What’s the Optimal Level of Sports Rivalry?

Josh Wright —  21 July 2010

Michael Jordan says he would have never called Larry Bird or Magic Johnson to join forces because “honestly, I was trying to beat those guys.”  Jordan catches himself, notes its a different era now, and concludes about the LeBron-Wade-Bosh cooperation that he “can’t say that’s a bad thing.”   Dan Shaugnessy (ESPN) recounts how Cardinals pitcher Bob Gibson refused to talk to non-Cardinals teammates during all-star games.  There is Reggie Miller and the Knicks.  The intense rivalry between Mohammed Ali and Joe Frazier is legendary.   Ray Lewis and anyone.  Shaugnessy suggests that the decline in intense rivalry is a bad thing for sports.  I tend to agree.

Here’s Bill Simmons again on the LeBron decision:

I think it’s a cop-out. Any super-competitive person would rather beat Dwyane Wade than play with him. Don’t you want to find the Ali to your Frazier and have that rival pull the greatness out of you? That’s why I’m holding out hope that LeBron signs with New York or Chicago (or stays in Cleveland), because he’d be saying, “Fine. Kobe, Dwight and Melo all have their teams. Wade and Bosh have their team. The Celtics are still there. Durant’s team is coming. I’m gonna go out and build MY team, and I’m kicking all their asses.” That’s what Jordan would have done. Hell, that’s what Kobe would have done.In May, after the Cavs were ousted in the conference semifinals, I wrote that LeBron was facing one of the greatest sports decisions ever: “winning (Chicago), loyalty (Cleveland) or a chance at immortality (New York).”

The quotes I’ve seen from Jordan, Barkley and others suggest that this just isn’t something that they would have thought of doing.  Sports culture has changed.  But is that a good thing or a bad one?  The optimal level of rivalry isn’t zero.  As Shaugnessy points out, there are significant benefits to rivalry from the perspective of the consumer in terms of creating more heated team rivalries, more intense individual rivalries, both of which can lead to great sports moments.  But this sort of intense inter-player rivalry (hatred seems to strong) is apparently declining across many sports with obvious changes in the sports culture, including, but not limited to, compensation and age.  But the optimal level cannot be infinite either.  There are some costs to increasing this sort of rivalry at the margin.  Some are obvious.  It could lead, at least in this case, to a narrowing of the distribution of talent across the league.  I don’t see why this would be a good thing on average.  But fans obviously will enjoy watching the Miami Heat show, whatever happens.  That counts for something I guess.

I can’t help but think these developments are bad for sports fans.   Is there a more optimistic story about the decline of real, intense rivalry in sports that I’m missing?  Enough has been said about whether LeBron’s “decision” and how he did it.  I’m not talking about that.  As a sports fan, I think I’m worse off for a sports world where this sort of coordination is the norm.  Should I?  Do you?

2 responses to What’s the Optimal Level of Sports Rivalry?

    Walter Sobchak 21 July 2010 at 2:04 pm

    I though LeBron copped out, but I am from Ohio, so I have a reason to be bitter. OTOH, From Miami’s viewpoint, how many basketballs do they think are are on the floor at one time. I think the league limits it to one.


    This could reflect that Lebron realizes that he could be Patrick Ewing or Dr. J of the current generation (both of whom Bill Simmons has written specifically on needing help to win). Erving finally won a championship by joining forces with Moses Malone. Ewing never got a ring, and seems to be more forgotten as well. I am sure that the difference in endorsements and in employment opportunities after pro basketball are asymmetrical as well, even though we need to adjust for Ewing’s background as a foreign-born player in the NBA.