Football Fandom in the 21st Century

A new report published by the European Club Association (ECA) has challenged the notion that football fans should only support one team.

The study, titled ‘Fan of the Future: Defining Modern Football Fandom’, takes an in-depth look at how modern supporters engage with and consume the game.

It aims to provide a holistic view of what it means to be a football fan in 2020 and beyond, looking at themes such as club affinity, engagement and consumer behaviour.

ECA’s Director of Membership & Business Development, Lasse Wolter, said: “The findings show that present-day fandom is no longer just about hardcore and one-club supporters, but is much broader than that.

“Many younger fans support more than one club home and abroad, with birthplace no longer being the only factor in club affiliation.

“Those that follow the game in a more passive manner now make up the majority of the sport’s audience. There is clear evidence that fans today are starting to expect football clubs to focus beyond their core offering.

“It is no longer enough for clubs to compete; they need to demonstrate a level of social responsibility and community awareness aligned with fan values.”

The report surveyed 14,000 respondents across seven different markets globally and potentially has significant implications for clubs, leagues and competitions.

The ECA wants the findings to provide football with a greater insight into fandom in the 21st century and inspire strategies to increase engagement with a view to growing the game.

“Modern fans think differently about football, just as they think differently about other aspects of society and entertainment,” said ECA CEO, Charlie Marshall.

“Younger fans, especially, are engaging with the game through more varied and diverse means, which is a growing challenge and a huge opportunity for clubs.

“Football’s business and commercial model was already undergoing significant, but with today’s ‘rapid response’ management model, we must remember why we are all doing this – for the fans.

“Only through understanding what they value and how they are changing for the future will we be able to realise a sustainable future for football as the world’s leading sport and responsible engagement platform.”

The report highlights how younger fans interact with football differently from older supporters, with following more than one club a vital element of this behaviour.

Fans can be split into six distinct groups, with only 11 percent of respondents recognised as ‘football fanatics’ who are emotionally invested into just a single team.

They follow football in its entirety, with strong emotional engagement, and the sport provides them with a sense of community which is key to their enjoyment.

While following a team outside of geographical or historical family allegiances is an alien concept to those fans, the report demonstrates that they are in the minority.

However, as recently noted by respected author Simon Kuper, true fandom can come in many forms and is not limited by the parameters that people traditionally associate with the subculture.

“A friend of mine who has studied the deep sociological divide that runs through Thai society — Liverpool fans versus Manchester United fans — points to the desire of people in a developing country to attach themselves to something ‘world-class’,” he told ft.com.

“You may live in a Bangkok shack, and your children attend a bad school, and you will never rise above these circumstances, but you are Liverpool.

“In James Erskine’s documentary series This Is Football, a group of Liverpool fans, the Rwandan Reds, meet in Kigali to watch every game together. Many were orphaned in the genocide of 1994.

“They don’t have families, but they have Liverpool. Liverpool FC’s original supporters in the 1890s, searching for their moorings in a city where life expectancy was 38, would have understood.”