Bridging the Gap in Football Rivalries
by Morgan LaMere | published Feb. 19th, 2020
You’re back home for the holidays with your family; it’s late and most of the house is quiet when you suddenly hear the familiar roar from down the hall: “YES. GO, GO, GO! LET’S GO -insert team name here-!”
It’s likely that you’ve heard this sort of passion-fueled call at some point in the past from a sports enthusiast relative and it gets even more common during the Super Bowl season. While seen across most popular sports, this sort of excitement and dedication is most commonly seen for American football.
According to Statista, 70 percent of people in the U.S. consider themselves fans of pro football, with a viewership of 98.2 million during the 2019 Super Bowl. During that year, an estimated $14.8 billion was spent on consumer products related to the Super Bowl alone.
To many, football is America's sport. With that title comes countless viewing parties, tailgates and rivalries. What is it that drives fans of the sport to such fervent loyalty and creates rivalries between teams that capture millions of fans and can last for decades?
Being a loyal fan means different things to different people, but there’s usually a common theme among how fans find their team. Thomas Mays is a longtime Buffalo Bills fan and a Rochester local.
“I’ve been a fan for over 30 years now. I grew up down in Jamestown in the heart of Bills country,” Mays said.
Due to its close proximity to Buffalo, Rochester has a vibrant fan community featured by the Facebook group "Rochester Bills Backers," which has over 12,000 members including Mays.
Jon Burlew is another lifelong Bills fan, even though he currently lives in Kentucky. While not initially one, he got the chance to meet the Bills quarterback in elementary school and has followed them ever since.
“We moved out and continued to be fans,” Burlew said. “My family, boys and wife are all Bills fans.”
As was the case with Rob Keiser, a Pittsburgh Steelers fan, the team you follow is often decided for you at a young age.
"I grew up in the Pittsburgh area, it’s really your only option,” he said. “It’s part of your DNA growing up.”
“It’s really your only option. It’s part of your DNA growing up.”
According to Keiser, football and the culture surrounding it is a big part of his life and he attributes a lot to his wife for supporting that interest.
“I wait for the schedule to come out every April to plot potential road trips,” he said. “That’s okay if that’s what you enjoy, as long as you still find balance.”
What team you support doesn’t have to be decided by where you grew up; some are born without a local team and pick one up based on TV and others follow a specific player between teams.
This is how Pearse Lehmann, president of the RIT Football Club, began following his current team — the Baltimore Ravens.
“I became a fan ... when [Brett] Farve retired,” Lehmann said. “I just liked the way they played football.”
“I just liked the way they played football.”
According to Burlew, he and other Bills fans want to be associated and find pride with the “doing it the right way” mentality; working blue-collar jobs and fighting the good fight.
With many fans stressing the importance of fan loyalty to the culture of football, there are bound to be conflicts between opposing fan bases and it’s these rivalries that help make football what it is.
For Mays, his team's rivalry is as simple as finally beating the New England Patriots.
“[We keep] getting our butts kicked by them,” Mays said. “I live for the day that we start owning them like we used to.”
While rivalries can change over the years, the current archrival for the Bills are the Patriots. For years, New England has dominated the American Football Conference (AFC) East, a division of the National Football League. Each division has their own teams, competitions and subsequently their own intense rivalries.
“New England dominated [the AFC East] for so long, it created that rivalry,” Burlew added.
Fierce rivalries such as these are frequently caused by both proximity and how often you play that team.
“You play those teams two times a year, but you develop this hatred in a fun way,” Keiser said. “There’s a lot of good-natured ribbing, but now with the advent of social media, sometimes it’s taken too far.”
Keiser attributes this negative connotation of rivalries to people hiding behind computer screens, but that it’s mostly good-natured fun during games.
While seeming like intense competition for bragging rights and ultimate victory over an archnemesis, rivalries also serve to bring fans together.
“I think it lends to good conversations, and you meet a lot of people,” Keiser stated. “People connect via their sports teams, you walk through an airport and wear a team sweatshirt, you get attention.”
Despite the friendly undertones, rivalries are still fierce. When those big games come up that define seasons, it’s all hands on deck.
For Lehman, Ravens' fans had to be invested when the Steelers game came on. No matter how poorly a season may be going for a team, there’s always a chance when it comes to rivals.
The same goes for the other team as well; the Steelers had a huge win against the Ravens in 2008 for the AFC championship game to go to the Super Bowl.
“It was a ruckus; the stadium felt like it was shaking,” Keiser said.
Games and rivalries like these put emphasis and impact into each and every moment, inspiring and drawing in a nation of fans.
For Burlew, it goes back to beating the other team and how we frame those games. For rivalries that go back decades, these are big deals and long-lasting stories.
“It’s us against them, it’s good versus evil,” he said. “That’s what a good rivalry is, backstories and side stories, things that make that matchup even more exciting and a reward if the [right team] wins.”
Intertwined together, strong fan loyalties and the rivalries they cause are the backbones of football culture in America. While sometimes tense at the surface, rivalries are bridges that form bonds and create stories between mutual fans of the sport.
“My oldest brother married a girl from Boston; her family were huge Patriots fans, and we don’t communicate a whole lot during the football season,” Burlew joked. “It’s been fun, especially these last few years.”