“Rivalry Is Sports With Jet Fuel”: ‘THR Presents’ Q&A With Creative Team Behind ‘Rivals: Ohio State vs. Michigan’

Jon Wertheim knows just how intense sports rivalries can get.

The author, Sports Illustrated executive editor and 60 Minutes correspondent has dedicated years to covering one of the most legendary rivalries in all of sports — Roger Federer vs. Rafael Nadal — through his work at SI as well as in the 2009 book, Strokes of Genius, and again in the 2018 Tennis Channel documentary adaptation that scored two Emmy nominations.

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For a follow-up, Wertheim teamed with collaborators that included Michael Hughes’ DLP Media, director Peter Karl (The Long Game) and Oscar-winning actor J.K. Simmons to shift the focus from the tennis court to the gridiron to investigate one of college football’s most fiery and longest-running rivalries: Ohio State vs. Michigan. The Buckeyes and Wolverines hail from neighboring states and the same conference with a rivalry that dates back to the 1890s. While Rivals does dish on key historical moments over those many decades, the doc digs deeper into science and fan psychology to investigate why it is that rivalries are so compelling for fans of any team.

“This is really about the power of rivalry,” Wertheim says in a new THR Presents conversation, powered by Vision Media, while joined by Karl and Simmons to discuss the Sinclair Broadcast Group project produced in partnership with Tennis Channel’s TC Studios. “It has one dynamic in an individual sport but also exists in team sports so it was about taking these principles and applying them. Ohio State, Michigan is sort of this seminal rivalry. It impacts the fan bases. Obviously, you’ve got these two neighboring states that are very similar, similar populations, same part of the country, same conference, and yet this is a real dividing line. Why is that? We also wanted to explore the impact of rivalry, not just on the fan bases and the culture, but on the athletes too. Peter and our wonderful narrator, who dressed for the occasion, took the ball and ran with it.”

Wertheim wasn’t kidding. Simmons did, in fact, dress for the occasion in a cherry red Ohio State Buckeyes sweatshirt. Born in Michigan, raised in Ohio and self-described “diehard Buckeye,” Simmons admits it was “an absolute no-brainer” to say yes when offered the chance to narrate the project. He even agreed to show his face when Karl called an audible and asked if they could get him on camera.

“That was not part of the original pitch,” the Whiplash actor says with a smile. “At some point, after we decided we were going to do it, they said, ‘Would you mind if we throw a camera in there?’ I said, yeah, I mean, I’m not going to powder my nose or anything but whatever you want to do.”

Getting Simmons to show his face wasn’t a ploy to inject Rivals with star power but instead to infuse it with comedy and witty one-liners, part of the recipe for what makes the project more than the average sports documentary.

“We weren’t looking at the football rivalry, what’s happened, the history and who’s won and whatnot,” explains Karl. “It was really looking a few layers deeper into what this rivalry meant for people, the history and the cultures, which is what calls to me about any sports story.”

Investigating those layers also led them to using Ohio State vs. Michigan as a case study to show a rivalry through a scientific lens, hence why so many professors, data studies and psychology terms pop up throughout the nearly two-hour show.

“This really was about attacking this idea of rivalry,” Wertheim explains. “Rivalry is sports with jet fuel. What really gets the best games and the fans the most engaged are rivalry games. Well, what’s going on there? It’s got to be more than, ‘I love my team and I hate the other guys.’ In terms of behavioral economics and social psychology, what’s going on in our brains? I think this is also where the film really soars.”

This edition of THR Presents is sponsored by Sinclair Broadcast Group.

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