Pride & Passion

Rivalries are one of the most powerful aspects of athletics. But they can also get out of hand. Athletic directors at all levels are examining how they promote rivalries—as well as how to create new ones.

By David Hill

David Hill is an Assistant Editor at Athletic Management.

Athletic Management, 16.5, August/September 2004,

Oklahoma State University has great fan support for its varsity teams. While football and basketball bring in the most spectators, 500-1,000 fans turn out regularly for women’s soccer and 3,500 for wrestling, in which the Cowboys have won 31 national team titles.

But every season, the Cowboys also manage to triple their attendance at one contest in every sport. More than 10,000 fans pack the gym for a mid-season wrestling match, soccer attendance swells to 2,500, and the usual 3,000 for a weekend conference baseball game turns into a crowd of 11,000 or more.

How does OSU do it? The answer is pretty simple: These contests are against intrastate arch-rival the University of Oklahoma, and Oklahoma State makes the most out of them.

The games are part of the Bedlam Series, one of the oldest formally established two-school all-sports challenge series in the country. Recognizing that the rivalry is so intense that it should not be confined to their highest-profile sports, the two athletic departments keep a running tally throughout the academic year and award points for each victory. The winner gets a trophy and bragging rights as the better all-around athletic program. And both schools get an attendance boost in all their sports.

“One thing we’ve learned here in Oklahoma, even if it’s Tiddlywinks, if you put ‘Bedlam’ in front of it, it’ll be the largest crowd you’ve ever had for that event,” says Joseph Biggs, Director of Marketing for OSU’s Department of Athletics. “Every year in our Olympic sports, we break the attendance mark we had from the year before, whether it be softball or soccer or whatever, in the Bedlam Series contest.”

Rivalries help make collegiate and scholastic sports tick. They are a rallying point, a highlight of the year, something to work for. Beating your arch-rival can salvage a dismal season, and losing can ruin a glorious one. They pack venues, bring back alumni, rouse fans. The showdowns are often the games student-athletes remember years after their playing days are done.

“It enhances the game. It’s fun to talk about and think about,” says Roger Thomas, Athletic Director at the University of North Dakota. “It adds to the fun to play for something.”

Rivalries are also a major contributor to the bottom line. Because of the intense emotions they generate, administrators at schools with longstanding rivalries are finding new ways to capitalize on them to boost attendance, interest, and giving, while also drawing attention to the entire athletics program. Schools without strong rivalries are trying to intensify them or even start new ones.

At the same time, however, there’s a dark side to rivalries. The intensity can bring out the worst in human nature in the form of taunting, name-calling, poor sportsmanship, and even violence among fans and student-athletes. Rivalry games can be the most fun of the year, but they can also be the most nerve-wracking for those who have to keep order. Administrators must tread carefully, respecting the emotions of a strong rivalry but also helping all involved to maintain perspective. They must encourage involvement without saying anything to fan the flames.

The Oklahoma-Oklahoma State relationship could fairly be called a classic in-state rivalry. The schools are the two largest universities in a state without a major professional sports team, and each has long found success in high-profile and Olympic sports. Alumni and other fans live and work side-by-side, and the two schools are just different enough—one grew up as an agricultural and technology institution and the other as a liberal arts and professional college—that there’s at least the perception of a built-in culture clash. The rivalry grew naturally and came to be called the Bedlam Series probably out of an allusion to the proverbial unpredictability of the annual showdowns between the schools’ teams, Biggs says.

Then four years ago, the schools entered into a multi-media rights agreement, obtained corporate sponsors, and the name was trademarked. “Now it’s known as ‘The Bank of Oklahoma and the Oklahoma Ford Dealers Bedlam Series,’” says Biggs. “The sponsors pay a fee that’s split between the two schools. The logo and the series and everything is trademarked, and the sponsors are allowed to use the logo in their advertising. The Oklahoma Ford Dealers do some really creative commercials that highlight the rivalry and the neighbor-vs.-neighbor kind of thing. And the Bank of Oklahoma does ads for OSU and OU check cards and various things like that throughout the state.”

Through the year, points are awarded for winning the Bedlam Series contest in each sport. Two points are won for the football game, and one point is awarded for each victory in other sports. The higher team score in the Big 12 indoor and outdoor track, cross country, and golf championships gets a half-point in each of those sports. Two points goes to the winner of the schools’ three-game baseball series. The winner of the Bedlam Series in each sport gets the Bedlam Bell for the sport. At year’s end, one school gets the Championship Bell for the overall higher score.

