Herd behaviour amongst sports fans

We had a conversation in the office the other day about herd behaviour and the difference between football and cricket crowds. Why is it that spectators at a football match can occasionally get aggressive and abusive, but spectators at a cricket match tend to act more like naughty schoolboys: boisterous but essentially good-natured? It’s a well-known fact that being part of a large group legitimises indulgence in behaviours that individuals would not contemplate carrying out when alone, but why is it that different herd behaviours come to the surface among the spectators at a sports match, depending on what sport is being played?

I decided to look into this, just for fun, and carried out mini-interviews with a small number (n=4) of people who have watched both cricket and football. (I should point out that, as well as being an extremely small sample, this was an opportunity sample consisting of players at an amateur cricket match I happened to be watching last weekend.  The sample is therefore entirely male – perhaps not too far off your average sports crowd there then – and strongly biased towards cricket spectators over football spectators, so the findings should be read with those biases in mind!)

Obviously my small opportunity sample and my short interviews cannot have identified nearly all of the factors that come into play (no pun intended) to influence the behaviour of fans at football and cricket matches, but nevertheless this exercise has revealed some interesting insights.

Intensity

Firstly, the fact that a football match takes 90 minutes while a cricket match can go on for days – and with pace and scores to match – seems to be an important factor influencing crowd behaviour. Football matches are relatively shorter, faster-moving and lower-scoring than cricket matches, and a lot of emotion is therefore squeezed into a shorter period of time.  Watching a cricket match is, in contrast, a less intense experience, and emotions don’t run as high.

“Cricket is a big long boozy day.” 

“In cricket you can get 300 runs in a day, so each run is watered down. In football there’s more excitement when someone scores a goal.” 

“Cricket is more relaxing to watch than football.”

Relative importance of winning

Winning at cricket seems to be less important to the supporters than winning at football. Whilst football fans attend matches primarily to show their support for their team and cheer them on, cricket fans appear to have a wider range of motivations for attending a match – socialising with friends being a key one. Spectators at a cricket match therefore often feel that, regardless of the result, they get something positive out of the day. In contrast, having a good day at a football match is more likely to be predicated on winning. The wrong result can therefore be devastating, frustrating or infuriating for a football fan in a way that it may not be for a cricket fan.

“Football is more about watching my team win. It’s much more important to win at football than at cricket, as a spectator, because you can have a nice day at cricket anyway.” 

 “We pack a serious picnic [for cricket]. It’s quite a drunken day, there’s a festive, fun atmosphere. People are chatting and having a laugh. It’s boozy and silly.” 

“Cricket can sometimes be the secondary entertainment, whereas football is always the primary entertainment.”

I would also speculate that a related factor here is the way that a football match will always end with a win, lose or draw, whereas a spectator can leave a test match or a county cricket match at the end of a day of play, when the result has not yet been decided.

Players’ behaviour

The behaviour of the crowd seems to reflect the behaviour of the players and even the very nature of the game itself. Whilst football involves close physical contact and injuries, whether accidental or intentionally caused, cricketers have a reputation for being more gentlemanly and adhering to certain codes of conduct when it comes to following the rules. My interviews failed to shed light on why this should affect the spectators’ behaviour, although I would conjecture it may be something to do with entering into the spirit of the game.

“Football is more physical and violent – and that is reflected in how the fans behave.”

Allegiance

One final influence, which I also think would benefit from unpicking further, is the degree of allegiance to a team. This seems to differ between cricket and football, with football fans more strongly wedded to their teams. Cricket fans will admire, and even go as far as to applaud, good cricket being played by the opposition. A football fan, in contrast, will watch the game firmly from the perspective of their own team, and their emotions will therefore be more acutely affected by the team’s fortunes.

“I’d happily go and watch a cricket match where I don’t have an interest in either team. I’m much less likely to do that with football, because I find football hard to get into unless I support a team.”

“[Football] is only about your team. … People bring their children up into it, and it becomes a cult and they don’t accept any other team.” 

“You enjoy the game [cricket] first, and then the team.”

This would be a fascinating topic to research further. More in-depth qualitative interviews with a wider range of sports fans would, I’m sure, reveal further factors of interest and give better clarity on those tentatively identified here. While I wait for someone to commission a project on this, I’d love to hear your thoughts on the topic. What else influences herd behaviour at sporting events?

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