Enemies with Benefits

Updated: January 5, 2017 at 2:54 pm by Jayson Spikes

Last Saturday saw the clash of hockey super powers in the form of Canada vs. USA at the World Juniors, with the Americans skating away with a 3-1 win and first place in Group B. This was a game hyped by many as being only the most recent in a long series of what has apparently become the Biggest Rivalry in International Hockey.

This is far from the only rivalry in hockey; other examples come to mind immediately: Canada vs. Russia, Sweden vs. Finland, Toronto vs. Montreal, Montreal vs. Boston, Edmonton vs. Calgary, and Crosby vs. Ovechkin.

A recent paper looked at the phenomenon of rivalries in sports and the impact of these rivalries on fan psyches: Enemies with Benefits: The Dual Role of Rivalry in Shaping Sports Fans’ Identity, European Sports Management Quarterly, August 2016.

Prior to this paper, lots of psychological and economics research had been written focussing on the negative aspects of rivalry on fan base identity and league business, for example:

  • Rivalries have been linked to anti-social behaviour, such as fan bases blasting other fan bases, fans denigrating the achievements of their favourite team’s rivals, and fans expressing schadenfreude (page 6);
  • There is evidence that fans will actually transfer their dislike of rivals onto the sponsors of their rivals (page 22); and
  • Rivalries can get so big they interfere with actual operations of the league (e.g. when the Greek football league suspended play due to rioting) (page 24).

While the above outcomes are socially and economically undesirable, for me, at least, I would much rather have these rivalries than not. There are some papers, though fewer in number, which support the notion that rivalries are enjoyable and that having a distinct rival increases a fans identification with their own favourite team (page 6). Faced with this scattered research on the topic, the authors of Enemies with Benefits set out to build a model which simultaneously accounted for the positive and negative aspects of rivalries in sports.

The Data

The authors of the paper examined the German Bundesliga in December 2014. The Bundesliga is the world’s second most attended sports league, with 42,609 spectators per game (page 13). 25 trained interviewers were deployed at 8 of the 18 clubs. Four of those teams are generally known to have a famous rivalry, while four of the teams were not known for having particularly heated rivalries with any of the other teams in the league. The interviews generated 571 usable questionnaires (page 14).

The lead-off question on the questionnaire, which needed to be answered to give rise to a useable set of answers, was whether a fan perceived that their team had a rival of some kind. Assuming they perceived a rival, the person was asked, on a scale of 1 to 10, to rate the intensity of that rivalry. On average, people rated the intensity of their rivalry as an 8.5 (page 14). Next the researchers had the fans rate a whole series of statements on a scale of 1 to 7 on a variety of topics that went to the fan’s self-identity. The point was to figure out how those self-identity factors changed as the intensity of the rivalry changed.

The table below outlines the self-identity factors they asked about, a sample of one of the questions they asked in regards to that factor, and the average score out of 7 for the 571 fans in the sample on the particular sample statement:

Type of self-identity factor

Sample statement used in category


Identification with favourite team

“My favourite team successes are my successes”

4.60 out of 7

Perceived distinctiveness

“There is something that makes my favorite team’s fan community unique in comparison with other Bundesliga fans”

5.57 out of 7

Perceived group cohesion

“There is great togetherness in my favorite team’s fan community”

5.97 out of 7

Public collective self-esteem stemming from non-rival fan bases

“Except for [archrival] fans: A majority of the Bundesliga fans respects the [favorite team] fans”

4.75 out of 7

Public collective self-esteem stemming from rival fan bases

“[Archrival] fans respect the [favorite team’s] fans”

2.27 out of 7

The researchers also asked questions about “mediating factors”. These would be factors which the researchers hypothesized would make the links between the above self-identity factors and rival intensity stronger as fans gave these a higher scores:

Type of mediating factor

Sample statement used in category


Disidentification with rival team

“The archrival’s failures are my successes”

3.78 out of 7

Reciprocity of rivalry

“The rivalry between the archrival and my favourite team is mutual”

6.01 out of 7

The results

On the negative front, as rivalries become more intense, there is evidence of a fan base’s public collective self-esteem in relation to rival fan bases suffering (owing perhaps to insults by other fan bases or having their favourite team’s accomplishments demeaned or disregarded or even just a perception that these things are happening or will happen) (page 18).

On the flip side, as rivalries become more intense, there is evidence of a bolstering effect on the various self-identity factors which go towards community building (page 18). Specifically, the following factors are positively impacted:

  • A fan base’s public collective self-esteem in relation to supporters of non-rival opponents (owing perhaps to feeling like they have a culture and identity that other teams fans should be aware of because of their notorious rivalry);
  • Perceived distinctiveness (being special and unique); and
  • Perceived group cohesion (having a common cause and common enemy to focus on with their fellow fans).

Regarding the mediating factors, the most interesting outcome was that as fan perception of reciprocity of the rivalry increases, the connection strengthens between the intensity of the rivalry and public collective self-esteem in relation to supporters of non-rivals, perceived distinctiveness and perceived group cohesion (page 19).

With a result like this, it’s no surprise that leagues, tournaments and the media spend a lot of time and energy convincing fans that there are lots of rivalries out there, and they are all mutual and intense (but not too intense). In the sports world, where a large part of fan interest is driven by week-to-week or even game-to-game performance and positioning in the standings, rivalries present a good opportunity for teams to engage fans, no matter where they are in the standings (page 20).


People identify with sports teams to enhance their own identity and build a positive self-concept; there is a well-established link between team identification and public collective self-esteem, distinctiveness and cohesion (page 12).

Rivalries are a fun and engaging aspect of fandom and leagues and tournaments are well aware of their importance, putting them front and centre in their marketing materials. However, it isn’t as simple as “rivalries = good”. Rivalry is best described as a double-edged sword (page 20). On the one hand, there is evidence that ragging on a rival team amongst your fellow fans can help develop your self-identity and make you feel like part of a community. On the other hand, too intense of a rivalry leads to rioting in the streets.

Personally, I’m glad to learn there is support for the notion that the dislike I harbour for my favourite team’s rivals could potentially be of net benefit to me, when enjoyed in moderation. And on that point, this blog post comes full circle because this may or may not have all just been an elaborate way for me to justify making the following statement:

Nobody cares about the Americans winning a meaningless round robin game. The next game is the only one that matters, the one that’s played for the gold medal. The Americans hardly scraped by the Swiss and the Russians their last two games. They’d be wise to remember Vancouver 2010, when the U.S. won 5-2 in the round robin and then lost in the gold medal game. Get ready for the sequel tonight.