As the summer begins to wind down and we move toward the MLS playoffs, the league schedule brings fans another iteration of Heineken Rivalry Week. There are several great rivalries in the league, both old and new (some more real than others), so Heineken Rivalry Week is an exciting time for the league and its TV and media partners both at home and abroad.
Recognizing there are practical challenges MLS must adhere to (i.e. unbalanced schedule, size of our country, etc.), I began to think about whether or not three league fixtures (plus any matches in outside competitions), and two versions of Heineken Rivalry Week a season is perhaps too much. Is MLS forcing too much of a good thing?
From a cultural and historical perspective, Seattle Sounders vs. Portland Timbers (Cascadia Cup) and Los Angeles Galaxy vs. San Jose Earthquakes (Cali Clasico) are two of the best rivalries the league has in 2015. During the current regular season, these teams will have met four times (three league games accounting for 9 percent of the regular season and one Lamar Hunt U.S. Open Cup game).
Does playing the same team so many times a season potentially dilute what makes rivalry games so special? Does the atmosphere, the tension, the passion among fans and players suffer as a result? Again, it is hard to argue given the league schedule and format is what it is, but when the schedule was balanced and teams only met twice a year (one home game, one away game), the games felt more meaningful and I think many fans would agree.
An increase in rivalry games is a great way to grow excitement among casual fans, but an increase is also reason for concern among diehards as the plot is watered down. What is great for the league and sponsors in marketing, sellouts, and TV viewers, perhaps loses some luster for fans when it is the same game and the same teams being promoted several times a season.
Apples to oranges is never a fair way to compare things, especially when the numbers don’t tell the full story, but out of curiosity I took a look at other North American leagues (professional and amateur) to see how select rivalries compare.
- NFL: Green Bay Packers vs. Chicago Bears – 2 games (13 percent of regular season)
- MLB: Chicago Cubs vs. St. Louis Cardinals – 19 games (12 percent of regular season)
- College Football: Alabama vs. Auburn – 1 game (8 percent of regular season)
- College Basketball: Duke vs. North Carolina – 2 games (6 percent of regular season)
- NHL: Philadelphia Flyers vs. Pittsburgh Penguins – 4 games (5 percent of regular season)
- MLS: Seattle Sounders vs. Portland Timbers – 3 games (9 percent of regular season)