Rivalries. It’s what makes sports so much fun sometimes. A battle between two teams that hate each other to the core. There’s not much more satisfaction as a sports fan when your team beats their rival. It gives you bragging rights over that opposing fan base. Simply put, rivalries are one of the best things in sports.
But what makes a great rivalry? Sure, you can play each other a lot, but if one team continually dominates the other, is it a rivalry? Nebraska and Missouri were considered rivals in the Big 12 when they were both still there, but Nebraska led the all time rivalry 65-36-3. Is that considered a rivalry when one team just dominates the other on a consistent basis? Nebraska won 24 straight from 1979-2002. How is that a rivalry?
A rivalry is like the tango: it takes two people to do it. For a rivalry to really matter, it needs to have history. It needs to provide memorable moments. It becomes must-see TV when those teams play. It captivates the casual sports fan. In total, it needs to matter in the larger sports world.
So, what are the best rivalries in sports? Instead of trying to rank them across all the sports and sparking an even greater debate, I’ve decided to list, what I think, are the best rivalries in the six big sports in America: NFL, NBA, MLB, NHL, D1 college football, and D1 college basketball. You, the reader, can determine their overall order on your own time. These are just what I believe are the best rivalries in each sport.
NFL: Bears vs. Packers
- Series record: Chicago leads 93-91-6
- Longest win streaks: Green Bay 10, Chicago 8
- First meeting: 1921 (Chicago 20, Green Bay 0)
- Two postseason meetings, 1941 and 2011 (Chicago won in 1941, Green Bay in 2011)
May I have a personal bias to this one? Absolutely. But when you look at the head-to-head record of this rivalry, it’s hard to not pick it as the best in the NFL. They’ve met 190 times overall, the most out of any football rivalry. In those meetings, the Bears have only outscored the Packers by 24 points, or 0.12 points/game. The Packers have won 13 NFL titles, while the Bears are second all-time with nine. While the series has seen many swings of dominance (Green Bay has won 9 of 11), it still continues today as one of the best rivalries in all of sports. So many legendary players and coaches have come from this rivalry, and the legacy it has left on the league is second to none.
NBA: Celtics vs. Lakers
- Series record: Boston leads 197-157
- Regular season: 154-126 Boston
- Postseason: 43-31 Boston
- NBA Finals history: 12 meetings, Boston leads 9-3
- Boston won first eight. LA has won three of previous four
- First meeting: November 9, 1948
There are not as many rivalries to choose from in the NBA, mostly because they don’t last as long as other sports rivalries do. Sure, the Pistons-Bulls battles in the late 80s/early 90s were classic. The games between the Pacers and Knicks in the mid-90s were legendary as well. But do those rivalries exist now? Not really. Of all the sports, the NBA has the most “new” rivalries form through the times. Current rivalries like Golden State vs. LA Clippers and Bulls vs. Heat have been nice additions to the league. Really, any team vs. LeBron’s team has become the new rivalry in the NBA (at least with my home town Bulls).
But the one rivalry that has stood the test of time is the Celtics and Lakers. The history between the two franchises is unmatched. 12 finals appearances against each other, which is an NBA record. 17 titles for the Celtics and 16 for the Lakers, easily the two top marks in the league. Bill Russell vs. Jerry West. Larry Bird vs. Magic Johnson. Kobe Bryant vs. Paul Pierce. The battles waged between the two teams are iconic. Despite the Celtics dominating the head-to-head record in the Finals, it was considered the premiere rivalry in the NBA, and it still is today. While both franchises are currently in rebuilding mode, the games between the two are still some of the most entertaining for fans. And, with multiple finals appearances between the two, it was an easy choice to pick as the best NBA rivalry.
