The Role of Supporters

A good number of academic papers have considered the role played by supporters in the economic model of sports. I personally have a paper in the IJSF considering a particular theory surrounding home advantage in football (soccer), where we propose a monitoring theory: Once television became prevalent, players could no longer slack in away games and get away with it. The implication was that the supporters are what matters, rather than any of the other factors usually posited (familiarity with surroundings, etc).

Others have looked into whether supporters have a role influencing referees to add more minutes of injury time at the end of matches, and whether they influence referee decisions moreover. The literature is rich, it’s fair to say and I won’t do justice to it in this post.

I’m reminded of this by recent events at Premiership team Blackburn Rovers. Blackburn have had heady days in recent decades: They are, aside from the usual suspects (Man Utd, Arsenal and Chelsea), the only other team to have actually won the Premiership, hard to believe as that may be. In recent days, they were yet another top English team taken over by foreign owners as the closet xenophobic British press (and bloggers) have had some fun pointing out in recent years: They were taken over in 2010 by the Venky’s of India, to great fanfare.

However, all has not gone swimmingly for English football’s first Indian owners. They sacked exceedingly competent manager Sam Allardyce in December 2010 for no obvious reason, and replaced him with an complete unknown, Steve Kean.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, the fans weren’t overly excited by that appointment, and things have not gone particularly well since, and as of Tuesday this week, they sit at the bottom of the Premiership with just two wins all season. Tuesday however was notable in that it marked the latest high (or low) point of the campaign of Blackburn fans to have Kean sacked and replaced. As far back as their first win of the season (against Arsenal), Blackburn fans were stages regular protests against the manager.

On Tuesday, against Bolton, local rivals, farcical defending put Blackburn 2-0 down early in the game and it’s said the atmosphere in the stadium was “poisonous” – the Twittersphere was rife with Tweets from folk who left at half time in protest – including notably the Everton coach David Moyes. Blackburn put in a vastly improved second half performance but fell to a 2-1 defeat to sink to bottom (Bolton had previously been bottom of the table).

What this whole sorry episode suggests perhaps more than anything is the role fans play. Of course, we don’t know how Blackburn might have performed on Tuesday had supporters instead turned up to support their team instead of to protest against the coach (and also the owners now – typing Venkys and Blackburn into Google reveals a lot of vile against the Indian owners). Anecdotal evidence is pretty conclusive though; when a set of supporters decides against a coach, even if the owners try to persist with the coach, supports usually get their way. Abusive chants, poisonous atmosphere at games, abuse in the streets, abuse of friends, relatives, etc., all take their toll usually. It seems hard to believe that Kean can take much more of what he’s currently enduring in deepest, darkest Lancashire (it’s hard also to believe that Northern folk are generally perceived to be more friendly!).

Personally I can only think of one example where supporters have been proved wrong, and that was when Martin O’Neill took over at Leicester many years ago. After a few initial defeats supporters were protesting. A few years later and a few League Cups and European nights, I think they forgave him for those early defeats.

Fans would appear to be pretty powerful stakeholders in the model of the football club, casting their judgement on a particular manager or player, and usually getting their way even if those with the actual power (chairmen, managers, players) don’t agree.

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