Football Crowds and Group Cohesion

Posted on by

Better football, better ticket prices, better results and worse crowds. Brisbane Roar’s performance on the pitch is the best in the club’s short history but match day crowds are at their worst. The fans that turned up to watch a team that used to play frustrating and dull football whilst losing at home have  stopped coming, just as the club seems to have hit its stride.

Often it is the club’s name and NSL era history that are blamed for the football public’s absence. Last season’s off-field dramas and the raised ticket prices, since reduced, are also blamed. The problem is that people did turn up to watch the club play in orange and under the name ‘Queensland Roar’. The club’s last links to its NSL past only ended last year with the departure of Queensland Lions management. These are not new developments and did not stop people from coming before now.

Missing Attachment

Brisbane (formerly Queensland) Roar Crowd Numbers

Crowd figures have taken a hit in previous seasons, but 09/10 was one of the most dramatic drops. The stadium staff and lack of home wins are often blamed, but the club’s on-field performance has been patchy through its history and the stadium staff have always been controversial to some fans. Adding higher ticket prices, on- and off-field drama, too many Sunday games and a few poorly managed personal problems seemed to be just enough to push many supporters away. Once they left, the decline seemed to accelerate.

Social Causes

Fans do not attend games as individuals.  They come as a part of a group. The crowd is not just a homogeneous whole, but a loose collection of small groups of varying sizes. For members of large groups with loose ties, it is enough for the members to know that there will always be others they know there when they attend matches. Supporter groups can maintain their cohesion outside of the match day experience too, through social interactions both on and offline away from the stadium, and shared experiences relating to the sport or club itself.

Even if they miss a few matches, the fans are still a part of the group, and will meet up again at the next game they get to. As long as the group as a whole maintains a viable presence at the games, the group supports and encourages attendance, because there will always be someone there you enjoy spending time with. It is the stability of the group’s membership that ensures its cohesion (Group Dynamics, 2009, Donelson R. Forsyth, p 123-124). As long as there is a consistent level of attendance, then the group will remain stable.

Group Cohesion Death Spiral

With the latest drop in the match day crowd, I suspect that a lot of the groups passed a tipping point. The drop in numbers created a disruptive breakpoint (Poole, Marshall Scott. (1981), Small Group Development Theory), altering how the groups behaved, fragmenting some and obliterating others. The social scene around match day that kept people coming fell apart for a lot of fans. You were more likely to go if there were a few people you knew, than if you were going to be alone.

Friends can keep you watching a losing team team playing ugly football, but watching a win all by yourself can be very boring. There is utility in the size of the groups. The Network Effect, or Network Externality describes how the value in some networks increases with the number of participants. The same is true as a network reduces too. Myspace and other online social networks, some defunct and some hanging on to niche audiences, have seen this as users spend more time on other sites.

Watching football is social, and like social events and social tools, it benefits from the Network Effect. As stated above, crowds at football games and other events are not a homogeneous group, but a collection of a number of smaller ones, built from strong or weak ties. Studies on group decision making and cohesion hints at a number of fan behaviours that can affect the group as a whole, and either diminish or dissolve it. In any collaborative exercise, from supporting a team to creating a Wiki, there is a point in a group’s decline where its dissolution will accelerate, even as some members remain engaged.


Update: 10th March, 2011.

A follow up post, with an updated graph of the whole season is now available.

3 responses to “Football Crowds and Group Cohesion”

  1. […] season though. I wrote a blog post near the start of the 2010 – 2011 A-League season, about Brisbane Roar, and their crowd numbers. Now that the regular season is over, I can compare the 2010 – 2011 season fairly to previous […]

  2. Tamara says:

    Very well said. You make a lot of sense in this article.

  3. […] Football Crowds and Group Cohesion […]

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *