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The King as Spurs Fan: The Country in Love with Football
Heia, Norge. Norway is officially Europe’s kookiest nation about football. “Why football in Norway?” ruminates Matti Goksøyr, the well-known Norwegian sports historian, when we break the happy news to him. He admits to being baffled: “Norway, a winter nation. Impossible to play football in winter time. It’s really a mystery.”
Just to recap: here is how Norway won our award. In our first category, playing football, Germany and the Faroes scored highest in Europe, at least according to Fifa. Austria, Norway, Slovakia, Sweden, Iceland, Holland and Ireland followed at some distance.
Of these keen playing countries, the only ones that were also unusually keen on spectating were Norway and Iceland. Cypriots and Scots were avid spectators, too.
So our third category, TV viewing, had to provide the decider between the frontrunners, Norway and Iceland. It may be that the entire Icelandic population watches every game of every world cup, even the goalless draw between Bolivia and South Korea in 1994, but if so we will have to wait a couple of years to find out, because the country only introduced peoplemeters in 2007. However, Norway did register among the continent’s leading couch potatoes as compiled by Kevin Alavy, alongside Denmark, Croatia and Holland. (The Dutch and Icelanders deserve special mentions for scoring high in two of our three categories.)
Admittedly Norway got a boost from the peculiarity of its TV market. Crucially, commercial TV took a long time to get going in the country. This means that Norwegians for a long time had fewer channels than most Europeans, which in turn means that programmes on their few channels could get a larger share of the market than elsewhere. On the other hand, the Norwegian enthusiasm for watching football is remarkable because it isn’t even their favourite TV sport. In surveys people claim to prefer biathlon and langlaufen, says Knut Helland, the Bergen university professor. So Norway win our award.
Why Norway, indeed? Early signs of dangerous obsession emerged in the late 1940s, when football pools were introduced into the country. Nowadays the whole word gambles on football, but the Norwegian oddity was that even back then, all the games on the coupon were from the English Football League. Goksøyr adds: “And that was self-evident. It had to be like that.”
Had there been an award for most Anglophile country in Europe, Norway would probably have won that too (with Scotland and Serbia finishing joint last). Halvard Lange, Norway’s foreign minister from 1946 to 1965, once said: “We do not regard Englishmen as foreigners. We look on them only as rather mad Norwegians.”
When the Germans invaded Norway in 1940, it had seemed natural that King Haakon and his Oxford-educated son Olav should flee to London, along with the Norwegian government. Later, after Olav became king he always tried to make an autumn pilgrimage to England, where as well as dropping in on his cousin Queen Elizabeth he did his best to catch a football match. Olav supported Arsenal, which must have made for awkward dinner-time conversation with his son Harald, the current king, who is a Spurs fan.
Obsession with English football is now almost a human universal – South African cabinet meetings sometimes get interrupted by quarrels over the previous night’s English games – but Norway got there first. On Saturday November 29, 1969, decades before the Premier League formulated its secret plans for world domination, Norwegian TV broadcast its first ever live English football match: Wolves 1 Sunderland 0. Naturally, the nation was hooked. The Saturday game from England fast became an institution. “The most important thing in Norway when it comes to affection for football is the Saturday TV games,” says Andreas Selliaas, special adviser to the Norwegian Olympic and Paralympic Committee and Confederation of Sports. “My father supports Leyton Orient. Why?”
Orient aren’t even the worst of it. There is also a Barnet Fan Club of Norway, and a Rushden and Diamonds Supporters’ Club. According to the Aftenposten newspaper, 50,000 Norwegians belonged to supporters’ clubs of British teams in 2003. King Harald was an honorary member of the Spurs fan club. That’s not to mention the planeloads of Norwegians who commute to Old Trafford. And while doing all this, the Norwegians still find time to lead the world at winter sports.
When they turn to footie, in summer, the local peculiarity is that Norwegian women play it almost as keenly as men. The country’s FA started hunting for women way back in the 1970s. Today about one in 23 Norwegian females is a registered footballer, the highest proportion of any country on earth. In fact, Norway has more registered female footballers than England despite having less than a tenth of its population. Even the Norwegian FA’s general secretary is a woman. It’s surely no coincidence that the world’s most developed country (according to the United Nations’ rankings) is also the one that gives the largest share of its inhabitants the opportunity to play and watch football.
