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Timbers vs Sounders: Is the Rivalry good for MLS?

Go to any article on the MLS site that has anything to do with the Seattle Sounders or the Portland Timbers and you will find back and forth snide comments from Seattle and Timbers fans. Even in the Goal of the Year and Save of the Year articles you had the constant bickering between the two fan bases. However every once in a while you get a comment that says something along the lines of "I am so tired of hearing about 'Portland this and Seattle that..' there are other teams in the MLS." Just like when ESPN tries to jam the Redsox vs Yankees down our throats and some people get "not again, I don't care about either of those two teams" attitude. Does the Seattle vs Portland rivalry help or hurt the MLS?*

*(I know there is a third team involved in this rivalry and I know both Seattle and Portland view the Vancouver Whitecaps as a rival, however both fan bases view the Whitecaps as a "friendly" rivalry not a bitter rival.)

Major League Soccer has been a niche sport for much of their existence but in the past 5 years it has slowly started to inch itself into the national spotlight. It first started with the signing of big name players, players whose name could be recognized by the casual fan. However that is not enough for MLS to continue to grow to really get into the national spotlight more often the product on the field has to continue to improve and the product in the stands has to too. The change in the stands revolves around 2 things, rivalries and supporters groups.

Here is a list of the top ten rivalries in sports that the Sports Dish put together a few years ago and I tend to agree with most of their assessments.

  1. Yankees vs Red Sox
  2. Michigan vs Ohio State
  3. North Carolina vs Duke
  4. Giants vs Dodgers (both in New York and in California)
  5. Chicago Bears vs Green Bay Packers
  6. Army vs Navy
  7. Barcelona vs Real Madrid
  8. LA Lakers vs Boston Celtics
  9. Montreal Canadiens vs Toronto Maple Leafs
  10. USC vs Notre Dame

If you look at that list all but 3 of the rivalries listed are regional rivalries. Regional rivalries are so much more intense because there is much more interaction between the fans of the teams. Duke and North Carolina are separated by 8 miles! Don Garber took a lot of flak for adjusting the schedule to an unbalanced schedule and putting more emphasis on regional competition but the reality is the change will help generate more interest in the MLS.

The University of Michigan conducted a study concerning rivalries and their role in driving interest in sports.Rivalries are all about creating a story that captures the mind of the fan and allows for a more heightened interest in the event. It the classic "good" vs "evil" relationship and through this relationship fans attracted to this familiar storyline.

So test how rivalries helped in "Increasing Fan Involvement in the Pursuit of the "Elusive Fan" the wanted to conduct a study that specifically looked at how having a "hero" or a "villian" and how those perceptions drove the fan experience.What they found was that having a team to cheer against was more statistically significant than having teams to cheer for. As they so eloquently put it:

Initial findings also suggest that attraction to a specific team or sporting event maybe heightened for fans with lower levels of involvement by focusing outwardly upon the competition, framing them as evil villains and a deterrent to the success of the home team.

In the end getting a new fan into the MLS can be accelerated with a rivalry. This makes rivalries are just as important as the product on the field. Rivalries are about connections and feelings. It is the checking or watching of your rivalries games and cheering for the other team. Or even if your team doesn't win on that day but your rival does it makes your day better. It is the bad feeling or euphoria that accompanies a loss/win over your rival. It is hating with every fiber of your being the Roger Levesque's of the other team.

So in a word Yes, the Seattle vs Portland rivalry is very good for the league. Since the inclusion of the Cascadia teams more emphasis has been put on rivalries by the Soccer Don, Don Garber, and rightly so. With the unbalanced schedule more rivalries will be showcased and allowed to grow just like it has here in the Pacific Northwest. In some ways having the rivalry between Portland and Seattle has turned the focus back on regional rivalries like Philly vs New York, San Jose vs Galaxy or Raids vs RSL.

Other fans of other teams in the MLS should get used to hearing about this Cascadia rivalry because it going to help MLS grow even farther. Don't like it? Sorry but it is here to stay, all I can say is for you to try and get your rivalry to the same level. If all teams got a rivalry on the same level as Portland vs Seattle than MLS would become a national talking point almost every weekend.