Why football fans really are different

What makes football fans happy? This may seem a trivial question when there are plenty of others awaiting an answer, both in business and generally. However, with the start of a new season across Europe, it's worth considering, if only because a great many people really care about football. And it may even be relevant for business too.

The easy answer is: winning trophies. Unfortunately, there aren't many to win, even if we include promotion from one division to another. So we could easily say that, for most football fans, most of the time, life is in fact not much fun.

Let's add in the research that has given rise to the currently very influential "Behavioural Economics". This offers a number of important insights, one of which is that we weigh losses more heavily than gains. Such thinking has many practical applications in areas such as investment decisions, negotiations and workplace benefit packages.

So, apart from the spectacle itself, how to explain why so many people follow football, and very often a particular team, with such long-term commitment? What makes football fans different?

It comes down to a couple of factors. Firstly, as with most sports, football is very much about remembered experience. Secondly, in the specific case of football, that experience is usually shared, making it a tribal phenomenon like few others.

The reality of football is fully accepted by the typical fan - success is very rare, few teams achieve it and expectations are managed accordingly. A good ranking by the end of the season, with positive statistics (e.g. goal difference) is welcome. However, what fans really live for are the occasional highs - days out, unexpected victories, outdoing traditional rivals - which more than compensate for the disappointments.

Take the test. Over say 4 years (and assuming we support a team that's capable of it), would we prefer: a) an average ranking of 2.5 and no # 1 spot, or b) an average 3.0 and one # 1 spot. The answer's clear, isn't it?

So in business, which relies a lot on group behaviours, among both consumers and producers, the occasional big win is very important. Even if we're doing well just about all the time, a few memorable experiences make all the difference.


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