Norwegians have always played the game, and obsessed over English teams, but for decades they barely bothered to develop a elite game of their own. Their domestic league was amateur, and the national team’s matches weren’t shown live on the country’s sole TV channel but were squeezed into a couple of minutes on the evening news. Then, in 1992, Norwegian TV finally embraced Norwegian football. The league took off, gaining status from returning Norwegian players who had actually clumped around the holy sanctum that is English football. Many fans adopted a local side to supplement their British one.
Now one in 27 of Norway’s inhabitants is a regular spectator in their domestic league, a mania untempered by the dreadfulness of the teams. Other Scandinavians, reflecting on Norway’s love for almost any kind of football, like to say: “Norwegians are not used to much.”
Norway’s national team has seldom been up to much either, even if they are the only side in the world with a winning record against Brazil (played four, won two, drawn two). The number of Norwegians that glue themselves to a world cup is especially outrageous given that they usually don’t have a dog anywhere in the race. Though Norway didn’t qualify for Euro 2004, for instance, Norwegians watched more of the tournament than most nations that were there. If they ever get a decent team, they might really start to like football.
Are Football Fans Polygamists? A Critique of the Hornby Model of Fandom
Just this one afternoon started the whole thing off – there was no prolonged courtship….. In a desperate and percipient attempt to stop the inevitable, Dad quickly took me to Spurs to see Jimmy Greaves score four against Sunderland in a 5-1 win, but the damage had been done, and the six goals and all the great players left me cold: I’d already fallen for the team that beat Stoke 1-0 from a penalty rebound.
Nick Hornby in Fever Pitch (1992) on the origin of his lifelong love of Arsenal.
Fever Pitch is a wonderful memoir, the most influential football book ever written, and an important source for our image of the football fan. The “Fan”, as most Britons have come to think of him, is a creature tied for life to the club he first “fell for” as a child. Hornby says his love of Arsenal has lasted “longer than any relationship I have made of my own free will”. But is Hornby’s “Fan” found much in real life? Or are most British football supporters much less loyal than is usually presumed?
Let’s start with Hornby’s version, because it is the accepted story of the British Fan. As far as life allows, the Hornbyesque Fan sees all his club’s home games. (It’s accepted even in the rhetoric of fandom that traveling to away games is be\st left to unmarried men under the age of 25.) No matter how bad his team get, the Fan cannot abandon them. When Hornby watches the Arsenal of the late 1960s with his Dad, their incompetence shames him but he cannot leave: “I was chained to Arsenal and my dad was chained to me, and there was no way out for any of us.”
“Chained” is a very Hornbyesque word for a Fan’s feelings for his club. Often, the Fan uses metaphors from drugs (“hooked”) or romantic love (“relationship”, “fell for”). Indeed some adult Englishmen who would hardly dare tell their wives that they love them will happily appear in public singing of their love for a club, or for a player who would snub them in a nightclub if they ever managed to sneak past his entourage.
No wonder the Fan’s loyalty to his club is sometimes described as a bond stronger than marriage. Rick Parry, as chief executive of the Premier League in the 1990s, recited the then dominant cliché about fandom: “You can change your job, you can change your wife, but you can’t change your football team… you can move from one end of the country to another, but you never, ever lose your allegiance to your first team. That’s what English soccer is all about. It’s about fierce loyalty, about dedication.” (The Argentine variant: “You can change your wife - but your club and your mother, never.”) Recently, in more metrosexual times, football officials trying to emphasise the strength of club brands have extended the cliché by one more attachment: you can even change your gender, the officials say, but not your club.
Ideally, the Hornbyesque Fan supports his local side (even if Hornby did not). This gives the Fan roots, a sense of belonging. In a wonderful essay on fandom in the highbrow journal Prospect, Gideon Rachman quotes an archetypal declaration of faith from a Carlisle Fan called Charles Burgess, who wrote in The Guardian: "There never was any choice. My dad... took me down to Brunton Park to watch the derby match against Workington Town just after Christmas 41 years ago - I was hooked and have been ever since... My support has been about who we are and where we are from."
In real life Rachman is a commentator on international politics in the Financial Times, but his essay in Prospect is a key text in the British debate about fandom. It is the anti-Fever Pitch. In it, Rachman outs himself as a “fair-weather fan, an allegiance-switcher”, who at different times in his life has supported Chelsea, QPR and Spurs. So casual are his allegiances that he registered with Fifa for the world cup of 2006 as an Ivory Coast supporter, figuring that that way he wouldn’t face much competition for tickets. He got into every round including the final. For the world cup in South Africa, Rachman is a registered Paraguay fan.
