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‘Fanorexia’ and ‘ballimia’: Football fanaticism, brand loyalty, and addiction

As the 2018 World Cup kicks in, it’s an opportune time to ask why are we so loyal to our national and club football teams? Whatever the results, we tend to support them week in week out, all year round. They can cause us misery and heartache and yet still we support them. As a Sunderland fan, I know this only too well. In the season just ended I went from agony to even more agony as I saw Sunderland get relegated for the second season in a row.

Could it be that following our clubs is an addiction? It has been argued by academics working in the marketing field that commercial organisations would love to have the kind of brand loyalty shown by football fans – something that Ken Parker and Trish Stuart argued in their award winning paper The ‘West Ham Syndromepublished in the Journal of the Market Research Society (I’m not making this up, honest!).

Parker and Stuart, working at the time of the study for the company Discovery Research, surveyed 2000 adults and also carried out some focus group interviews with football fans (including some ardent West Ham United supporters). They found that 58% of males had made a commitment to club their team by the age of 11 years. (I just happen to be one of those men having supported Sunderland from the age of 7 years of age after watching them beat Leeds in the 1973 FA Cup Final). More than half of children whose parents supported a team went on to support the same one, while a third of all fans still followed their local team.

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Marketeers would love to be able to take the seemingly unstinted loyalty of football fans and somehow transfer that loyalty to the products they are trying to sell. For instance, the brand of coffee we buy tends to be governed by many factors such as television advertising, the taste, the price, the packaging, etc. If we come across coffee that (for whatever reason) is better (cheaper, tastes better, etc.), we automatically switch our ‘allegiance’ to another brand of coffee. Parker and Stuart argued that wherever West Ham finish in the league, Hammers fans would not desert their club and/or switch to another club. So what’s the difference between football clubs as a brand and other commercial products as a brand? Maybe it’s passion and the fact that football can be such an emotional experience for the diehard fan.

Some working in the advertising industry claim many people working in marketing lack passion in their product. Apparently there are other products (such as cars) that consumers get very passionate about and this means that they repeatedly buy a particular make of car despite any acknowledged faults. However, one huge fault can damage a brand’s reputation almost overnight, as Toyota is only too aware. The good news for Toyota is that one of the most interesting things about research on the ‘West Ham Syndrome’ is that it can help to explain why leading brands are able to bounce back from PR disasters in similar ways to football clubs come back from being relegated to a lower division.

However, are football fans really as loyal as most of us assume? A paper by Alan Tapp examined the loyalty of football fans (in the Journal of Database Marketing and Customer Strategy Management) and wondered what it is about football clubs as a brand that makes them so successful – especially as the ‘product’ is so inconsistent and unpredictable? (‘Inconsistent’ and ‘unpredictable are certainly words I would associate with the England team and the England players!). Parker and Stuart claimed that levels of loyalty were “only marginally affected” by West Ham’s fortunes. However, Tapp says this is completely untrue. He cites analysis of football attendance figures since 1945 to show that crowd sizes are related to a team’s position in the league, and that teams lose support when they are doing poorly. Despite the fact that crowd attendance is linked to how well a football club is doing, it’s still probably true to say that football fans are still more loyal to their club than they are to most other products. All this goes to show is that most of us will continue to love England, warts and all.

Just before the 1998 World Cup, I began to carry out some research into football fanaticism and whether football fanatics could be considered ‘addicted’ to following their football team. This is easier said than done as it all depends upon how addiction is defined, and if ‘football fan addiction’ exists, what are people actually addicted to? I define addiction as any behaviour that features what I believe to be the six core components of addiction (i.e., salience, mood modification, tolerance, withdrawal symptoms, conflict and relapse). Throughout my career, I have consistently argued that any behaviour that fulfils these six criteria should be considered as a genuine addiction. If you were addicted to following your football team, this is what I would expect:

Salience – This occurs when following your football team (and doing things related to your football team) becomes the most important activity in your life and dominates your thinking (total preoccupation), feelings (cravings) and behaviour (deterioration of socialized behaviour). For instance, even if you are not actually engaged in something football-related, you will be thinking about the next time that you are.