Bell trophies are also a part of the rivalry between Indio and Coachella Valley high schools near Palm Springs, Calif. The football rivalry was born of the 1950s desert population boom that resulted in the founding of Indio to supplement Coachella Valley, which is the older school, recalls Paul Thompson, Athletic Director at Indio and an alumnus. However, the intensity faded as other schools sprang up and the Coachella Valley game no longer ended the season. When Thompson returned in 1991 to take his present job, he felt something was missing between the traditional rivals. There just wasn’t the emotion he remembered from his playing days.

“I happened to be going through a catalog and I found a place in Texas that made school bells,” Thompson says. “We ordered one and painted it up, half blue and red, Indio colors, and the other half green and gold for Coachella, with the schools’ logos on either side. Now, the kids play for the Victory Bell.”

With the Victory Bell and the football game now switched to the end of the season, student-athletes go at it harder than ever, says Thompson. “You see kids cry at the end of the game when they don’t win it, or if they win, they’re happy and celebrate on the field,” he says. “They’ve always played for pride, but now with the bell, there’s a visible, tangible incentive. At the start of the school year, the principal talks about the Victory Bell, and at the assembly he asks any children of Indio High alumni now entering high school to come down to the center of the gym floor and ring the Victory Bell.”

Most recently, Indio created a bell-shaped letter-jacket applique stitched with “Bell Bowl,” the year, and the final score. “Coachella Valley kids were talking to me last year,” Thompson says. “They wanted to be able to get the Bell Bowl patch after they won the game, because they see that on my kids’ lettermen’s jackets.”

The schools have also created a rivalry cup that’s exchanged in soccer and track and field. “Everybody’s trying to figure out how to keep the rivalry going, to bring more interest to the games,” Thompson says.

While the rekindled rivalry makes the season more fun, Thompson admits another incentive. “When we used to play Coachella Valley earlier in the season we had a $4,000 or $5,000 gate,” he says. “Now, when we play the contest at the end of the year and it’s an important game in the league and everybody wants to capture the Bell and ring it at the end of the game, I can have as much as a $15,000 gate. Bringing in money at the gate is a big thing with the way school budgets are being cut nowadays.”

For Santa Clara University, the challenge isn’t rekindling a rivalry, but in igniting it in the first place. Located in the sports-saturated media mega-market of the greater San Francisco Bay Area, Santa Clara has not exactly led area evening-news sportscasts, even when its men’s and women’s soccer teams were playing in NCAA Division I national-championship games and the men’s basketball team was advancing during March Madness. Administrators heard students and alumni asking, “Who is our rival, anyway?”

There were nascent sport-specific rivalries, such as with conference foe Gonzaga University in men’s basketball and the University of North Carolina in women’s soccer. But those are limited by a key factor in rivalries—proximity. By contrast, only about two miles away is San Jose State University. Though larger and sporting a Division I-A football team—Santa Clara dropped its Division II gridiron program in 1992—SJSU offered a large number of in-common sports, many of them already scheduled with Santa Clara. Other factors counted, too, says Richard Kilwien, Associate Athletic Director at Santa Clara.

“Both institutions are over 100 years old, so there’s a lot of tradition,” says Kilwien. “And there are a lot of San Jose State grads and Santa Clara grads who remain in the area. It’s pretty amazing how many alums of the two schools work together, go to church together, and whose kids play together.”

So for the 2002-03 seasons, the two schools began a year-long sport-by-sport contest. The winner in each of 13 men’s and women’s sports gets two or three points, the difference relating largely to the number of scholarships offered in each. At the end of the year, there’s an outdoor banquet at which the award is presented. So far, Santa Clara has won the year-long rivalry both times.

The series hasn’t dramatically improved ticket sales at either athletic department yet, Kilwien says, but the student newspapers seemed to have bought in, running good-natured columns poking fun at one another. Coaches have caught on, too, talking up the cross-town contests to their student-athletes and within the athletic department.

“Our men’s soccer team went to the College Cup, lost in double-overtime to eventual champion Indiana, and had only two regular-season losses, but one of them was to San Jose State,” Kilwien says. “As successful as our season was, our coach remembers that. At our end-of-year banquet he kind of had his head low and was saying that loss really meant something. He felt his team was supposed to win and felt badly that it hurt us in the rivalry series.”

Kilwien says getting the series going took almost daily communication with his San Jose State counterpart. He credits the support of the San Jose Sports Authority, a quasi-public promotions organization, and both schools’ athletic directors, who allowed the marketing directors to take it on as a major project. It’s not been without challenges, however. One is overcoming the tendency of each athletic department to keep sponsorship leads to themselves instead of splitting them over the rivalry trophy. Another is criticism that the rivalry is artificial—to which the schools respond by trying to maintain perspective.

