Needing football

It’s not about the Ball, it’s about us

In one grim professional interlude twenty-something years ago, a temping job at Manpower took me to work at Stamford Bridge as a pitch-side steward for a Chelsea match.  We were under strict instructions NOT to face the pitch, but to look at the fans, so we would spot aberrant behaviour.  It was a miserable wet day.

Eyes on the crowd. That’s where the secrets of football’s appeal reside, NOT on the pitch

And to understand how football, like a cuckoo, has elbowed aside other sports and taken over the nest, you should look away from the pitch, and examine the audience.

How has football become such a big thing despite its manifest crimes? Having been an armchair fan of football all my life, I made a decision some months ago to boycott Premier League football for a season. It is a small protest against the way money has made the matches less fair, against the dominance of televised football by a single company, and against the gap in fortunes between fans who are increasingly hard up (exemplified by Newcastle, whose players earn £1.4 million a year, being sponsored by a payday loan company Wonga).  But also a desire to create more head-space for something with meaning.  I like football, but I feel there’s more I could be doing.

So I’ve been avoiding watching, listening and reading about it – even Match of The Day.  It’s not easy, because I have various human needs which I can satisfy through football.

Actually, I mis-spoke earlier.  To understand football’s appeal it’s not about looking at the terraces, but at the wider population.  Football has succeeded because it attracts people who are not fans of sport. Or even the people who don’t like sport.  As Professor Byron Sharp has pointed out here and in here the bigger brands in each category attract a higher proportion of their sales from light consumers.  So if you watch football, it’s not necessarily because you love sport in general – in fact, you may watch it precisely because you don’t really like sport.  If someone watches badminton, or Show Jumping, it means that they really like them.  But football has become so engrained that to watch is merely an expression of being a British person who takes part in society, for these it’s barely sport at all.

I’m currently trying to avoid football because I like sport a bit too much. And I’m telling you about this protest because I’m trying to present myself as different, or as special – it’s a matter of pride that I make the effort.  To which you might say: sounds like an Arsenal fan.  It’s become an inverted snobbish status thing for me.  Which just shows how football has forced its way into darker need states within my very soul.


The Censydiam Needs and motivations model and football

You may be familiar with the Censydiam model of consumer need (I talked about it here and here).  It’s a brilliant thing because it explains what our human needs are, and how they fit together.  We don’t need everything all the time, but we nearly all express all the needs in the model at one time or another.

Quick, top of mind if I say ‘watching football on TV’ what comes to mind?

Perhaps that image on the right with the two men really getting into a match they are watching. Well, fair enough if you want a stock shot for a blog, but football on TV is not only about fans getting excited by the action, because that is just one type of behaviour.

‘Watching football on TV’ Top image on Google Images. Fans watching a match. But that’s not really it.

I’ll try to explain it quickly.  We humans have motivations and needs that dictate all the decisions we take.. the bank we use, the friends we phone, the political party we vote for, and the television programmes we watch… everything.  And these can be complex, but the joy of the Censydiam model is that it summarises them succinctly, on a simple chart.  And these needs fit together (for more information click here), and can be shown on a diagram across two dimensions.  One dimension is about how we feel about ourselves.  And the other is how we relate to other people

Our Personal and the Social needs

I have drawn some diagrams to help us through them:

So some of our needs are about how we relate to others. So are we trying to assert our individuality, OR, are we expressing a kinship with others (on the horizontal).  Football delivers on both of these – playing Fantasy Football where we manage our own team allows us to demonstrate our own expertise – to derive a sense of power and autonomy.  Believing that we know more about it than Mark Lawrensen is another.  It’s been argued that since men are no longer able to assert their masculinity in the work-place, they do so with their TV viewing, and football is one way to do so – it’s an individual power thing.

Football helps us satisfy our desire to belong to a group, AND to assert our individuality

What about the sense of community, or belonging?  Well, football is peculiarly tribal – fans like to feel part of a crowd.  On TV, this is expressed through international matches, and Champions League matches where we (usually) cheer on the British teams. And these are often on terrestrial TV, where it’s not only the fans, but the families of fans and casual supporters who can join in. Nick Hornby wrote in Fever Pitch about how his father took him to matches as a bonding exercise (that’s another act of belonging)…

So those are needs about how we relate to others.

Football also allows us to gain some control in our lives. But it also allows some guilt-free hedonism.

Then there’s how we feel about ourselves – so do we want to enjoy ourselves in a hedonistic outburst of pleasure, or do we want to sort ourselves out, to get some control in our lives.  As one example from another field, the good people at Persil made an interesting discovery about washing powder.  It had traditionally been promoted as a way to make clothes clean. That’s about control.  But their Dirt Is Good campaign showed that really effective washing powders allow children to get dirty. What is nicer than running around, climbing trees, getting splashed by mud… it’s a primal human instinct, and cleaning clothes allows it to happen without cost or inconvenience.

(Lynx have done something similar to antiperspirants – unlike most deodorants, Lynx is not about being safe and dry, it’s about being spontaneous and fun.  Cosmetics are often promoted by making women feel insecure, or promoting their point of difference.  But Dove reassures its consumers by making them feel part of a supportive community of women – it’s a different need entirely).