 Mood modification – This is the subjective experience that you would feel as a consequence of following your football team (i.e. you experience an arousing ‘buzz’ or a ‘high’ – or the exact opposite – a tranquilizing feeling of ‘escape’ or ‘numbing’ when following your team).

Tolerance – This is the process whereby increasing amounts of activity related to your football team are needed to get mood modifying effects. This basically means that if you were engaged in activities related to following your football team, you would gradually build up the amount of the time you spend engaged in those activities.

Withdrawal symptoms – These are the unpleasant feeling states and/or physical effects (e.g., the shakes, moodiness, irritability etc.) that occur when you are prevented from following your football team or stopped from engaging in football-related activities.

Conflict – This refers to the conflicts between following your football team and those around you (interpersonal conflict), conflicts with other activities (your job, schoolwork, social life, hobbies and interests) or from within yourself (knowing you are doing too much of the activity and/or subjective feelings of loss of control) which are concerned with spending too much time following your football team.

 Relapse – This is the tendency to revert back to earlier patterns of behaviour (following your football team and engaging in football-related activity) after a period of abstinence.

Using these criteria, I have come across very few genuine examples of someone addicted to a football team. The most extreme case I have come across was one woman who left her husband because of his ‘addiction’ to Chelsea football club. She told me that their bedroom was a shrine to Chelsea, he watched almost every Chelsea game home and away (including European away matches), spent all their joint savings and ran up huge debts following Chelsea, and eventually got sacked from his job because he kept ringing in sick whenever Chelsea were playing hundreds of miles from home during midweek games. Out of season he would be constantly depressed and would try to alleviate his mood by endlessly watching videos of Chelsea’s greatest games. Once the football season started, his depression would lift. I never met this individual but he appears to have fulfilled my criteria for addiction.

For most people, enthusiastically following your team – even to excess – is unlikely to be an addiction. The main difference between a healthy excessive enthusiasm and an addiction is that healthy enthusiasms add to life and addictions take away from it.

(Please note that a version of this article was originally published in The Conversation)

Dr Mark Griffiths, Professor of Gambling Studies, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK

Further reading

Griffiths, M.D. (1996). Behavioural addictions: An issue for everybody? Journal of Workplace Learning, 8(3), 19-25.

Griffiths, M.D.  (2005). A ‘components’ model of addiction within a biopsychosocial framework. Journal of Substance Use, 10, 191-197.

Griffiths, M.D. (2017). Behavioural addiction and substance addiction should be defined by their similarities not their dissimilarities. Addiction, 112, 1718-1720.

Parker, K., Stuart, T. 1997. The West Ham syndrome. Journal of the Market Research Society, 39(3), 509-517.

Tapp, A. (2004). The loyalty of football fans – We’ll support you evermore? Journal of Database Marketing and Customer Strategy Management, 11, 203-215.

Playing with fire: A brief and personal look at ‘survivor guilt’

Football. Love it or hate but you cannot ignore it. For many people, football is a central part of their lives (mine included). That is one of the reasons I carried out research on football fanaticism because I believe there is a tiny minority of fans that are addicted to the football teams they follow (see my previous blog on ‘fanorexia’ for an overview).

Apart from a four-year period in my life (more of which later), football has always been an important part of my leisure time. Like many children I was brought up on a healthy diet of football. In the 1970s, my dad and brother were staunch Liverpool fans (as they were both born there) but I was a Sunderland supporter (and still am). I have supported Sunderland ever since I was six years old when I watched them beat Leeds 1-0 in the 1973 FA Cup final. This was certainly the first match I remember watching and for years after I had lots of flashbacks of seeing captain Bobby Kerr lifting the trophy and manager Bob Stokoe’s run across Wembley at the final whistle.

Despite my almost religious love of football as a child, I didn’t go to a single live football match simply because my family couldn’t afford it. I grew up in Loughborough so the nearest football teams were Leicester City, Nottingham Forest, Notts County and Derby County. My parents couldn’t even afford to travel to the games let alone watch one (and we never had a car until I reached my later teens). At the time (in the 1970s and early 1980s) I could still get my weekly fix of soccer action on Match of the Day (on BBC1) and the Star Soccer match (on ITV).