He treats the passions of Hornbyesque Fans as slightly bizarre. After all, in England a Fan’s choice of team is largely random. Few clubs have particular religious or class affiliations, and few English people have an attachment dating back generations to any particular location. Some children become fans of their local team, however terrible it might be, but if you live in Cornwall or Somerset or Oxfordshire you will have no local team, while if you live in London or around Manchester you have many. As Rachman asks: “Why devote a huge amount of emotion to favouring one part of west London over another?”
Nonetheless, the Hornbyesque Fan is a widely admired figure in Britain, at least among men. Whereas “fanatic” is usually a pejorative word, a “Fan” is someone who has roots somewhere. As we will argue later, this respect is connected to the quirks of British history: in this country, roots of any kind are in short supply.
However, our first question is: how true is the Hornby model of fandom? Does it really describe the way most British fans feel about their clubs?
The Chinese Serial Fan
Very little is known about sports fans who are not hooligans. The academics D.L. Wann and M.A. Hamlet estimated in 1995 that only four per cent of research on sport concentrated on the spectator.
So we start our quest into the nature of fandom with only one or two fairly safe premises. One is that foreign fans of English clubs, at least, are not all monogamous in their devotion. Rowan Simons explains in Bamboo Goalposts, his book about Chinese football, that many Chinese fans support “a number of rival teams at the same time,” and are always changing their favourite club. Simons adds: “So dominant is the serial supporter in China that it is quite rare to find a fan with a real unflinching loyalty to one team”.
Stephanus Tekle, senior consultant at the market researchers Sport+Markt, has polling data to back up Simons’s claim. Tekle says that since the late 1990s hordes of new fans around the world – particularly women – have come to football without longstanding loyalties. Many of these people appear to be “serial supporters” who probably support Manchester United and Liverpool, or Real Madrid and Barcelona, simultaneously. No wonder that clubs like United or Real keep changing their guesses as to how many fans they have worldwide. Here are a few of United’s estimates of the last few years:
Year Estimated Fans Source
2003 75 million Mori
2007 About 90 million Manchester United
2008 333 million TNS Sport
(including 139 million
None of these estimates is necessarily wrong. There may well be 333 million people on earth who have feelings for Manchester United. However, few of these “fans” are likely to be lifelong Hornbyesque devotees. Jose Angel Sanchez, now chief executive of Real Madrid, a club with its own share of foreign serial supporters, thought many of these serial fans might eventually evolve into Hornbys. He told us in 2003: “We used to say that the chances of changing your team is less than changing your partner or even your sex. But the way that people enter football in Asia is different: they enter through the stars. But this will not stay this way, in my opinion.” Well, perhaps.
Still, surely British fans are a lot more loyal than those fickle Chinese? Unfortunately, polling suggests otherwise. In 2008 Sport+Markt found that Chelsea had 2.4 million “fans” in Britain. Again according to Sport+Markt, that represented a rise of 523 per cent in the five years since Roman Abramovich had bought the club. Yet even that figure of 2.4 million represented a swift decline: in 2006, when, no doubt coincidentally, Chelsea had just won the league twice running, Sport+Markt credited the club with a mammoth 3.8 million British fans.
Again, we are not saying that Sport+Markt’s figures were wrong. Rather, its premise was. To serial supporters, the question, “Which is your preferred football club?”, does not make sense. It presumes that everyone who likes football is a one-club Hornbyesque Fan. Instead, researchers should be asking, “Which are your preferred football clubs?” After all, a very large proportion of people who like football are polygamous consumers. One of the authors of this book, Stefan, as a Saturday-morning coach of primary-school children, has seen the colour of the shirts switch from red to blue and back again depending upon who last won the league. Newly rising clubs like Chelsea are particularly prone to attracting short-term fans, says Tekle of Sport+Markt. Clubs like Liverpool or Manchester United with stronger brands tend to have more loyal long-term supporters, he adds. In fact the likes of Manchester United are likely to have both far more Hornbys and far more casual fans than other clubs. But detractors of United tend to seize upon the hordes of casual fans, and don’t mention the Hornbys.
Hornby himself recognized the prevalence of casual fans in football. Many of the people who pop up briefly in the pages of Fever Pitch enjoy the game but are not wedded to a particular club. Hornby calls this type the “sod-that-for-a-lark floating punter”, and speaks of it with admiration: “I would like to be one of those people who treat their local team like their local restaurant, and thus withdraw their patronage if they are being served up noxious rubbish.”