“We’ve heard that a little bit, people saying, ‘It’s a marketing rivalry, or a ploy,’” Kilwien says. “There is certainly a significant marketing component to it, because the bottom line for both our programs is to increase attendance in our ticketed sports. But we expect that over time, the trophy’s going to have a lot of years on it. We inscribe the winner each year on the side of the trophy, and as that becomes traditional, the need for marketing will fade. The potential for what it can become is much more important than what it is today.”

Kilwien notes that if nothing else, the rivalry enhances contests for athletes and coaches. “It helps Olympic sports programs have something to play for,” he says. “A lot of times the water polo or softball teams have trouble getting excited about just another non-conference game. But in this particular case, the players and coaches invest in it, and it does mean a little bit more. If we end up losing the rivalry series, the coaches don’t want to not get the points and be blamed for it.”

Both athletic departments also use the rivalry to help boost the campus-life experience for non-athletes. They honor each other’s student-ticket promotions and arrange fan bus travel to rivalry contests. “You can never underestimate the value of bragging rights,” Kilwien says. “You at least have something to talk about during the off-season. Sports doesn’t go away during June, July, and August, and we help keep it in the public mind with this series.”

Like Santa Clara a few years ago, the University of North Dakota is looking to rev up a rivalry, but the task is proving a bit harder in its part of the country. UND had one of the northern Midwest’s longest-running football rivalries with North Dakota State, playing for the Nickel Trophy—an NDSU Buffalo was on one side and a UND Sioux on the other—until State moved from Division II to Division I at the end of the 2004 spring sports season. Now, North Dakota is looking for a new rival, and while there’s no solution yet, the process is illustrative.

“The obvious one is the University of South Dakota, being the universities of the two bordering states,” says Thomas. “There are lots of those border rivalries across the country.”

USD also lost its longtime intrastate rival, South Dakota State University, which moved to Division I with North Dakota State. UND and USD are both in the North Central Conference, having for years battled in football for the Sitting Bull Trophy in their annual game. Creating an additional symbol may help strengthen the rivalry, Thomas says.

“I think playing for something helps,” he says. “If you look at the rivalries across the country that have notoriety, a lot have some symbol that they play for. It takes time to develop in the eyes of the fans and the players, but I think if we did something along those lines, it might help speed it up.”

But the South Dakota option isn’t clear-cut. For one thing, there’s distance. “Geographically, we’re at the top of North Dakota, and they’re at the bottom of South Dakota,” Thomas says. “So we don’t read each other’s newspapers and see quotes or stories that can trigger something.”

Another school to court is the University of Minnesota-Duluth. UND and UM-D already have a significant rivalry in men’s and women’s ice hockey, in which they play in Division I.

“They’re probably a bit closer to us than South Dakota, and there is an established thing there through hockey,” Thomas says. “Plus, they’re up in the northern part of the United States, and there aren’t many of us up here. We end up recruiting many of the same athletes. I think that familiarity may breed a rivalry.”

There’s no need to fire-up the rivalry between two NCAA Division III colleges not 30 miles apart in upstate New York. Sports Illustrated has described the Cortaca Jug game, the annual football showdown between Ithaca College and the State University of New York College at Cortland, as “the biggest little game in America.” A home-and-home series, the game annually packs far-over-capacity crowds of 10,000-15,000 at each school’s respective stadium, occasionally with an NCAA playoff berth on the line. Administrators at both campuses say it’s a wonderful experience for students.

“You’re never more a Cortland student or an Ithaca College student than on the day of the Cortaca Jug game,” says Brian McAree, Ithaca’s Vice President for Student Affairs and Campus Life, to whom athletics reports. Mostly, it’s a classic, spirit-filled small-college matchup remembered by all involved as a highlight of the year and even their entire college careers.

But the downside can be significant, too. Typically, the negative aspects come out not during the game but before and especially after. At the 2003 game, a road victory for the Cortland State Red Dragons, large numbers of Cortland students left the stands for the field as time ran down, and some confrontations broke out. It wasn’t the first or last time emotions overcame reason in an athletic contest between the two schools.

This past spring, a baseball game between the schools was called off mid-game when a simmering feud resulted in a bench-clearing brawl. The umpires ejected so many players that there weren’t enough to continue the game. Both schools, aided by videotape aired on local television stations, ended up suspending several players the umpires didn’t.

The Cortaca Jug game presents a fine-line challenge for administrators. They want to get out the message that bad behavior is dangerous and will diminish the efforts of fellow students, but they don’t want to tarnish any of the event’s luster. They do standard crowd-control measures: They hire extra security, check backpacks for alcohol and bottles that could be thrown, and Cortland’s five-year-old stadium features an eight-foot-high wall between the stands and the playing surface, which has helped curb fans from storming the field.

