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A Tale of Two Cities

Sport is built on different levels of competition. Competition itself does not lie on a level field. The emotion that can be built over an opponent can vary based on circumstance and from person to person that can develop individually or as a collective depending on events. Meanwhile “Rivalries” can spawn through persistent eventful competition.

A rivalry is a strange thing. It can’t truthfully be manufactured. It can only be born. And it lies in the hearts of the fans, nowhere else. However it is rivalries that can be taken advantage of. Used for commercial gain and, if done correctly, successfully nurtured over time to bring continuous support and a vibrant atmosphere to an arena.

The arrival of the New York Yankee’s to Fenway Park regularly ensures that not one seat goes unfilled. A journey down the East Lancs Road by Manchester United to Anfield will turn the crowd noise up to 11 while life is always difficult when the Bruins arrive in Montreal. Great rivalries that have, over time, grown and thrived bringing with them a recognisable sporting resentment between teams, fans and even organisations.

Rivalries can build identification and character in a sport, so far as in they can draw spectators from outside for a glimpse of a level of competition their own team may unfortunately lack. A display of sporting emotion on the ice and in the stands all to infrequent in many leagues and many arenas.

It’s strange to think that in a sport as physical as ice hockey, only two real “rivalries” exist at Elite League level. The continued sporting tête-à-tête above Hadrian’s Wall between Edinburgh (nee Murrayfield) and Fife is a renewed vitriolic combat that brings quite the fervent supporter to boiling point. The typical Scottish tempers fraying in the stands as they do in so many sports.

The other rivalry is one that can never escape anyone’s attention, as it has become the most widely publicised in the sport within this country. The Sheffield Steelers and Nottingham Panthers have experienced a one-time heated rivalry that, in my opinion, has unfortunately waned in recent years.

At its hilt these two neighbouring teams, joined only by a stretch of the M1 motorway, developed a deep rooted sporting hatred. The impending fixture would draw attention among the fans involved and those outside for the competition between the teams and the individual disagreements between the players on the ice. Names through the years would make opposing fans wince for years to come, it is a brave man who utters the name Ken Priestlay within the walls of the NIC.

At the peak it was what a rivalry should be, a reason to fill your arena and support your home team, a vent for your emotion and the ultimate in sporting enjoyment. A proper exciting enthralling and emotional rivalry.

But no more.

The rivalry between these two has been all but rubbed out in an avalanche of apathy, fuelled by a parody of persistent commercialism.

The enthusiasm and expectation from outside the rivalry has turned to resentment and boredom. What was once a regular heated exchange of great expectation now gains ridicule for its continuous, if somewhat tongue in cheek, proclamation for being “The Biggest Ice Hockey Rivalry In Europe”.

The games have fizzled from ferocious combat to mere routine encounter. Last Saturday’s game in the Motorpoint Arena most notable by its lack of notability. What was once a stand out fixture in Sheffield now vanishes into ether of a stale atmosphere while the PR machine grinds its gears in a means to revive what was once great?

I will admit that the NIC match ups have been more successful in their attempts to fuel the competition between the two, but as fans come and go, fewer and fewer will recall what made these two teams such enemies. Acting in such a way through routine rather than rivalry.

The copious commercialisation of the games, while understandable to a point, has become a parody of itself all too quickly. The competition and rivalry should live in the stands, it should live in the hearts and minds of the opposing fans. And that should only be fuelled by the action on the ice. As I professed earlier, it cannot be manufactured, it is a response not a creed.

The continuous attempt by both organisations to revive the dying atmosphere of this perishing match-up has reached a situation where they have become one organisation. One organisation beset by a need to develop a mutual PR strategy. A need to support each other through a now faux resentment. A mutual organisation dubbed “Sheffingham”.

All clubs need PR and need new and ways of bringing in fans and revenues. I am not so naïve as to neglect this. However was such PR needed when this rivalry was at its hilt?

The most recent example of the faux “Sheffingham” rivalry is today’s announcement of the “Grudge Cup”, a cup with a title that in itself displays the depths of the commercial barrel that we believed could no longer be scraped, where for a mere £100 (plus VAT) fans can do their bit to beat their “arch rivals”, only this time.. on the golf course. Taking the sporting rivalry from the stands.. to the golf course, for a fee in a commercial haze. And there lies the problem.

“Sheffingham” now meet a minimum of 8 times this season and before the first month of the season had even passed the encounters had become stale. No doubt the attempts to pull this rivalry back from the apron of its death-throws will continue in a series of further excruciating PR stunts, invented press claims and embarrassing promotional attempts all feeding from a belief that such acts are the will and want of those who fill the seats.

Remember this? The excitement it developed, the attention it drew? The rivalry it nourished?

These attitudes happen with the fans, not the organisations. And the current developments in “Sheffingham” are an unfortunate and sad indictment on what the product has become.
The once great rivalry has but gone.
Coming Soon:

The fiercest rivalry on ice takes to the air as Corey Neilson attempts to race Ryan Finnerty from the NIC to the Motorpoint Arena by hot air balloon in time to meet the 7pm Face Off of Europe’s greatest match up!
And you can be part, for only £250 (plus VAT) you can join your coach in the basket of the balloons, one shaped like Steeler Dan, the other as Paws! And be part of the first victory of the day! (limited to 3 fans per basket, all fans will be weighed prior to take off to ensure suitablility)

And if Gary Moran tries stealing that idea… he’ll be hearing from my solicitor.

Patrick Smyth

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