Throughout my formative years I not only watched football but also played it a lot too. In my junior school I shared the captaincy with one of my best friends at the time but on getting to secondary school I discovered I wasn’t as good as I thought (I only ever managed a regular slot in the second elevens; first team call up only ever came if there were lots of injuries). I devoured football. I used to be one of those very sad individuals who could not only tell you the score of every Wembley cup final since 1923 but could also name all the scorers. This came to great effect when I was 14 and my class at school (3L4 – so called because the class was the third year at secondary school and our form tutor’s room was ‘Laboratory 4’) won the Question of Sport team prize (mostly thinks to my sad but encyclopaedic knowledge of all things sporting). This passion stayed with me until I was 18 years old.

The first live football that I started watching regularly was Bradford City. As a first year undergraduate at the University of Bradford I got a student discount to go and situate myself in the Midland Road Stand at City’s home ground Valley Parade. That was 1985. The year that Bradford went up as the Third Division champions with ex-Leeds United legend Trevor Cherry as manager. After Sunderland, Bradford City became my ‘second team’. The last game of the season was against Lincoln City and it was billed as a ‘celebration’ game as Bradford City were already the Division winners. It was May 11th, I had just finished all my end-of-year university exams, and I was in great spirits. As usual, I attended the match with my best friend Geoff Harvey (now a well respected author of books on both football fans and sports betting). As it was a celebratory occasion we also managed to convince two of our female friends to join us (neither of them had ever been to a live football match before that day).

The day turned out to be a day I will never forget. As the game kicked off, little did we know that 45 minutes later the whole of one of the stands would be up in flames – ‘The Bradford Fire’. For those reading this who have no idea what I am talking about, here is the relevant information (from Wikipedia):

“The Bradford City stadium fire was the worst fire disaster in the history of English football. It occurred during a league match in front of record numbers of spectators, on Saturday, 11 May 1985, killing 56 and injuring at least 265. The Valley Parade stadium, long-established home to Bradford City Football Club had been noted for its antiquated design and facilities, including the wooden roof of the main stand. Warnings had also been given about a major build-up of litter just below the seats. The stand had been officially condemned and was due for demolition. The match against Lincoln City had started in a celebration atmosphere, with the home-team receiving the Football league Third Division trophy trophy. At 3.40 pm, a small fire was reported by TV commentator John Helm, but in less than four minutes, in windy conditions, it had engulfed the whole stand, trapping some people in their seats. In the panic that ensued, fleeing crowds had to break down locked exits to escape. There were, however, many cases of heroism, with more than fifty people receiving police awards or commendations”.

Thankfully, I was in the Midland Road stand (directly opposite to where the fire started). The one thing I still remember to this day was the intense heat inside the stadium. I have never experienced anything like it in my life. Everyone’s faces around me were bright red from the heat of the fire. None of us particularly like to think about death, but I have always thought that the two ways I wouldn’t want to die would be to either burn to death or to drown. As we left the stadium and made our way back to the Halls of Residence (about a 45-minute walk) I grateful to be alive. I knew I would have to ring my parents to let them know I was alright (as they knew I was going to the game). As this was in the era before mobile phones, another memory I have was the long queues outside all the telephone boxes as people wanted to let their loved ones know they were safe. I didn’t manage to get through to my Mum until about 6.15pm. Even by this time, the first deaths had been recorded. It was mid-evening that the horror of the day started to sink in and the next morning as all the Sunday papers’ front pages were about the 50+ deaths.

