Rev Up Your Rivalry

From engaging alumni to helping others—how to turn competition between campuses into advancement wins (and no, it isn’t just about sports)

By Ken Budd

Rev Up Your Rivalry

ROW FOR THE WIN: The U.K. universities of Cambridge and Oxford face off in their annual rowing race on the River Thames. The competition was first held in 1829 and today attracts 15 million television viewers.

Patrick Auerbach has a unique perspective on the rivalry between UCLA and USC. He was a student-cheerleader at the University of California, Los Angeles, graduating with a bachelor's degree in sociology in 1992. Now he's associate senior vice president for alumni relations at the University of Southern California, where he earned a doctorate in educational leadership. You can find him sporting UCLA blue and gold and USC cardinal red and gold, which is like simultaneously rooting for the Yankees and the Red Sox, Barcelona and Real Madrid, Luke Skywalker and Darth Vader—you get the idea.

"I get asked all the time—‘How could you do this?' " Auerbach says.

He embraces and encourages USC's rivalry against his alma mater. That's because his dual loyalties have taught him that your top competitors push you, challenge you, and inspire you to do your best, whether it's the space race, Apple versus Microsoft, or alumni relations at competing universities.

"One of the dynamics that drives the USC-UCLA rivalry is the excellence of both institutions," Auerbach says. "It makes your own institution better."

So what defines a rivalry? Three keys are proximity, competitive parity, and frequent exposure, says Benjamin Converse, a University of Virginia psychology professor who has studied rivalries. Consider Duke University and the University of North Carolina's basketball rivalry. The campuses are 10 miles apart, the teams constantly compete for championships, and they play each other at least twice a year. In China, only 1.2 miles separate Tsinghua University and Peking University, two of the country's most prestigious and competitive institutions. Institutions that are geographically close—and experience similar levels of success—also tend to compete for the same resources, from recruits to money, according to a study by the University of Arkansas, Fayetteville.

A rival is almost like a significant other, Converse says. As with old friends and family members, you share strong ties and a meaningful, memorable past. Because of that, the competition is amplified by your shared history, electrified by ecstatic victories (and gut-wrenching losses), all of which create legends, legacies, and lore. "Alumni know the stakes are higher," says Dan Montoya, assistant vice president for SDSU alumni at San Diego State University, which has a 94-year football rivalry with Fresno State.

For alumni associations, rivalries provide an opportunity to capitalize on that emotional history, to remind supporters of their strong ties to the institution, and to energize alumni.

Open Up Opportunities with Opponents

"When it comes to alumni engagement, your enemy can be your friend," says Marina Dupler, assistant director of alumni relations at Northern Michigan University. NMU has a hockey rivalry with nearby Michigan Technology University, and the two alumni engagement teams coordinate on rivalry-related events and social media ideas. USC and UCLA have also collaborated through brainstorming sessions.

Alumni professionals in the Southeastern Conference meet annually to discuss best practices, from managing chapters to leading volunteers. The 14 universities take turns hosting the Alumni Professionals of the Southeastern Conference meeting—the University of Arkansas held the 2017 event—and representatives from different institutions lead breakout sessions. Roughly 60 to 70 people attend, and it's particularly helpful for young staff members to see how other alumni relations offices work, says Meredith Gurley Johnson, executive director of the University of Georgia's Office of Alumni Relations.

"For the most part, our alumni are similar," she says. "We learn about the host school's traditions and see how they use their on-campus resources to achieve their best work. It's incredibly valuable, and the executive directors have become close. We really are there for each other."

Fans at a joint Northern Michigan University–Michigan Technology event choose from cupcakes decorated in both team’s colors.

PARTY GAMES: Fans at a joint Northern Michigan University–Michigan Technology event choose from cupcakes decorated in both team’s colors.
Pool Your Rivalry Resources

The basketball rivalry between Calvin and Hope colleges in Michigan is fierce. The annual matchup started in 1920, and the colleges twice canceled games—from 1925–1929 and 1937–1943—due to fan violence. But for the alumni associations, the civil-though-still-intense rivalry is as much about collaboration as competition. Together they own the website, replete with their hoops history, a list of 80-plus watch-party sites, photo galleries, and contact information for both colleges' alumni associations.

"We partner from the get-go on the rivalry," says Michael Van Denend, who recently retired as executive director of Calvin's alumni association. The two sides meet, agree on basic messaging and timing, and divide some of the labor. Calvin, for example, manages the rivalry website, while Hope mails information packages, sign-up sheets, and giveaways to alumni hosts. They also inform one another of any new developments: "We don't surprise the other school with extra giveaways or perks that would put the other institution at a disadvantage," Van Denend says.