Spectators: The Hardcore
We know there are broadly speaking two types of football fan: the Hornbys and the sod-that-for-a-lark floating punters. We know that the sod-that-for-a-lark people are heavily represented among foreign fans of clubs like United, and even seem to be pretty common in Britain. By 2006, if we can believe Sport+Markt’s figures, about 90 per cent of Chelsea’s fans were people who had not supported them in 2003. No doubt a club like Hartlepool has a higher percentage of devoted Hornbys among their fans, but then clubs like Hartlepool don’t have many fans full stop.
One might carp that the sod-that-for-a-lark lot are mostly just armchair fans, and that “real” fans tend to be Hornbys. However, it would be wrong to dismiss armchair fans as an irrelevance. The overwhelming majority of football fans in Britain are armchair fans, in the sense that they hardly ever go to games. In a Mori poll in 2003, 45 per cent of British adults expressed an interest in football. But we’ve seen that the total average weekly attendances of all professional clubs in England and Scotland equal only about 3 per cent of the population. In other words, most of the country’s football fans rarely or never enter football stadiums.
Fletcher Research, in one of the first serious market analyses of English football in 1997, found that only about five per cent of supporters of Premier League clubs attend even one match in an average season. If only a small minority of football fans get to the stadium at all, even fewer see every single home game for years on end as Hornby did.
Most football fans are armchair supporters. If we want to unearth the Hornbys, we need to concentrate on the elite of fans that actually go to games: the spectators.
We know that in the Premier League at least, most spectators now watch every home game their club plays. Often they have to: at the most successful clubs, only season-ticket-holders can get seats. Many of these regular spectators may be sod-that-for-a-lark punters at heart, who have been enticed by ticketing policies to show up every week. However, it’s among this group of week-in-week-out spectators that we must look for the small hardcore of lifelong Hornbys in English football. At moments of high emotion, the TV cameras like to zoom in on spectators in the stands – heads in hands, or hugging their mates – as if these people incarnated the feelings of the club’s millions of supporters. They don’t. Rather, they are the exceptions, the fanatical few who bother to go to games. Some of these spectators presumably support their club “through thick and thin”, watching them unto eternity like Hornby does.
At least, that is the theory. But we studied attendances in English football over the last 60 years, and found that even among the actual spectators, a startlingly high proportion appeared to be sod-this-for-a-lark types.
* * * * * *
Nobody seems to have tried before to calculate how many British fans are Hornbys. Yet the figures required to make some sort of estimate do exist. Paul In ‘t Hout’s marvelous website www.european-football-statistics.co.uk has statistics on attendances and league performance for all clubs in the top four divisions of English football from 1947 through 2008. Using this data, we can find out (a) the annual mortality rate of football spectators; that is, how many of the people who watched last season don’t come back the next?, and (b) the sensitivity of new spectators to the success of teams. Do most newcomers flock to Chelsea when Chelsea win the league?
Our model itself reveals some of the logic of football fandom. Generally speaking, teams cannot both have very loyal Hornbyesque fans (i.e. a low mortality rate) and at the same time be capable of attracting large numbers of new spectators when they are successful. If most of the crowd consisted of Hornbys who never gave up their seats, then when a team did well, there would be no room in the stadium for all the new fans who wanted to watch them. So floating supporters can only get tickets if the mortality rate of the existing spectators is high enough.
Previous studies have shown that a club’s attendance tends to rise and fall with its league position. (The rare exceptions include Newcastle, Sunderland, and the Manchester City of the late 1990s.) In our data for the 61-year period, there were 4,454 changes in clubs’ league position. In 64 per cent of the cases where the club rose in the league, its home crowd increased too. In 74 per cent of the “down” years, home attendance fell. This means that 69 per cent of all cases confirmed the simple hypothesis that fans respond to performance. Simply put: there is a market in football spectators. The few academics who study fandom – most of them in the US – explain the fans’ motives through the psychological phenomenon of “BIRGing”, or “Basking in reflected glory”.
To account for the ebb and flow of English football fans, we have constructed a very simple model. It consists of two elements. First, there are the “new fans” coming into the game. New fans are estimated as the difference between the total attendance for the season and the number of loyal fans left over from the previous season. We divide new fans into two groups: the BIRGers, who come to watch the team depending on its success; and those who come for reasons we can’t explain. We will treat these reasons as random factors, although each person probably had a good reason to come to the game at the time - a friend invited them, a girlfriend left them, etcetera.
The second element of our model are the “loyal fans”: those who came back from the previous season. Loyal fans are estimated as the difference between the total attendance for the season and the new fans entering the game. Of course, the difference between the loyal fans plus the new fans and last season’s attendance is the “lost fans”. We can think of these lost fans as falling into two groups as well: the BIRGers who were lost to the club because its performance declined, and those who were lost for other reasons that we cannot measure (got back together with girlfriend, took up DIY, etc.).
Now, we are not claiming that we can identify new fans, loyal fans and lost fans individually. However, we can identify these categories in a statistical sense, as groups. We know how many people are in each group, even if we do not know their names.
Our model produces two results. Firstly, it gives us an estimate of the BIRGers: the fraction of new fans that a team can expect to attract as a result of the position it achieves in the league. Looking at the annual changes in attendances, we found that spectators are only mildly sensitive to a team’s performance. Our estimates implied that the club that won the Premier League would attract 2.5 per cent of all new spectators entering the league the next season. However, a team that finished at the bottom of the Premier League, or the top of the Championship, does almost as well: it attracts two per cent of all the league’s new spectators. Teams in the middle of the four divisions (i.e. those ranked around 46th in England) would attract one per cent of all new spectators, while teams at the very bottom of the fourth tier would attract almost nobody. In short, while new spectators do like success, the vast majority of them are not simple BIRGers, gloryhunters. Judging by the ebb and flow of crowds over the 61 years, most people seem to go to a plausible club playing near their home.
That is the profile of the newcomers. But how many of last year’s crowd do they replace? What is the mortality rate of the existing spectators?
We know how many spectators each club lost or gained, season by season for 61 years. We also know how many spectators the league as a whole lost or gained. That means that for every club we can calculate the average percentage of last season’s fans who did not come back for the new season. And the percentage that fits the data best: 50. Yes: on average in the postwar era, half of all spectators in English football did not take their seats again the next season.
Here’s an example of how the model works:
Bristol City finished the 2006/’07 season in second place in League One. Their total attendance that season was 295,000. The total attendance for all four divisions was 29.5 million.
The next season,
(a) The total attendance for all four divisions rose by 400,000, to 29.9 million
(b) Bristol City came fourth in the Championship – a rise of 22 places
So to calculate Bristol City’s expected attendance in 2007/8, we estimate their numbers of loyal “returning” fans and of new fans:
(c) Loyal fans are 50 per cent of the previous season’s total: 148,000
(d) New fans are calculated by estimating Bristol City’s share (based on league performance) of new fans of the entire league:
(e) We predict 15.1 million new spectators for English football as a whole. That equals this year’s total attendance (29.9 million) minus loyal fans from last year (50 per cent of 29.5 million = 14.8 million) = 15.1 million (29.9 – 14.8)
(f) Given that Bristol City finished 24th out of 92 clubs, we estimate their share of all new fans in the country at 1.7 per cent. Their number of new fans should therefore equal .017 x 15.1 million = 257,000
(g) So City’s loyal + new spectators = 148,000 + 257,000 = 405,000
(h) Bristol City’s actual number for 2007/8 was 374,000, so our model overestimated their support by 31,000, or 8 per cent. (i) For the sake of simplicity, we have rounded up all numbers.
Obviously the model does not work perfectly for every club. However, taking all 92 clubs together, the estimate that fits the data best is that 50 per cent of last season’s fans do not return. To quote one analysis of the English game:
One Third Division club in the London area, for example, has an estimated “hard core” support of about 10,000; this rises to 20,000 according to the team’s success and the standing of the visiting team.
These words were written in 1951, in an economic study of football published by the Political and Economic Planning think tank. They remain a good summary of English fandom as a whole since the war.
The discovery that half of all spectators – supposedly the hardest of hardcore Fans – do not bother to return the next season conflicts with the Hornby version of loyal one-club fandom. Yet it has to be true, to explain the churn we see in attendances. Even a club like Leeds, noted for its devoted fans – while stuck in League One it draws significantly larger crowds than Juventus - has seen attendance fall from a peak of 755,000 in the 2001/02 season to only 479,000 in 2006/07.
Nor is this high mortality rate a new phenomenon. The 61 years of attendance data suggest that habits of English spectators have changed little over the years. While there has always been a hard core of Hornbys, it seems it has also always been the case that the majority of people who go to English football matches go only once in a while, and are often quite fluid about who they choose to watch. And given that spectators are the fans who commit most time and money to the game, their devotion is in most cases really rather limited. The long-term devoted spectator of the kind that Hornby described in Fever Pitch, far from being typical, is a rare species. Committed one-club lifelong fandom is a beautiful theory – or as Gandhi supposedly said of western civilisation, “it would be a good idea”. The reality is that in English football, the loyal Hornbys are a small shoal in an ocean of casual Rachmans. England may be a nation of fans, but it’s scarcely a nation of Hornbys.