Research led by the universities of Kent and Oxford has found that fans of the least successful Premier League football teams have a stronger bond with fellow fans and are more ‘fused’ with their club than supporters of the most successful teams.
The study, which was carried out in 2014, found that fans of Crystal Palace, Hull, Norwich, Sunderland, and West Bromwich Albion were found to have higher loyalty towards one another and even expressed greater willingness to sacrifice their own lives to save the lives of other fans of their club. This willingness was much higher than that of Manchester United, Arsenal, Chelsea, Liverpool or Manchester City fans. A decade of club statistics from 2003-2013 was used to identify the five most consistently successful and the five least successful clubs in the Premier League.
Crystal Palace fans were most likely to report willingness to sacrifice themselves for fellow fans (34.5%) and Arsenal’s were least likely (9.4%). Manchester City fans appeared to bond to one another more like fans of the less successful clubs, although they did not significantly differ in willingness to sacrifice themselves, when compared to fans of more successful clubs, such as local rivals Manchester United.
The fans who reported the most social ties for the origin of their football passion was the least successful club, Hull (92.2%), whereas the club reporting the fewest social ties was Chelsea (63%), historically one of the most highly successful.
The survey-based study, which was conducted by Dr Martha Newson from Kent’s School of Anthropology and Conservation, in collaboration with colleagues at Oxford, concluded that social bonding is significantly higher in fans of consistently unsuccessful clubs due to them having experienced more dysphoria in relation to the emotional difficulty of being a fan of a club that has been relegated or lost many games. Across clubs, memories of past football defeats formed an essential part of fans’ self-concepts, fusing them to their club. They also considered their peers to be more like kin than did fans of consistently-successful clubs.
Dr Newson, an expert in group bonding, said: ‘This research has helped to unpick the psychological causes of bonds among fans and is relevant to other coalitional groups, such as the military. This could be incredibly valuable, with the long-term sustainability of football clubs depending on their ability to attract and retain supporters who will support their club through thick and thin.
‘These findings may also help football clubs to think about broadening inclusion and diversity among fans, and to use their links to charitable foundations to make a difference. The Twinning Project is an example, which pairs major clubs with their local prison to deliver football-based qualifications in a bid to reduce reoffending.’
Professor Harvey Whitehouse, the senior author on the paper and Director of Oxford’s Centre for the Study of Social Cohesion, said: ‘This is the latest in a string of studies we have conducted showing that shared suffering can produce incredibly strong social glue – a finding that is not only relevant to sports fans but to all of us as we emerge from a year of lockdowns and personal losses. A key question is whether the bonds forged through collective ordeals can be put to practical use by enabling us to pull together more effectively in the future.’
While, historically, there have been cases where this extreme bonding among fans can turn to hostility and violence, the researchers argue that the extreme, pro-group sentiments of fans who are highly fused to their club need not be violent. Nevertheless, understanding what motivates devoted fans may help football clubs and policy makers better manage crowd behaviour. Furthermore, clubs could benefit from tailoring brand management and fan retainment strategies by extracting the best from dysphoric events and treating them as opportunities to remind fans that they are ‘in it together’.
Dr Newson added: ‘I hope that further studies can encourage clubs with high corporate social responsibility to implement more research-driven policies to improve other critical social areas, such as sexism, racial and ethnic relations, and homophobia.’
Their research paper ‘United in Defeat: Shared suffering and group bonding among football fans’ is published by Managing Sport & Leisure. DOI: 10.1080/23750472.2020.1866650.