NMU and MTU host a family-friendly pregame party before their annual hockey game. Many families, they find, have alumni from both institutions or members with degrees from both universities. Cupcakes are decorated with each university's colors, and craft breweries from Marquette and Houghton, the towns where NMU and MTU, respectively, are located, provide beer. The party typically attracts about 125 people, and because it involves both institutions, the event often leads to news coverage in two different media markets.  

Focus on Regional Events

Partnerships are particularly helpful for planning regional events. Strength in numbers is important, Auerbach says. Organizing a USC-UCLA watch party in cities such as New York or Chicago can be tricky, he finds, since restaurant owners may worry that West Coast games will draw smaller crowds. In Chicago, for instance, people may be more interested in a game between two Midwestern powerhouses. That means banding together with your rival, since a contingency from both institutions will draw a bigger crowd.

Joint regional events can also offer networking and community-building opportunities for affinity groups. The main benefit: Attendees can meet more people from similar professions—or backgrounds—whether the joint events are for Asia-Pacific alumni at USC and UCLA, or Islamic students and alumni at Harvard and Yale, or members of the legal profession at Lafayette College and Lehigh University (which have played each other in football 152 times since 1884, more than any other college football rivalry).

For alumni living in other parts of the country, two-college events can also serve as a social function. With the Calvin-Hope rivalry, Van Denend has found that transplanted alumni from both institutions are eager to connect. "It's like finding a new friend with whom you have much in common," he says. "There's good-natured ribbing during the game about who won or lost, but there's as much talking and making connections as there is following the play-by-play."

Van Denend often traveled to different cities for the games: "It's a way of showing alums in that part of the country that you are aware of them, you care about them, and you are eager to know them." The game also draws the most age-diverse alumni groups—from new graduates to old-timers—of any event Calvin sponsors, he says.

How popular are the watch parties? Van Denend says Calvin and Hope fans once packed a restaurant in Bradenton, Florida, which annoyed some New England Patriots fans wearing Tom Brady jerseys.

"They wanted the channel changed, but the owner said, ‘Look around you. The place is full of people wanting to see these two Michigan schools play basketball.' "
In the U.K., the University of Cambridge and University of Oxford's annual rowing competition, first held in 1829, attracts roughly 15 million television viewers, according to the U.K.'s Telegraph. During the April 2017 race, the stakes were even more intense after a rower transferred from Cambridge to Oxford earlier in the year. Former teammates accused the rower who had switched allegiances of treason—but Oxford won the race.

The Oxford versus Cambridge “Oxbridge” chess set

CHECK MATE: In the Oxford versus Cambridge "Oxbridge" chess set, pieces represent historical figures from both sides, including John Locke as a bishop for Oxford and Lady Margaret Beautfort as queen for Cambridge.
Have Fun with Fan Fervor

Rivalries are supposed to be fun, and fun is an area in which alumni relations teams can thrive. Several years ago, the Cornell University and Massachusetts Institute of Technology alumni associations engaged in an online "Fictional Alumni Face-Off" to determine which institution boasted the best character from TV, film, literature, or video games. The winner, which judges chose based on social media responses, was fictional MIT grad Tony Stark, better known as Iron Man.

An architect and designer whose wife was studying at Cambridge turned the rivalry with Oxford into a game, creating an "Oxbridge" chess set with figures from both sides as pieces, from John Locke (a bishop for Oxford) to Henry VIII (Cambridge's king). In Sri Lanka, the 138-year-old cricket rivalry between Royal College Colombo and S. Thomas' College, Mount Lavinia, is preceded by the Cycle Parade: Each school's supporters stroll, bike, drive, and dance through Colombo while singing and waving flags.

In a playful shot at USC, UCLA's alumni association has a "get the red out campaign": Students who donate red clothing receive a limited-edition blue Bruins T-shirt. In 2015, the University of Georgia's alumni association started a GIF battle by bragging on Twitter that a Peabody Award (named after a UGA benefactor) appeared in House of Cards. The University of Florida's alumni association countered with a screenshot showing a Gators mug on The West Wing. That led to an all-day GIF war featuring both shows. "One of the funniest interactions I've seen on social media," tweeted a UGA doctoral student.

