“Why Losing Bonds Sports Fans
A study on team loyalty among British football fans shows that the ranking of the club plays an important role in how strongly supporters identify with one another.
By Martha Newson
Cognitive anthropologist at the Universities of Kent and Oxford.
1 FEB 2021
United in defeat: shared suffering and group bonding among football fans
Martha Newson, Michael Buhrmester & Harvey Whitehouse
18 Jan 2021
Managing Sport and Leisure
Previous research has suggested shared dysphoric group experiences such as relegation, or a bitter derby loss, lead to bonding with other group members. While euphoric events, such as winning a competition, can be powerful in bonding us to our groups, it is the dysphoric events that really stay with us. These have the most potential to cement us to our groups through a process of reflecting on these challenging experiences.
An alternative explanation for the exceptional loyalty of fans of losing teams is provided by cognitive dissonance theory. As humans, it is highly stressful to behave in a way that contradicts one of our beliefs or values. For long-suffering fans of poorly performing clubs, the answer to the question “why do I do put myself through this?” could well be “because I love the club so much.” This might be an attempt to reduce the dissonance of spending lots of time and money on a club that never “pays out” with victory.
Yet for dissonance to occur, a fan’s willingness to suffer for the group needs to be perceived as voluntary. In theory, fans can opt out of their football support at any time. But in reality, most fans are recruited through existing relational ties—for example, through a parent, cousin, or friend. This can lead to complex and enduring networks that are hard to cut off.
A better understanding of identity fusion has huge potential benefits for clubs and the wider society. Policing football in London alone costs around 4 million pounds in the U.K. each year.