Football on TV delivers on both of these needs – for control, there is Sky’s Soccer Saturday – ex-pros watching monitors and ejaculating when a goal is scored (or nearly).  Knowing a score reduces uncertainty. News is often about control because it helps you understand what has been happening – it reduces uncertainty.  James Alexander Gordon reading the results on BBC Radio 5Live – that’s another one. It’s the results, AND it feels like a traditional Saturday afternoon ritual, akin to hearing the shipping forecast where there’s a reassuring poetry to the sound of the words, for those people who don’t need to know about their meaning.

What about football delivering on our need for unconditional pleasure? I think Sky’s Soccer AM fits the bill – it’s a silly, unpretentious but entertaining programme that laughs along with the game and the fans.  For some, actually playing football provides the thrill, but short of that, laughing along can be fun too.

And four more needs

As well as those four dimensions – the social (East and West) and the personal (North and South), there are positions on the diagonal which blend the two.  What happens if you combine a desire to belong to a group (East), with a desire to have fun (North)?  You get sociability, or conviviality (North-east).   If it combines a need for belonging (east) and for control (south), then that’s about safety (South-East).  Combining a pleasurable time (north) with asserting our individuality (west) is about adventure and vitality (North -West).  And finally, if you combine individuality (west) with gaining some control (south), then that’s about feeling proud of oneself or gaining some personal recognition (south-west).

Blending Human needs: Adventure, connection, safety, feeling special

Football helps with all of these.

Connecting with others and conviviality (north-east) could mean going to the pub to watch a match.  It’s an excuse to see friends (and to escape the house).  But for some – especially people who don’t really like football that much – it allows them to join in conversations with people who do. I quite enjoy 606 on the radio just because I enjoy hearing an argument.  And when you consider how much football talk is about refereeing decisions, transfer speculation, relegation predictions, … (the list goes on, but very little relates to goals, saves, passing and footballing skills) you can see how football is about conviviality as much as it is about watching a contest.

A spirit of adventure or vitality doesn’t fit football on TV, but is a little like the desire to attend a match – especially an away fixture.  Going to the pub on one’s own to watch a match might be a personal adventure facilitated by football on the Big Screen.

Feeling proud of oneself: it is remarkable how many people – men especially – asked to nominate a preferred quiz topic will mention football.  For the man who can no longer express his masculinity through conflict or work, or through playing a game himself, there is only one option left – to develop an encyclopaedic knowledge of obscure footballing facts (and to show it off from time to time).  And this works for older men too – many managers, and pundits are former players – or related to them.  Cricket still provides the emotional historical connection for its smaller fan-base, but football is cleverly providing it too… 1966 and all that.

The human need to feel safe and secure?  It’s the warm embrace of Match of the Day.  Gary Lineker fits like a glove.. reassuring, familiar and safely knowledgeable.  Nothing can go wrong.  Even better, the choice to watch the programme without too much thought removes the restless search for a better programme option that can spoil TV viewing in the later evening.  We are comfortable and cosy in our choice (one reason why it is hard to give up).

So those are the 8 human needs and how TV viewers have used football to help them.

Here’s a summary chart:

8 Human needs. Football has succeeded by offering some of this for people whop don’t like sport




And here’s how particular TV programmes and non-TV expressions of the game fit in.

Non-sports fans

One important element.  I titled this ‘Needing Football’.  But this isn’t to suggest that anyone actually does need football, or that its success has come from those people who are unusually needy in regards to sport.  The success of football is in tapping into human needs which we normally satisfy in other ways.  It can be an excuse to get the family together on a sofa (Champions League on ITV), or to fall gently asleep on a Saturday night (MOTD), or to see a friend in a pub on (Sunday).  Most of these people ‘watching football’ neither know who plays in goal for Manchester City, or what 4-4-2 means, nor cares.

The model of human needs, and how it drives particular ways to consume football

So football

It’s masterful in a way.  And following football is a rather pointless way to amuse ourselves, but pointlessness can be under-rated if it’s fun.

But when we understand that it’s not really about the players, or the play, but about our needs, then it’s easier to see the benefit. If it can make us feel safe, or proud of ourselves, or connected with others, or excited, or powerful, or adventurous, or ALL of these things at different times of the week, then that’s great, no?  How about those wonderful goals and moments of athletic skills?  Or the excitement of a close match?  Or the metaphor of recognisably normal people (unlike in basketball) working as a team and helping each other.  Camus said ‘Everything I know about morality and the obligations of men, I owe it to football.’  Well, that’s great (and I’ve bought shirts from Philosophy Football too).

But it depends on whether football is crowding out better ways to experience these things.   We might laugh at the fashion-obsessed teenage girl – but what about the fact-filled football trivialist? Is it worth knowing all the former managers of Real Madrid, or might there be other things to care about?

And if football is crowding out other sports isn’t that a shame?  We felt that during the Olympics didn’t we?

Or if the increasing impact of money spoils the game and messes with our sense of what matters in life.

Or if we are addicted in some way, isn’t that a problem?

Or if some people feel pressurised to join in (and to pay for it) when they really don’t want to, or can’t afford to.


Anyway, this is a website that celebrates television, and football is part of that, so, like an Arsenal fan cheering on Wayne Rooney when he’s wearing an English shirt, let’s give it a cheer!


Next Time: How other sports can learn from the success of football


The good people at Censydiam, now part of Ipsos, are the real experts on the model.  It belongs to them. I am merely a fan.   Ben Money was also helpful in sharing some of his knowledge about the hold sport has on its viewers.


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