How do you explain loyalty to English football teams in Asia?

Dave McCaughanIn this guest post, Dave McCaughan wonders what it is about English football teams that drive such loyalty among fans on the other side of the world.

COME ON YOU SPURS! For over half a century the football season (defined in my parents’ home and now my own as the beginning of what is the English Premier League) has meant rousing chants, hopeful boasts and silent prayers that this could be the year. All for a team based in a North London suburb that I only first visited when near thirty years old and no one in my extended family has lived near for over four decades.

But loyal I am. My mum claimed she was a fourth generation Tottenham Hotspurs fan. Born and raised in a house actually on White Hart Lane across the road from the eponymous stadium.

Dave's back wearing Spurs shirtAt seven, growing up in the outer suburbs of Sydney she told me quite simply “there is only one ‘football’ and you will play it, never call it by the ‘s’ word Americans use, and you will always support Spurs or leave the house now”. Of course it helped that a year or so before the team had actually won the old First Division in England. And in my first few years as a fan it had some true greats playing for the team. Men like Jimmy Greaves, Dave Mackay, Pat Jennings and the legendary Danny Blanchflower. But the decades rolled by and apart from a couple of truly memorable FA Cup wins success has been thin. Always the number 2, 3 or 4 London club let alone our position across the whole league.

However as the new season started last weekend I once again posted on my social media links proof of my affiliation. Of course friends showed degrees of sympathy (even before we lost our first game) and empathy and of course there was the ribbing (especially from those “gooners” fans and the Chelski toffs). If you don’t know what I am talking about well that does not matter. I am sure wherever you are from there are sports cultures that have the similar prejudices, long histories and funny names. And amazing loyalty.

And that is what has me thinking. What drives this loyalty?

It’s a subject of such great importance to marketers of all types and yet true loyalty is so hard to define or understand.

Of course the fact that last weekend there was also a game where the Wallabies (the Australian Ruby Union team to those who don’t know) beat the All Blacks (the New Zealand team and by some arguments the most successful sports team in the world over the last half century) for the first time in four years. And of course there is a part of the Aussie in me that can’t help take pride in that. For good and bad loyalty to national causes is educated into us.

On the other hand do I prefer VB or Toohey’s, the beers I grew up with over a Guinness? No. Are all those people who I think are deluded and “love” anything Apple that way because of a loyalty built on being American. Certainly not. Just as the one FMCG brand everyone knows I am totally, three-four times a day for forty years, loyal to is Coke and only full strength Coke. But why? Even I am not sure.

Why do we get so loyal? Why would so many people in Asia be loyal to a team on the other side of the world?

At least I have family history. I was bought up in a footballing tradition that said “once a fan always a fan” and you could not and never would consider changing teams. And your parents team was your team. And so it went. 

We all know though that in today’s world loyalty is somewhat transactional. 

I have recently moved back to Bangkok after 15 years. It’s a city that loves football. One of the local super rich even bought one of the Premier League teams, Leicester City. On the evidence that a week before the season kicked off the Leicester “supporters” stores were offering team shirts on a discount you would have to say it has not caught on and built much loyalty.

I did understand in the late 90s when local beer brand Chang took a shirt sponsorship of another Premier League team. Never intended to grab English drinkers the sponsorship was an indirect way to get Thai beer lovers to see the then relatively new brand as being credible. But putting it on the Everton shirt never really made sense. They were never a well loved brand here. So a good case of undertaking sponsorship to borrow interest and build a little credibility but not anything about loyalty.

Everton’s cross city rival, Liverpool FC are of course huge favourites. Here in Thailand and across South East Asia. But why? The cynics say that maybe they are not so much loyal fans as just being interested in gambling on the game. And many in Asia do follow football for that reason. But be honest. You will know people in your office, clients, friends who are fanatically loyal to an English team.

Any audit of football fans I have come across in this part of the world would put Liverpool as probably the most popular of all sports teams. Along with Man U and the Arsenal maybe a distant third. True they all have predominantly red uniforms, and that color has cultural resonance.  Remember when the Malaysian owner of Cardiff City wanted to change the team colours to red to get better traction in Asia ? Remember too how loyal fans protested until that idea disappeared. People are not loyal just to a color of course. They are loyal to a package of attributes like history, character, emotion.

But why Liverpool? Of course in the 80s they were the dominant english team. But it’s decades since they were truly successful. So what is it that continues to drive literally millions of thais, malaysians, singaporeans to be loyal to a relatively unsuccessful team in the north of england?

I don’t mean they will watch a game if happens to be on. 

I mean people willing to stop everything else to watch a game when their team is playing, people willing to wear the shirts, to frequent the right bars to be with fellow fans, to do so year after year after year. Loyal fans who treat a once in a life time pilgrimage to the home ground as a religious event. And I have many friends in Asia do just that.

I suspect it is those three attributes I mentioned above. Liverpool has a history that reached a peak just as today’s middle aged, still relatively new middle class were growing up. When they were kids and watching football on TV was becoming actually possible the Reds were dominant. And they had great characters as players and managers that played football in a certain manner. They had a legendary ground with an even more legendary crowd. And songs, and color and passion. History, character, emotion.

It’s not about never being let down. It’s living with defeat because you believe that all defeats will in the end pass. That moments of glory will come again. That even when the products sucks a bit it is done with a character and passion you know you will always be able to share.

Liverpool. Heritage and aspiration. Tottenham. A mum’s love and history. Brands? Receive the loyalty they deserve for continuing to remind us of the emotion that caught us in the first place.  

COYS (Come on you Spurs, to the uninitiated)

Dave McCaughan is a writer, speaker and researcher. He is the former APAC strategy director of McCann Worldgroup.


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