But the main prevention efforts come before the game through appeals to students. During Cortaca Jug week each year, administrators at both schools send letters to every student. “It starts out by mentioning all the positive aspects of having a game like this, and then talks about some of the rules that go along with it, such as no alcoholic beverages,” says Joan Sitterly, Director of Athletics at Cortland. “It also mentions that there are video cameras taping the game, and should students be caught doing something they shouldn’t be doing, they run the risk of suspension from school. So it’s basically, ‘Show pride and passion for your school, but keep all of your actions under control.’”

In recent years, the schools have also held a joint mid-week press conference at which both head coaches and at least one captain from each team join administrators. That seems to have the greatest effect, McAree says. “The message is, ‘Don’t tarnish the good work of the athletes and coaches with your behavior,’” he says. “Bad behavior reflects poorly on you and your school. Enjoy the game. Lift up your fellow students, and don’t tear down or denigrate the other team or its fans.”

Ithaca and Cortland administrators planned meetings this summer to further discuss ways to discourage problem behavior at the Jug game and other contests. Sitterly would like an all-sports challenge as a way to divert attention in a positive direction. A tough nut to crack is reaching young alumni, because most travel from out of town for the game and aren’t reachable in the local media. McAree says Ithaca may explore using the alumni e-mail database to get out a message similar to that delivered to current students.

The answers also aren’t clear-cut at Stillwater and Ponca City high schools in Oklahoma. About as far apart in mileage as Ithaca and Cortland, the schools have a long and intense rivalry, particularly in football, and confrontations have escalated in the past several years. “We don’t want to have to be in a situation where we have to play this game in the afternoon with no students or something like that,” says Mike Simpson, Athletic Director at Stillwater.

So when the Oklahoma Secondary Schools Activities Association announced a sportsmanship grant program at its spring 2003 meeting, Simpson joked, “We ought to do this with Ponca City.” Overnight, though, he realized a joint project might actually be a good idea and started talking to his counterpart at Ponca City. The schools won a $1,000 grant to put together a student-based project in which student council leaders would devise ways to promote the rivalry positively.

“Our problems have not been the kids on the field,” Simpson says. “It’s the kids in the stands that are the problem. I told the student council leaders at the first meeting, ‘We adults haven’t solved this problem. We’ll turn it over to you guys.’”

The result is a series of radio and television public-service announcements written by the students and recorded professionally. The audio versions are collected on compact discs and will be played on local radio stations the week before the Stillwater-Ponca City football game. For the video, intended for use on local cable channels, students interviewed other students, student-athletes, coaches from both schools, and the head football coaches at the University of Oklahoma and Oklahoma State University.

“What we’re trying to get across is that we want to enhance the rivalry,” says Simpson. “We don’t want it to stop, and it’s futile to think that we can stop it. We want it to be safe. We want friendly competition. We want student enthusiasm directed toward encouraging our team, not tearing down the other team.”

The schools won’t know if the effort has worked until at least this fall. But Simpson has a lot of confidence in it because the process focuses on peer-to-peer education. “In any community, you’re going to have a few fans who are going to be problems. You’re going to have others who are never going to be problems. And then there’s a segment that are going to follow one group or the other. And that’s going to determine how big your problems are. You’ve got to make sure that the segment that follows will follow the right group. And you do that through education.

“It’s going to be hard to measure,” continues Simpson. “But we want to make sure that we’re doing what we can to keep it safe, keep it sane, and make sure the kids still have fun. That’s what it’s all about.”

Sidebar: The Human Side
Maintaining sportsmanship can be a major challenge during rivalry games. A method used by crosstown California high school rivals Coachella Valley and Indio is reminding participating athletes that there are humans inside those football jerseys on the other side of the field.

The humanizing starts when the principals of each school together walk the trophy that goes to the winning team, the Victory Bell, to the middle of the field. “And prior to the coin flip, the kids come out, say a word of good sportsmanship to each other, and shake hands,” says Indio Athletic Director Paul Thompson. Another pair of nearby schools have calmed things down with a night-before-the-game dinner between teams, he says.

“We’ve found that doing this really helps. Despite it being an intense rivalry, the kids go out and play a real fair, hard-hitting football game,” says Thompson. “The unsportsmanlike-conduct penalties are down to a minimum, if we have any.”

Sidebar: Bus Trips
One tool for keeping student fans in line when a rivalry game is offering a free ride. Athletics officials at Oklahoma State University offered school-sponsored transportation on a bus to the Bedlam Series softball series with the University of Oklahoma this year.

“That way, it’s a more organized way to get there,” says Amy Jo Kiehn, OSU’s Assistant Coordinator of Athletic Facilities/Event Management. “And since they’re associated with the university when they go down, there’s a vested interest in good behavior.”