Over the next few months, I ruminated a lot about the deaths that day. At the end of July 1985, I took a walk to the Valley Parade stadium and broke down in uncontrollable tears. That was the first time I had cried about the tragic events of May 11. When the new season started, I lost all interest in football. I didn’t watch a full match for the next four years. Whenever I thought about football, I thought about the Bradford fire and had flashbacks. In December 1985, I began a long-term relationship with a woman who’s grandad had been burned in the fire. It was around that time that I found out that one of the technicians in our Psychology department (who I had become friendly with) had lost his father in the fire. Although I could go hours without thinking about the fire, when I thought about it I felt psychologocally uneasy. It was hard to put into words. It was much later that I came across the concept of ‘survivor guilt’. The Wikipedia entry notes:

“Survivor guilt (or survivor’s guilt; also called survivor syndrome or survivor’s syndrome) is a mental condition that occurs when a person perceives themselves to have done wrong by surviving a traumatic event when others did not. It may be found among survivors of combat, natural disasters, epidemics among the friends and family of those who have committed suicide, and in non-mortal situations such as among those whose colleagues are laid off. The experience and manifestation of survivor’s guilt will depend on an individual’s psychological profile. When the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders IV (DSM-IV) was published, survivor guilt was removed as a recognized specific diagnosis, and redefined as a significant symptom of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD)”.

Although this description does not totally match the symptoms and thoughts I had, I do think (in retrospect) I had a mild from of ‘survivor guilt’. I also think that what I suffered was a mild form of PTSD given that PTSD refers to a group of symptoms, such as disturbing recurring flashbacks, avoidance or numbing of memories of the event, and hyperarousal, continue for more than a month after the occurrence of a traumatic event” (Wikipedia). Thankfully, the cliché that ‘time is a great healer’ is true in my case. During the end of my PhD at the University of Exeter (1989), I began to watch football again and was a regular at St. James Park for Exeter City’s home games. My love of football returned and I began to think less and less about the Bradford Fire.

This is the first time I have ever written this down fully and is a good example of what I would describe as ‘therapeutic writing’ (something I have occasionally written about – see my previous blog on diary writing). I hope that you will forgive me for the lack of empirical data in this particular blog but just writing this all down has helped me feel better about one of the most heartfelt days of my life. Normal service will be resumed next time.

Dr. Mark Griffiths, Professor of Gambling Studies, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK

Further reading

Wikipedia (2014). Bradford City stadium fire. Located at: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Bradford_City_stadium_fire

Wikipedia (2014). Post-traumatic stress disorder. Located at: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Post_traumatic_stress_disorder

Wikipedia (2014). Survivor guilt. Located at: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Survivor_guilt

Hopelessly devoted to you: The Church of Maradona

“Our Diego/Who art on earth/Hallowed be thy left foot/Thy magic come/Thy goals be remembered” (excerpt of The Lord’s Prayer, Church of Maradona)

For some people, football could arguably be described as a religion. However, I discovered earlier last year while being interviewed for a television documentary that for some people, there is a football-related religion with Argentinian soccer legend Diego Maradona as its deity (arguably an extreme form of celebrity worship that I examined in a previous blog). I thought this was a joke or hoax, especially as a Wikipedia entry claimed that:

“The Iglesia Maradoniana (English: Church of Maradona; literally Maradonian Church) is a parody religion, created by fans of the retired Argentine football player Diego Maradona, who they believe to be the best player of all time. The Iglesia was founded on October 30, 1998 (Maradona’s 38th birthday) in the city of Rosario, Argentina. It could be seen as a type of syncretism or as a religion, depending on what religious definition one chooses to use…Supporters of the Maradonian Church, supposedly from all parts of the world, count the years since Maradona’s birth in 1960… [D10S] is popular, among the followers of this religion (and also among other football fans), the use of the neo-Tetragrammaton D10S as one of the names of Maradona: D10S is a portmanteau word which fuses 10 (diez in Spanish), Maradona’s shirt number, and dios, the Spanish word for god”.

Most football fans here in England generally accept that Maradona was a footballing genius and the best player of his generation. However, our abiding (if not the most painful) memory is his goal against England in the 1986 World Cup Finals (where he scored with a clear handball but was not spotted by the referee). After the match, Maradona described it as the ‘Hand of God’.

However, many Argentinians say the Church of Maradona is not a joke or parody but a “serious celebration of their love for the soccer legend”. In the home to the church (Rosario), Maradona worshippers frequently gather for mass, and sing songs to honour and venerate Maradona. Alejandro Veron who runs the Church of Maradona website says: “Our religion is football and, like all religions, it must have a god. We will never forget the miracles he showed on the pitch and the spirit he awoke in us, the fanatics”.

