At some point, you’ve no doubt heard someone say “football is my religion”. And if we follow French sociologist Emile Durkheim’s famous building blocks for religion, we will find that football is not far from religion at all.
There are flags symbolising unity in the followers, the collective cheers and groans as the game proceeds, the adorning of the symbols of the team you support, and the inevitable fact that we will do it all again next weekend, next month and perhaps for the rest of our lives.
It was in this context that we set out to uncover the relationship that Australians have with football, how the relationship with the teams we support (and their symbols) compares with those of people from other countries, and how we choose to court our relationship with our teams.
Our initial study set out to discover how we engage in the following of our football teams through the “shirt” or “jersey”.
While it is true that through the professionalisation of football codes the shirt is yet another form of commodity that is packaged and sold to fans, some suggest that the jersey is a battleground where supporters can contest “authenticity”: that is, how true a fan they are.
There have certainly been cases, specifically in the United Kingdom, where fans have used the shirt to display both their genuine relationship to the club by wearing nostalgic colours and acts of defiance against commodification of their beloved club
However, just how important is the shirt? In an online survey of 193 football fans from across codes (AFL, soccer, rugby union and rugby league) and even continents (mostly Europe and Australia), we discovered that while many owned the shirt (139, or 72%), most did not place significant importance on “owning the shirt” as a fan.
On a scale from one to nine (one being not very important, five being somewhat important, nine being very important), 30% of respondents said it was not very important, while 71% scored five or less.
Even less emphasis was placed on adorning shirts with player numbers and special badges: 45% of fans said it was not very important and 86% scored five or less.
Interestingly, when comparing codes (AFL versus soccer, for example), the difference between scores is not significant, indicating that fans across codes do not see owning the shirt as a symbol of importance in being a “fan”.
An odd – and noteworthy – finding showed that people who were willing to frequently wear their team’s jersey when they went out (for a meal or to see a movie, for example) felt more attached to their jersey than those who did so less often, or not at all.
As we delved deeper into the data we began to notice differences between codes and, more specifically, nations.
Using the same one-to-nine scale mentioned above, we asked respondents to nominate how attached they felt to their respective clubs. From their responses we were able to see that there was really no difference in attachment between fans of AFL, soccer, rugby league and rugby union, with each fan rating their attachment as approximately eight (close to “very attached”).
However, when comparing country of residence, we discovered some differences between nations. For instance, Australians, with a median score of eight, were less attached to their football teams than Europeans, who scored a median of nine.
Why this is the case is difficult to say. Perhaps the attachment to club is greater in places where football teams do not need to jockey for attention, such as in the United Kingdom, where one team or one sport dominates major population centres such as London, Manchester and Newcastle.
Oddly, people from England and France are likely to be less attached to their jersey than fans from Australia. In Australia, football itself is a diverse and divisive term that many will argue about for hours, including arguing over which is the better code.
The impact of social media
One of the other interesting discoveries we made was regarding the use and uptake of social media as a way to perform a type of football punditry with like-minded fans. Social media, especially for soccer, has become a major contributor to the game itself. Most codes now market hashtags for specific games where tweeters can get their opinions read out between halves on radio or television.
The advent of Web 2.0 also means that after games, when paid pundits place their thoughts in online environments, eager armchair critics can debate with each other long after the final whistle has blown. In our survey, 126 fans, or 65.3%, belonged to some sort of social media group that was related to the team they supported. The average time these people spent on these forums per week was 1.66 hours.
However, when comparing codes, we found that AFL fans spend far less time (a median of 1.06 hours) than soccer fans (a median of 2.58 hours) on their respective social media sites. This is perhaps indicative of how advanced into the digital age soccer has become, especially the major competitions (for example, the English Premier League). Or, perhaps soccer fans are just more likely to banter online afterwards.
A final finding worth mentioning was that people who belong to a social media group were more likely to be attached to their team’s jersey than were people who do not belong to such a group.