What Makes Us Fans

Confession: I am a lifelong Tottenham Hotspur F.C. (Spurs) fan. My Tottenham-born mum gave me little choice. Despite growing up on the outskirts of Sydney, she was adamant that I become the fourth generation in the family to be a Spurs fan. And, of course I did what she said, and have been a fan ever since.

Strangely though, it was through the London club that I first took an interest in football, as well as its fans and its modern culture in Japan.

Today, finishing one’s football career with a couple of high-paying seasons at an Asian or Middle Eastern club is almost a right of passage for big-name players. However, when former English striker Gary Lineker OBE joined Nagoya Grampus Eight from Spurs in 1992, it was big news.

Discussions of where and why abounded in UK pubs. The Japan Professional Football League may have taken off fast from its early beginnings in 1988, but for much of the football-playing world it was another planet.

Being a fan—of a football team or anything else—not only becomes part of how we define ourselves, but also educates us about new possibilities. After all, just the act of supporting a team means that we become familiar with the towns—and the people who live there—that our rival teams call home.

This may be in the case of a century-old rivalry within a city, such as in Glasgow (with Rangers Football Club and Celtic Football Club), but football does not always mean separations. Earlier this year, for a few brief weeks, the 2014 FIFA World Cup brought people together on a global common ground, teaching spectators about other cultures.

In fact, “Truth about Fans”, a study carried out by McCann Truth Central, found that people around the world thought major sporting events did more to bring the world together than anything else. Some 73% of respondents said being a fan of a sport expanded their knowledge of people and cultures.

The study surveyed thousands of people from over 30 countries about the rituals of fandom. Every team’s fans have some kind of ritual. For example, fans of the Tokyo Yakult Swallows baseball team wave plastic umbrellas to the tune of a traditional Japanese melody when the team scores a point.

Some fans do certain things to bring their team luck; in Brazil it is common for fans to place a glass of water on the television before the start of a national game.

Answers varied when respondents were asked how fanatical they are. In response to the question, “how serious a fan are you?” some 5% of respondents defined themselves as “die-hard” fans of something, for example a sports team, celebrity, band, author or brand.

Some 35% said they were fans of something about which they feel passionate, promote and find it hard to imagine life without. The majority—60%—reported that despite having things that they love, they would not consider themselves fans of anything.

The study implies that being a fan means finding something that makes you who you are. Often the result of an incident or personal history, it also means an expectation to not only stay loyal to the thing you are a fan of, but to be happy to share why you are a fan of it with others.

Moreover, the study found that regardless of the country of origin, people become and stay fans—of football or any sport—because of one of four drivers:

1. Personal: looking for something to connect with and to inspire themselves
2. Family: a tradition that sticks
3. Local: the place, community, geography people come from is unified by an allegiance to a team
4. National: unity and mythology of the national team

Fans follow their favourite players wherever they go. In recent years, Japanese media, as well as the general public, have relished seeing their sports stars succeeding overseas.

From baseball player Ichiro Suzuki in US Major League Baseball and the fad around tennis player Kei Nishikori, to the moves of forward Keisuke Honda around the football clubs of Italy, Germany and England, it seems these overseas-based stars are always the first topic of the nightly sports news.

As the overseas opportunities for Japanese sportspeople have become more apparent, the aspirations of young people have changed. The “Truth about Fans” report indicates that the achievements of Japanese athletes in top overseas leagues bring their country hope. What is more, the study shows that as the world widens, so it seems do the ambitions and loyalties of fans.

A survey carried out before this year’s World Cup across some 30 countries found that over 80% of those surveyed claimed to be a supporter of a second team. This team was usually one with a real chance of winning or one that included a star player who was greatly admired.

The advent of social media has perhaps done more to change, enhance and disrupt fan behaviour than anything since broadcasts of matches from around the world began in the 1970s.

While half of those surveyed said social media deepens the ability of the fan to be a part of a community, the other half said that the constant flood of opinions, sniping, statistics and rumours is too distracting.

Still, having a team and being a fan seem to be an important part of self-identification.

A friend of mine, feeling left out of football conversations with his colleagues, recently decided to commit to a Premier League team. He wanted it to be one that played in red because he thought the colour was powerful. So, after touring the grounds and shops of various clubs and watching the fans, he made a decision.

This may be a strangely rational way to align loyalty, but the how and why of becoming and remaining a fan is indeed unique to all of us.