The church also has its ten commandments: (1) The ball must not be stained, as D10S has proclaimed; (2) Love football over all things; (3) Declare your unconditional love of football; (4) Defend the colours of Argentina; (5) Preach the words of ‘Diego Maradona’ all over the world; (6) Pray in the temples where he preached, and to his sacred mantles; (7) Do not proclaim the name of Diego in the name of a single club; (8) Follow the teachings of the Maradonian Church; (9) Let Diego be your second name, and that of your children; and (10) No ser cabeza de termo y que no se te escape la tortuga (that translates to “don’t be a hothead and don’t let the turtle escape you”). [I ought to add that some online versions of these ten commandments omit the final one and split the ninth commandment into two separate commandments].

It is estimated that the numbers of members of the Church of Maradona is 15,000 worldwide (although the church founders claim the number of followers is 200,000). In the TV programme that I was interviewed for, two people were interviewed (Pamela, aged 22 years, and Ivan, aged 23 years). They met and fell in love in 2009 at an event on Maradonian New Year (October 30, Maradona’s birthday), and were planning to get baptized and married at the Church of Maradona. Pamela says: “For us this will be a traditional wedding, contrary to what people think. We’ve been dreaming to make this happen for years”. They had asked Maradona himself to marry them but he was ‘otherwise engaged’. According to the television program’s research team:

“The baptism is a joint event, which will gather around 15 fans of all ages…Called in to the altar, one by one, each will try to do the most accurate simulation of Maradona’s prolific ‘Hand of God’ goal…Once ‘admitted’ into the group, Pamela and Ivan take the equivalent of the host – Napolitan pizza – Maradona’s favorite. They’re now ready to get married. Instead of an ordained clergyman, Hernan Amez, church founder, will be getting them married – wearing a football shirt…Their families won’t be present, because they find the notion of Pamela and Ivan getting married through the Maradona Church ridiculous. For the young couple, it doesn’t matter. Other friends and Maradona followers will join the celebration…The bride’s dress is carried by two children with D10S t-shirts…They will promise their love for each other in front of the Maradonian bible – Maradona’s autobiography”.

There are some other interesting journalistic accounts of members of the Church of Maradona. One of the most detailed is a 2008 article by Jonathan Franklin for The Guardian who was there to cover the Church’s tenth anniversary after being founded in 1998. Franklin reported that the “Iglesia Maradoniana does not yet have its own building. It is a travelling display of love and affection, whose icons and statues visit all corners of Argentina”. Franklin gives his account of his time at the Church’s ceremony:

“I walk up to the stage, take off my top, and the crowd screams as I slip on the No 10 shirt and remember my rehearsals. Just one shot. Do it right, I tell myself. The baptism ceremony aims to recreate the sacred moment during the 1986 World Cup quarter-final in which Maradona scored his famous mano del Dios (hand of God) goal by swatting the ball into the England net with his fist. Match officials stuck with a poor angle assumed Maradona had used his head, but replays clearly show Maradona punching the ball away from the England goalie, the startled and then indignant Peter Shilton. At a press conference after the game, Maradona would not admit his hand had touched the ball. ‘The hand of God’ sent it into the net, he claimed. I move over to a life-size poster of Shilton jumping at Maradona. In this version, Maradona and the ball have been Photoshopped out of the frame. This is where the baptism ceremony begins. I prepare to leap. As the ball is tossed in, I jump, trying to shield my hand with my head, then ‘pow!’ I punch. It works! My re-creation is worthy of a certificate and now I am signed into the register, an official member of the Church of Maradona”.

Franklin also notes in his article that Maradona’s fans from all around the world have come to celebrate the Church’s tenth anniversary including people from the Brazil, Denmark, Italy, and USA. As Franklin reports:

“Some take pictures; others simply toast their god. A pile of gifts and tokens piles up – old photographs, sports cards, even an oil portrait of Diego with brushed curls and a yellow halo. The Maradona Bible lies near the altar – a worn copy of Maradona’s bestselling biography ‘Yo Soy El Diego’ (I Am Diego)”.

