Lifestyle Economics

Are football fans rational utility maximisers?

Why do we put ourselves through this, year after year?

Most football fans ask that question at some stage each season.

It might be after a humiliating 4-0 home defeat on a wet Tuesday night. For me it came on Friday, after what was ostensibly a good result in a crucial match for the team I support.

Derby County eked out a hard-fought 1-0 win against Fulham in the first leg of the Championship play-off semi-final. A pleasing victory, sure, but one which only heightened my anxiety ahead of the second leg, which will be over before you read this. As they say, it’s the hope that kills you.

In a new paper, economists Peter Dolton and George MacKerron have shown though that football matches, on net, make fans unhappy. Wins unsurprisingly improve our mood, but defeats sour it by anything from twice to four times the magnitude of our delight of victory. The effect on our emotions is asymmetric.

The researchers use data from ping surveys to people’s mobiles, which ask respondents how they are feeling, what they are doing, who they are with, and where they are. Linking to GPS data and matching against football stadium locations, the academics can identify fans and monitor their moods.

And they find that matches themselves, on net, tend to leave football supporters more miserable than they’d otherwise be.

On a 0-100 happiness scale, the build-up before a game tends to make us feel more positive by 1.5 points. Following a win, our happiness score improves by 3.9 points.

If the team loses, though, supporters’ happiness drops dramatically – by 7.8 points in the first hour, though somewhat less pronounced thereafter.

These results are amplified for those at the match. We feel much happier in anticipation of the game, and a win raises happiness by 10 points (not far off the happiness spike we see after intimate moments at plus 12).

Still, though, a defeat has a far bigger impact – and at minus 14 points is somewhat close to the minus 19 associated with being ill in bed. We take defeat even more badly if a win for our team had been expected – as my family can attest.

Taken at face value, this suggests that millions of us plod along to games or buy cable and satellite subscription packages to watch every week, when deep down football makes us more miserable. Why?

Asking this reminds me of articles we see every year suggesting that Christmas presents are a “social waste” because people tend to value gifts at less than their cost.

If an economist’s model cannot explain observed behaviour, it is more likely that there’s something wrong with the model, rather than us fans.

That both reveal people behaving differently from predicted shows the dangers in thinking our happiness or the value we place on things are easily measurable or able to be manipulated.

And in this case, there are some obvious explanations. Being a football fan is about much more than the matches. It also means following team news, the gossip, the tribal Twitter feeds, having the conversation topics with friends, winding up colleagues at work, and so much more.

Yes, some of this is tribalism – something human beings yearn for. But isolating the effects of matches alone doesn’t fully capture what it means to be a football fan, and the happiness and camaraderie that can bring at other times.

Within-game emotions are also surely a crucial omission. The high of your team scoring a peach of a goal or saving a penalty are moments you remember and want to re-experience. They remain with you, whatever the final result, and that endorphin rush is something you crave again and again.

Then there’s the value of the uncertainty of the contest itself, and the joy of watching the unfolding drama.

Indeed, one reason defeat is so bitter but victory relatively less pleasing surely comes from a sadness effect embedded in knowing that the match is over and you have to go a week until the team can rectify their loss or you get to feel the joy of victory again.

However, the researchers’ conclusion that victories in matches themselves are somewhat less emotive than the pain of defeat certainly resonates. If Derby did scrape through to Wembley last night, the inevitable joy I’ll feel will be far less intense than the dejection of playoff heartbreak again.

Yet I’ll still try to catch every game next year. There’s no more enjoyable way to feel miserable than football.


This article was first published in City AM.

Ryan Bourne occupies the R. Evan Scharf Chair for the Public Understanding of Economics at Cato. He has written on a number of economic issues, including: fiscal policy, inequality, minimum wages and rent control. Before joining Cato, Bourne was Head of Public Policy at the Institute of Economic Affairs and Head of Economic Research at the Centre for Policy Studies (both in the UK).

4 thoughts on “Are football fans rational utility maximisers?”

  1. Posted 15/05/2018 at 21:22 | Permalink

    Try being a Leeds fan, Ryan.

  2. Posted 18/05/2018 at 10:23 | Permalink

    Good article at articulating the problem. Less impressive about the solution. My experience is that the joy of winning an important match is far greater for those fans who have faithful through the bad times. And sometimes, there is an addictive process at work. As an Arsenal season ticket holder, last season I was speaking with some Sunderland fans in the queue, midweek, for Arsenal tube. I asked them why they made the journey. They were genuinely puzzled and replied along the lines that they had no choice. It was as if they had to suffer this purgatory if they were ever fully to enjoy the promised land.

  3. Posted 21/05/2018 at 11:33 | Permalink

    Interesting article bringing forward a topic that people would consider as common sense, however, when looked at from a economic choice standpoint it really does create confusion as for some they are having a bad experience compared to others. For example, a season ticket holder for the Sacramento Kings basketball team currently are going to be leaving the stadium after games feeling more often than not a sense of anger and disappointed due to losing so often lately. When comes the point where the ticket holder chooses to not bother anymore, or decides that the opportunity cost that they originally missed out on is now actually more valuable than seeing their sports team lose. This obviously ranges depending on the sport and the constant or limited amount of excitement, Basketball being scoring a lot whereas soccer can eventually end 0 – 0.

    The idea that a gift at Christmas time can be a “social waste” is very true. Giving a Basketball supporter a basketball ticket has a much more valuable positive effect then if the same ticket is given to a football supporter.

    Justin Pickering

  4. Posted 20/06/2018 at 23:24 | Permalink

    Ryan, Isn’t this a variation on prospect theory that they have picked up? The asymmetry described mirroring the pricing of risk. Truly, it’s all about expectations.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *