Football is the game of the people. Its history is engrained in British society and football has evolved over time to withstand the pressures associated with growth in a globalised age. Fans are the only constant in the game. Jock Stein’s mantra that “Football is nothing without the fans” is still true to this day but we can’t ignore that the fans are changing with time.
In the UK, there is an increasing number of international investors willing to pour money into well-established clubs. That brings a new expectation from fans and that fan expectation alters everything. In an age of 24/7 football coverage, the fan experience is different, because the fans are now different. Money is a key factor in all of this and it dictates the fan responses in those leagues – in other words, infrastructure and financial clout versus matters on the pitch
THE 12th MAN
Looking at the top leagues in both Scotland and England it’s clear to see that that there is a huge gulf in financial investment and it would be natural to assume that the financial backing would correspond with league attendances, however, that’s not the case.
The English Premier League sees the largest average aggregate attendance in Europe for all games in a single season – 13,630,546. But Scotland is still crazy about the game – the Ladbrokes Premiership is the best supported league in Europe (on a per capita basis) with 0.21% of population attending games – the EPL is 0.07% (1).
There is a uniqueness in fans of Scottish Premiership teams. They display specific nuances that are borne of their background and lifestyle. This should be at the forefront of any national brands thinking.
So, how does a brand or sponsor approach the lucrative land that is Scottish football? Well, first off, you need to know where to look for the subtleties, and they can be found in the ‘virtual stands’ – or social media platforms.
How brands perceive fans is important and many understand it’s inaccurate to describe them as customers. They play a huge role in creating the product they consume and being a fan is more an issue of identity and attachment, rather than one of economics (2). Brands who build this into the DNA of their campaign plans benefit from a deeper, far reaching level of engagement.
There must be a two-strand approach to accommodate the individuality of Scottish and English fans.
A TALE OF TWO LEAGUES
To illustrate the difference between the fan bases, we researched data relating to both the top leagues in Scotland and England. We focussed on attendance figures and then analysed a typical 7-day period across social media platforms to gauge the themes of discussion amongst fans.
Fans of teams in the Scottish Premiership are far and away more concerned with relegation than any other fan set in the UK. Why is this significant? Well in days gone by, all that mattered to a football fan was their team winning the league or their team not being relegated. This highlights a real connection with the original emotions that stem from supporting a football team.
However, the same can’t be said of fans in the English Premier League. They are worrying about tax issues, falling TV income, rising transfer fees, rising salaries. Oh, and then relegation. Get the picture?
(3) source: Statista
Understanding the regional nuances of fans is crucial for a brand or sponsor and having an understanding of the Scottish audience benefits any brand activation campaign. It’s not just the discussion topics that are important – language and local dialect can impact too. Getting the meaning or sentiment wrong in a campaign can result in a brand own goal.
EXCUSE ME, THAT’S MY SEAT YOU’RE IN
Fans are fervent of their connections with their team – just make the mistake of sitting in someone’s seat at a game. That attachment doesn’t dissipate when they leave the ground and in Scotland, fans illuminate radio switchboards to add to the football debate. This medium exemplifies the language that is being used by Scottish fans online. Colloquialisms are used frequently and online text is almost a direct translation of the spoken word – coarse, brutal and honest.
Brands who respond to this interact with the fans on a more personal level. Knowing what to say and how to say it, is key. In Scotland, there is a huge rise in independent fan forums and podcasts. Fans from all Scottish clubs instigate these platforms. Being aware of these changes in fan behaviour allows us to provide a clearer and more authentic assessment of the feelings of those who support the Scottish game.
In doing so, we are not saying that one set of supporters is better than the other, we’re highlighting the benefits and greater impacts brands can have when they build authentic, regional campaigns that are based on a rich understanding of the unique nature of the fans.
SPOT THE DIFFERENCE?
This live snapshot of the hot topics in Scotland and England supports the north:south fan preoccupations highlighted in the table earlier. North of the border, the debate is focussed on team performances and league positions in the top flight, along with an interest in supported clubs and their rivals.
In England, it’s a more complex scene (4). The focus is on individual clubs with the biggest discussion points being the richest clubs and the Premier League itself. The issue of finance is a major topic of conversation. That’s not to say there isn’t a financial gulf between teams in Scotland. That has always been an issue, however, the fans appear to accept this and tend to focus more on footballing matters. Brands need to be aware of these differences between fans. The infrastructure of the English top flight is so important to English fans whereas fans from Scotland just want to deal with how their team performs, and is treated, on match day.
Scottish fans are still inextricably linked to the origins of the sport in their country. The fans are ardent, authentic and ambitious – and so are we at Material when it comes to promoting Scottish football.
WE HAVE THE KNOWLEDGE
You wouldn’t jump in the back of a London cab if you didn’t think the driv