Parody or not, the Church appears to have some genuine believers including Jose Caldeira, the author of La Iglesia Maradoniana, a book that recounts the Church of Maradona’s first ten years. I don’t think the Catholic religion in Argentina has anything to worry about in terms of competition, but at least the Church of Maradona can claim their deity actually exists. As another article by Johnny Chadwick in The National Student concludes:

“No footballer inspires such devotion and unconditional fandom. Diego Maradona transcends his status as merely the most talented footballer of all time. He provides an example of someone who made countless mistakes and errors of judgement, yet still managed to rise from the streets of Rosario to world champion and international icon. While the obsessive following is extreme, it is in part understandable for a man who is at once a heavily flawed human being and a God”.

Dr Mark Griffiths, Professor of Gambling Studies, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK

Further reading

Chadwick, J. (2012). What people believe: The Church of Maradona. The National Student, August 13. Located at: http://www.thenationalstudent.com/Features/2012-08-13/the_church_of_maradona.html

Franklin, J. (2008). ‘He was sent from above’. The Guardian, November 12. Located at: www.guardian.co.uk/football/2008/nov/12/diego-maradona-argentina

The Offside (2007). Worshipping at the Church of Maradona 10 years on. October 25. Located at: http://www.theoffside.com/south-america/worshipping-at-the-church-of-maradona-10-years-on.html

The Original Winger (2013). The Church of Maradona. February 6. Located at: http://theoriginalwinger.com/2013-02-06-the-church-of-maradona-documini-from-vice-d10s

Wikipedia (2013). Iglesia Maradoniana. Located at: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Iglesia_Maradoniana

Fanorexia: Can supporting your football team be an addiction?

With the European football championships kicking off this weekend, I thought it was an opportune time to examine why are we so loyal to our national and club football teams? Whatever the results, we tend to support them week in week out all year round. They can cause us misery and heartache and yet still we support them. As a Sunderland fan, I know this only too well. Could it be that following our clubs is an addiction (or ‘fanorexia’ as I’m going to call it)? It has been argued by academics working in the marketing field that commercial organizations would love to have the kind of brand loyalty shown by football fans – something that Ken Parker and Trish Stuart argued in their 1997 award winning paper ‘The ‘West Ham Syndrome’ published in the Journal of the Market Research Society (I’m not making this up, honest!).

Parker and Stuart, working at the time of the study for the company Discovery Research, surveyed 2000 adults and also carried out some focus group interviews with football fans (including some ardent West Ham United supporters). They found that 58% of males had made a commitment to club their team by the age of 11 years. (I just happen to be one of those men having supported Sunderland from the age of 7 years of age after watching them beat Leeds in the 1973 FA Cup Final). More than half of children whose parents supported a team went on to support the same one, while a third of all fans still followed their local team.

Marketeers would love to be able to take the seemingly unstinted loyalty of football fans and somehow transfer that loyalty to the products they are trying to sell. For instance, the brand of coffee we buy tends to governed by many factors such as television advertising, the taste, the price, the packaging, etc. If we come across coffee that (for whatever reason) is better (cheaper, tastes better, etc.), we automatically switch our ‘allegiance’ to another brand of coffee. Parker and Stuart argued that wherever West Ham finish in the league, Hammers fans would not desert their club and/or switch to another club. So what’s the difference between football clubs as a brand and other commercial products as a brand? Maybe it’s passion and the fact that football can be such an emotional experience for the diehard fan.

Some working in the advertising industry claim many people working in marketing lack passion in their product. Apparently there are other products (such as cars) that consumers get very passionate about that means they repeatedly buy a particular make of car despite any acknowledged faults. However, one huge fault can damage a brand’s reputation almost overnight, as Toyota is only too aware. The good news for Toyota is that one of the most interesting things about research on the ‘West Ham Syndrome’ is that it can help to explain why leading brands are able to bounce back from PR disasters in similar ways to football clubs come back from being relegated to a lower division.

However, are football fans really as loyal as most of us assume? A paper by Alan Tapp at the University of the West of England examined the loyalty of football fans (Journal of Database Marketing and Customer Strategy Management, 2004) and wondered what it is about football clubs as a brand that makes them so successful – especially as the ‘product’ is so inconsistent and unpredictable? (‘Inconsistent’ and ‘unpredictable are certainly words I would associate with the England team and the England players!). Parker and Stuart claimed that levels of loyalty were “only marginally affected” by West Ham’s fortunes”. However, Alan Tapp says this is completely untrue. He cites analysis of football attendance figures since 1945 to show that crowd sizes are related to a team’s position in the league, and that teams lose support when they are doing poorly. Despite the fact that crowd attendance is linked to how well a football club is doing, it’s still probably true to say that football fans are still more loyal to their club than they are to most other products. All this goes to show is that most of us will continue to love England, warts and all.

Just before the 1998 World Cup, I began to carry out some research into football fanaticism and whether football fanatics could be considered ‘addicted’ to following their football team. This is easier said than done as it all depends upon how addiction is defined, and if ‘football fan addiction’ exists, what are people actually addicted to? If you are a regular reader of this blog, you will be aware that I define addiction as any behaviour that features what I believe to be the six core components of addiction (i.e., salience, mood modification, tolerance, withdrawal symptoms, conflict and relapse). Throughout my career, I have consistently argued that any behaviour that fulfils these six criteria should be considered as a genuine addiction. If you were addicted to following your football team and had ‘fanorexia’, this is what I would expect:

Salience – This occurs when following your football team (and doing things related to your football team) becomes the most important activity in your life and dominates your thinking (total preoccupation), feelings (cravings) and behaviour (deterioration of socialized behaviour). For instance, even if you are not actually engaged in something football-related, you will be thinking about the next time that you are.

Mood modification – This is the subjective experience that you would feel as a consequence of following your football team (i.e. you experience an arousing ‘buzz’ or a ‘high’ – or the exact opposite – a tranquilizing feeling of ‘escape’ or ‘numbing’ when following your team).

Tolerance – This is the process whereby increasing amounts of activity related to your football team are needed to get mood modifying effects. This basically means that if you were engaged in activities related to following your football team, you would gradually build up the amount of the time you spend engaged in those activities.

Withdrawal symptoms – These are the unpleasant feeling states and/or physical effects (e.g., the shakes, moodiness, irritability etc.) that occur when you are prevented from following your football team or stopped from engaging in football-related activities.

Conflict – This refers to the conflicts between following your football team and those around you (interpersonal conflict), conflicts with other activities (your job, schoolwork, social life, hobbies and interests) or from within yourself (knowing you are doing too much of the activity and/or subjective feelings of loss of control) which are concerned with spending too much time following your football team.

Relapse – This is the tendency to revert back to earlier patterns of behaviour (following your football team and engaging in football-related activity) after a period of abstinence.

Using these criteria, I have come across very few genuine examples of someone addicted to a football team. The most extreme case of  a ‘fanorexic’ I have come across was one woman who left her husband because of his ‘addiction’ to Chelsea football club. She told me that their bedroom was a shrine to Chelsea, he watched almost every Chelsea game home and away (including European away matches), spent all their joint savings and ran up huge debts following Chelsea, and eventually got sacked from his job because he kept ringing in sick whenever Chelsea were playing hundreds of miles from home during midweek games. Out of season he would be constantly depressed and would try to alleviate his mood by endlessly watching videos of Chelsea’s greatest games. Once the football season started, his depression would lift. I never met this individual but he appears to have fulfilled my criteria for addiction.

For most people, enthusiastically following your team – even to excess – is unlikely to be an addiction. The main difference between a healthy excessive enthusiasm and an addiction is that healthy enthusiasms add to life and addictions take away from it.

Dr Mark Griffiths, Professor of Gambling Studies, International Gaming Research Unit, Nottingham Trent University, Nottingham, UK

Further reading

Parker, K., Stuart, T. 1997. The West Ham syndrome. Journal of the Market Research Society, 39 (3), 509-517.

Tapp, A. (2004). The loyalty of football fans – We’ll support you evermore? Journal of Database Marketing and Customer Strategy Management, 11, 203-215.