The Role of Supporters

December 23, 2011

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.


West Ham vs Tottenham, the Battle for the Olympic Stadium

February 10, 2011

This week the Premier League clubs West Ham United and Tottenham faced off in a battle for the ages, this one was not on the pitch, but was rather waged over the control of the 2012 London Summer Olympics Stadium.  The stadium which has been under construction will seat about 80,000 for the Olympic games and will be used for the opening and closing ceremony, as well as track and field events.  Originally the plan for the £537 million stadium was for it to be converted down to a 25,000 seat stadium to host athletic and other events after the Olympic Games.  In November of 2010, things got a bit more interesting when it was announced that there were two final bids for the stadium, both of which were coming from two notable Premier League clubs.

The first bid by Tottenham was also partially backed by Anschutz Entertainment Group (AEG), who are famous for their work on the Staples Center in Los Angeles, the Sprint Center in Kansas City, and potentially a new football stadium in Los Angeles next to the Staples Center.  Some had said that the AEG-Tottenham joint bid was a sure winner, especially after AEG converted the Millennium Dome into the O2 Arena, which is the world’s largest grossing concert arena.  The bid for the Olympic Stadium was said to a minimum of £250 million to convert the Olympic Stadium into a 60,000 seat venue for both Tottenham and large-scale concerts.  Tottenham’s biggest criticism seemed to be that the team is based a whopping 5 miles away from the Olympic Stadium, which is noted as being quite an issue for its supporters to travel.

The second from West Ham, U.S. based concert group Live Nation, and the Newham Council.  This plan decided to keep the track around the pitch in the stadium, and convert the venue into a 60,000 seat venue for West Ham matches, concerts, as well as other future athletic events.  It was reported by ESPN Soccernet that the Newham Council had given at least £40 million backing to the West Ham bid, which is said to be a conversion that will cost around £100 million.  The main issue with the West Ham bid seemed to be that the team was going to move out of 35,000 seat Upton Park to a stadium with 25,000 more seats, making some think that they would not be able to fill the Olympic Stadium.

As things began to heat up in the battle, both bids were presented with arguments from both clubs in the London Evening Standard.  In effort to try to make their bid even more pleasing Tottenham offered to even renovate Crystal Palace’s training facilities.  Today it was reported by the BBC that West Ham’s bid had won, and that the Hammers would be moving in at the new tenant after completing conversion of the stadium after the Olympics.  Where does that leave us?  Well Tottenham will probably now have to go back and start looking at their plans to move just north of the current location of White Hart Lane and build a 56,000 seat stadium as they had originally planned, and as had been approved by the Mayor of London.  That leaves Upton Park, which the club is claiming could be vacated and be used for redevelopment by 2014.


February 1, 2011

In the light of Andy Carroll jumping ship from Newcastle to Liverpool, the usual loyalty arguments are doing the rounds.

As my comment on the linked article shows, I’m not overly taken by these arguments, common as they are, because they don’t really make much sense. The argument is: Back in the day, before money came around, players were really loyal. Nowaways, they aren’t loyal, the one-club player is a thing of the past.

Of course, these are standard harking-back-to-a-mythical-golden-age type arguments. Back in these days, pre-1992, and maybe even pre-1960s, players really didn’t have much choice – their clubs held their registrations and a lot of power over them. Additionally, pre-Sky there was not a lot of money in the game. So: Players can’t move easily, and there isn’t much money about for them to want to either. Surprise, surprise, nobody moves anywhere. There’s this false sheen of loyalty, but of course it’s fake, it’s just agents responding to incentives.

Nowadays, players have much more power to move post-Bosman. There’s also much more money around, which is used by bigger clubs to tempt players. So: Players can move, and have incentive to (money) – surprise, surprise, they move!

It wasn’t loyalty that kept players in their clubs in the past, it was the system they had to operate within. It produced a fake sense of loyalty, and hence once that system came tumbling down, we got back to a more realistic idea of loyalty – the one-club players of this age (Ryan Giggs, Paul Scholes, Steven Gerrard, Jamie Carragher, Chris Taylor – the latter is my personal favourite) are the real loyal servants since they are tempted in many ways yet remain loyal.