MLB: Yankees vs. Red Sox
- Series record: Yankees lead 1,152-972-14
- 3 postseason appearances: 1999 ALCS (Yankees 4-1), 2003 ALCS (Yankees 4-3), 2004 ALCS (Red Sox 4-3)
- First meeting: April 26, 1901
- Longest win streaks: New York 12, Boston 17
This may just be the best rivalry in all of sports. The two teams have been playing each other for over 100 years, developing one of the craziest rivalries in sports. This rivalry has everything: history, bad blood, memorable matchups, and an almost perfect “David vs. Goliath” theme. The Yankees have won 27 World Series titles, while the Red Sox have only won five. For 84 years, “The Curse of the Bambino” lived with the Red Sox, referencing the famous selling of Babe Ruth from the Red Sox to the Yankees in 1919. During that time, the Yankees won 26 of their 27 titles and 39 pennants, while the Red Sox only won four pennants. There’s the infamous 1978 AL East tiebreaker game, featuring “Bucky f***ing Dent.” The more recent battles in the 2003 and 2004 ALCS are two of the greatest playoff series in MLB history. Aaron Boone’s walk off to win game 7 of the 2003 series was something special. Then, the next year, to have the Red Sox come back from a 3-0 deficit to win the series was one of the greatest, if not the greatest, comeback in a series in sports history. The animosity between the two franchises is unrivaled, and there’s nothing quite like it in baseball.
NHL: Bruins vs. Canadiens
- Series record: Montreal leads 450-337-103
- 34 postseason meetings: Canadiens lead 25-9
- Most recent: 2014 Eastern Conference semi-finals (Montreal won 4-3)
- First meeting: December 8, 1924
It was hard for me to not pick the Blackhawks-Red Wings rivalry, but the rivalry between Boston and Montreal is one of the best in sports. They have met in nine game 7s, the most of any opponents in NHL history. While the Canadiens dominated most of the middle of the 20th century, the late 1980s and everything since then has been close between the two teams. Since 1988, the Bruins have won seven of the 12 playoff series between the teams, with the last two going seven games each. The two teams have played each other more then any other two teams in the league, both in the regular season and postseason. It seems as though these two squads will meet up again in this upcoming postseason as well, and the entire sports world will be happy to see them go at it once more.
College football: Ohio State vs. Michigan
- Series record: Michigan leads 58-46-6
- First meeting: October 17, 1897 (Michigan 34, Ohio State 0)
- Longest win streaks: Michigan 9, Ohio State 3 (active)
With so many great rivalries in college sports, especially football, it’s hard to choose one as the best in the sport. But, there’s not much like the rivalry between Michigan and Ohio State in football. It was actually ranked as the top rivalry in North American sports by ESPN in 2000, which goes to show just how big the rivalry is. The legendary battles, known as the “Ten Year War,” between the Woody Hayes-led Buckeyes and Bo Schembechler-led Wolverines in the late 60s and early 70s really helped establish the rivalry as the premiere one in college football. In total, the game has determined the Big 10 winner an astounding 22 times, the most between two schools. The 2006 matchup, arguably the best of them all, pitted #1 Ohio State against #2 Michigan. The game was so close (a 42-39 Buckeyes victory) that people wanted to see a rematch in the BCS title game that year. It didn’t happen, though, as OSU ended up playing Florida. Still, this rivalry is always must-see television and has been a mainstay of college football for over 100 years.
Men’s college basketball: Duke vs. North Carolina
- Series record: UNC leads 133-106
- First meeting: January 24, 1920
- Biggest victories: UNC 37 points, Duke 35
One stat summarizes this rivalry: in their last 88 meetings, the teams both have 44 wins. The point differential between the two? Eight. Yep, a whole eight points separates the two over the past 88 matchups. You can’t find a rivalry that’s closer then that. The teams have a combined 33 Final Four appearances and nine national titles. Legendary coaches such as the late Dean Smith and Mike Krzyzewski have been at the helm of the teams. The classics that the two teams have put on are some of the greatest college basketball games ever played. The atmospheres of the games, especially the ones at Cameron Indoor Stadium, are some of the best in all of sports. And, on top of it all, they’re only eight miles apart. Two of the greatest college basketball programs of all time are less then 10 miles from each other. All of those factors make it the greatest rivalry in college basketball.
So there you have it. That’s what I think are the best rivalries in each sport. Disagree? Feel free to comment below or on any of the social media websites I will share it to.
Thanks for reading. Make sure to check out the other blogs I’ve posted, and stay tuned as I go more in-depth on all the things going on in the sports world. This is Game of Sports.