At NMU and MTU, both sides tease each other with videos and photos—and as a courtesy, the athletic departments get to review each other's videos in advance. Since MTU's mascot is a husky, NMU posted a "Take Your Dog to Work" video in which its mascot, Wildcat Willy, walked a husky on campus (and yes, the pooch wore a green-and-gold NMU scarf). "The mascot videos are fun and very shareable on social media," Dupler says. "With so many serious pressing issues today, the humor is appreciated."

UCLA and University of Southern California fans watch the Kids Race at the We Run the City 5K/10K

BOTH SIDES NOW: UCLA and University of Southern California fans watch the Kids Race at the We Run the City 5K/10K, a fundraiser for Special Olympic athletes. Alumni, faculty, staff, students, and friends of the two universities compete in the annual race for bragging rights and the We Run the City trophy. All participants receive a Team UCLA or USC event T-shirt and a race medal.
Use Competition for Compassion

Rivals share a bond that can transcend competitiveness. Case in point: In April 2011, tornadoes devastated the University of Alabama and surrounding areas. Students, staff, and alumni at rival Auburn University volunteered for relief efforts. The university and the local Red Cross created the Auburn Family All-In Relief Fund, raising close to $130,000.

Other rivals have become frenemies for good. Fans of the University of Louisville and the University of Kentucky met for a Rivalry Gala in Louisville to raise money for the American Cancer Society. In Central Florida, local alumni clubs from the Ohio State University and the University of Michigan compete in an annual food and fundraising drive for the Second Harvest Food Bank. Alumni, faculty, fans, staff, and students of UCLA run an annual 5K/10K against their USC counterparts to benefit the Special Olympics. And Michigan Tech and Northern Michigan University use their hockey rivalry to support local humane societies, since both institutions' mascots are animals.

Duke University and the University of North Carolina may have America's most intense basketball rivalry, but some alumni and students use that passion to help others. In 2006 and 2007, students competed in the Duke-Carolina Student Basketball Marathon. The goal: break the world record for the longest basketball game and raise money for Hoop Dreams, a charity that helps children with life-threatening illnesses. Alumni donated money and volunteered. In 2016, Duke and UNC student organizations competed to raise funds for Habitat for Humanity. Student-athletes from both campuses worked together in 2017 to help COMPASSION IT, a nonprofit that emphasizes compassion worldwide. How committed were they? They did the unthinkable: As they spoke with local elementary students, they wore each other's school colors.

Trade In Traditional Trophies

"A trophy can up the intensity of the game," says Dan Montoya, assistant vice president for SDSU alumni at San Diego State University. In 2011, the Fresno State and San Diego State alumni associations held a contest to suggest a trophy for their football rivalry. The winning submission? The Old Oil Can trophy, which commemorates a can manufactured in Fresno in the 1930s and discovered on a San Diego State construction site. The game is now known, of course, as "The Clash for the Can." Check out these fun football trophies:

The Old Oil can: Fresno State University vs. San Diego State University

The Wagon Wheel Trophy: West Texas A&M University vs. Eastern New Mexico University

The Illibuck Trophy (a wooden turtle): The Ohio State University vs. University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

The Iron Skillet: Southern Methodist University vs. Texas Christian University

The 10-gallon Golden Hat: University of Oklahoma vs. University of Texas at Austin

Floyd of Rosedale (a 98-pound bronze pig): University of Minnesota vs. University of Iowa

Athletics Aren’t Everything

Before you get too gung-ho about a rivalry, remember: Athletics can be unpredictable. Patrick Auerbach, associate senior vice president for alumni relations at the University of Southern California, learned this in 2014, when his team led a cross-country alumni trip to Boston for a football game between the ninth-ranked Trojans and Boston College, which hadn’t beaten a top-10 team in 10 years.

“It was a three-day event with 250 alumni,” Auerbach says. “We had this amazing program—we saw the sights, we had great speakers, but guess what? We got upset by Boston College. So all the hard work we did to engage and deepen relationships was soured by an unexpected loss.”

One lesson from that experience? You don’t need to capitalize too much on athletics because alumni have already bought into the tradition.

“It’s important that we recognize competition, and celebrate it, but we don’t build a lot of extra programming around it,” Auerbach says. Sports attract so much attention from alumni that your resources might be better used elsewhere. Why spend time and money to get alumni talking about something they’re already talking about?

“Athletics can be a great thing, but it also can be a big distraction,” Auerbach says. “Share the great news coming out of your school. When your team wins—fantastic. But when they don’t win, you have a lot of other great stuff to talk about.”

About the Author

Ken Budd is the former editor in chief of Currents. His writing credits include The New York Times, National Geographic, Smithsonian, and The Washington Post. He is the author of The Voluntourist (HarperCollins).