross-cultural side of that will help us get a better sense of how humans create these groups, and see the people who are in the out-group. We’re very excited about this research.”

Over the next few months, the researchers will release more data on the NFL and the other major professional sports leagues in North America.  

If you want to take the survey on rivalries to aid in the research, click here.