What is the Greatest Rivalry in Sports?


Last Saturday, legendary Duke basketball coach Mike Krzyzewski played his final game against his bitter rival, the University of North Carolina, seemingly ending one of the best eras of rivalries in sports history. Last summer, two of the greatest soccer players of all time, Cristiano Ronaldo and Lionel Messi left their rival clubs in Spain. Recently, Tom Brady, one of the best football players in history, retired. These absences and changes bring eras of great games, championships, and rivalries to a close, begging the question: what is the greatest rivalry in sports? 

Sparked by a Broadway musical, the rivalry between the Boston Red Sox and the New York Yankees in the MLB has turned out to be one of the longest and most competitive rivalries in sports. After the Red Sox sold star outfielder Babe Ruth to the Yankees, the Sox would go on to a championship drought lasting 86 years, with Ruth’s Yankees reaching 7 World Series in the following years, leading up to his retirement in 1935. Ruth would end up as one of the best baseball players of all time. The spark was ignited again in 1941, when the Sox’s Ted Williams would bat .406, the highest in a single season in MLB history. However, Williams would lose the American League MVP award to the Yankees’ Joe DiMaggio, who set his own record with hits in 56 straight games. After decades more of back and forth competition, the Red Sox ultimately ended the championship drought in 2013. In 2019, the teams would play a two game series in London, the first ever MLB game held outside of the United States or Canada. The attendance at the London series would be the highest at any MLB game in 16 years. Since then, the competitiveness in every matchup is as present as always. 

Two of the most successful collegiate basketball programs in history, Duke and North Carolina, have formed their regular matchup into an incredibly loud, explosive rivalry. While only separated by a dozen miles, the two schools have many differences. Led, in recent years, by two of the best coaches in the history of basketball, the schools’ continual onslaught of high-level recruits and future NBA prospects has made the rivalry an explosive and invigorating competition. With the two teams meeting at least twice every year since 1920, the Tar Heels of North Carolina lead the all-time matchup 141-115. The programs have also combined for 77% of their conference’s regular season titles. While the two teams have actually never met in the NCAA tournament, they are some of the winningest programs in the history of college basketball. Both schools are top five in Division 1 in all-time wins, as well as win percentage. 

The best rivalry in sports, which featured two of the best athletes in history, is El Clásico, the spirited rivalry between Real Madrid and Barcelona of the Spanish soccer league, La Liga. Rooted deeply in the political history of the Spanish civil war, the nearly decade-long competition between Barcelona’s Lionel Messi and Real’s Cristiano Ronaldo is often invoked when debating the best soccer player in the history of the game. During their times in Spain, the two combined for 10 Ballon D’ors, the award given to the best men’s player annually, with the two players accounting for the awards of every year between 2008 and 2017. The rivalry dates back longer, with the two teams accounting for the most league titles in Spain. Real Madrid has also won the most European Championships (13), while Barcelona has won the fifth most (5). While Ronaldo and Messi no longer play for their former Spanish clubs, the fans and next generation of players continue to make this rivalry the best in sporting history.