Can Anything Explain Fan Loyalty?

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Oldham Athletic v Morecambe - Sky Bet League 2

Oldham Athletic’s Jordan Barnett in action during the Sky Bet League 2 match between Oldham Athletic … [+] and Morecambe at Boundary Park, Oldham on Saturday 10th October 2020. (Photo by Eddie Garvey/MI News/NurPhoto via Getty Images)

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Why are sport fans so loyal? This is a personal one for me. As an 8 year old I picked my local team to follow, Oldham Athletic. It was quite easy – at the time they were on the cusp of big things.

In 1990 they reached the FA Cup Semi-Finals, the League Cup Final, and just missed out on promotion to the First Division (what is now the Premier League PINC ). In 1991 they won the Second Division (now the Championship) and entered the promised land, and in 1992 they were founder members of the Premier League.

Soccer - FA Cup - Semi-Final - Manchester United v Oldham Athletic - Wembley Stadium


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The time since has been almost unremitting misery. Sure, there have been moments – not least, the above-pictured 1994 FA Cup run (again to the semi-finals, and as in 1990, beaten in a replay by Manchester United). But 1994 also saw relegation from the Premier League. 1997 saw a second relegation, to League One. The club just about stabilised, and then spent 21 years in English football’s third tier, until 2018 when relegation to League Two occurred – the English Football League’s basement division.

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And on Saturday October 10, 2020, a fourth defeat in the opening five matches of the season has left Oldham bottom of the entire English Football League structure: 92nd out of 92.

Because of Covid-19, we won’t know how many people would have been at Boundary Park, Oldham’s stadium, for yesterday’s lamentable 3-2 reverse to Morecambe, although last season’s match between the clubs attracted a mere 3,305 hardy souls. Football maintains a very strong brand loyalty. Oldham, despite their lamentable outcomes, have been attracting between 3 and 5 thousand fans now for well over a decade. It was higher before that, but there’s undoubtedly a persistence in football fan attendance – something I looked at in the data here, a little while ago. I found that since the 1970s, fan loyalty has increased, and that about 55% of a team’s attendance any given week can be explained by how many turned up at the previous home match.

It could be the community aspect of what football clubs do, it could be habits, it could be all sorts of things. But despite almost no encouragement in terms of decent results, even aesthetically pleasing football on the field, for going on decades now, three or so thousand people will turn up at Oldham each home game. And, despite what I may think, Oldham aren’t unique in this aspect. Fans of Notts County (action pictured below), Chesterfield, Luton Town, Hereford, Darlington, Stockport County and York, to name but a few, could all take me to task.

Eastleigh FC v Notts County - Vanarama National League

EASTLEIGH, HAMPSHIRE – AUGUST 03: Damien McCrory of Notts County is shown a red card by the Referee, … [+] Carl Brook during the Vanarama National League match between Eastleigh FC and Notts County at Silverlake Stadium on August 03, 2019 in Eastleigh, Hampshire. (Photo by Steve Bardens/Getty Images)

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And actually, perhaps misery is too strong. Mundanity might be better. In the 29 years since May 1991, there has been 499 wins, about 17 per year, and 586 defeats – 20 per year.

But maybe misery isn’t too strong. It turns out that research has been done on this – how happy our football teams make us. Economist are always interested in exogenous variation – something that happens that isn’t caused by the other thing you’re interested in (say, our moods). The influence of a football team on a person’s mood has to be exogenous. Yesterday, nothing I could do whilst baking a cake for my mum with the kids could influence what happened at Boundary Park. Yet what happened there certainly impacted on my mood.

Optimism when on 53 minutes Conor McAleny equalised, quickly turning to a very grumpy daddy when 13 minutes later Cole Stockton put Morecambe 3-1 up. Frustration that the seemingly hopeless team of eleven men in Northern England could cock yet another good position up, and were going to go another week without gaining any points. All whilst baking a cake in Didcot.

And, on top of that, annoyance that I was even annoyed at this unrelated set of events in Oldham. Surely exogenous? Economists Peter Dolton and George Mackerron have looked at this, relying on a cellphone app that pings users, and looking at football fans in and around football matches. A summary is here, and the paper is here, via the National Institute for Economic and Social Research.

They find that the mood boost even to a win (3.9%) doesn’t match that following a defeat (7.8%). That’s a lot of grumpy daddies in Didcot in the last few years. This, of course, leaves a question: why do football fans do it?

What keeps me continually checking Flashscore each Saturday? Dolton and Mackerron suggest there may be the experience effect – just being there. Or it could be a network effect – we like to be linked in with a like-minded group of people. Our friends are all doing it too, with different teams often – adding the rivalry aspect of belonging. They speculate that being a football fan is addictive – I’m hooked, sadly. Just seeking those ever-so-fleeting highs that come from the wins…

Fulham v Oldham Athletic - FA Cup Third Round

LONDON, ENGLAND – JANUARY 06: Daniel Ivarsen of Oldham Athletic celebrates saving a penalty shot … [+] from Aleksandar Mitrovic of Fulham (not pictured) during the FA Cup Third Round match between Fulham and Oldham Athletic at Craven Cottage on January 6, 2019 in London, United Kingdom. (Photo by Julian Finney/Getty Images)

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