Football's hooligan past is still strongly etched in minds of Britain's parents but more than half of all parents who attend football matches 'usually' take their school age son or daughter to watch a Premier League game every Saturday afternoon.
Today, as well as 'dads and lads' it's also mums and daughters, mums and sons, dads and daughters and grandparents and grandchildren who are maintaining the country's football supporting traditions. But what role does football play in their lives beyond spectating and what insights can people in charge of the development of the national game learn from today's families of fans?
What McDonald's wanted to do in commissioning the report was to understand more about the role that football plays in today's families. Written by John Williams of the Sir Norman Chester for Football Research at the University of Leicester, families across the country were interviewed during the 2000/01 league season. Clubs featured in the report include: Manchester United, Leyton Orient, Leicester City, Aston Villa, Wigan Athletic, Millwall, Motherwell, Birmingham City, Everton, Shrewsbury Town and Arsenal.
Some of the surprising findings in the Football and Families report were:
· Football is seen as a powerful tool for parents to address moral, ethical and 'life lessons', such as racism, loyalty, fairness, dealing with set backs and the importance of teamwork
· Today's football grounds are generally seen by parents as trusted and safe places for children
· Some clubs still offer poor facilities for fans especially female fans
· Football creates strong affinities between family members who are fans, though often at the expense of others in the family
· Smaller clubs instil a stronger sense of belonging and loyalty among fans
· Issues of cost and access are a growing concern among at larger clubs
· Football is an important part of maintaining family relationships
· Britain has a new generation of knowledgeable and confident young female football fans
Families and support of large English clubs
The period of development of ‘new’ football in Britain has been based around notions of attracting the ‘family’ audience. The report found that for some people football is becoming less accessible to families. The high cost means that some families have to share tickets between their children. Going to football is an occasional treat rather than a regular commitment because of the cost. Some families could not get tickets at all. Favourable family deals were often limited in number. It is also becoming increasingly difficult for families to maintain their support and pass on their own traditions of family support to their children.
For parents and other relatives, like grandparents interviewed, they miss the ‘old’ football – the atmosphere, and passion – but were frequently troubled in the past by hooliganism and occasionally racism. All agreed that the game and its facilities had improved for the better.
Most family fans would not have taken their own children to football if conditions had remained the same as when they were first introduced to the game. The danger for bigger clubs today in the eyes of some fans is that they become more of a ‘pop concert’ than a football club and that larger clubs might treat their supporters too much as ‘turnstile fodder’.
Family support in the shadow of a superclub
Loyalty to smaller clubs, such as Orient, Wigan Athletic and Motherwell, must be hard to sustain, especially in the shadow of a successful ‘international’ clubs. Some families interviewed were in a position to choose to support a bigger club - but remained loyal to their local side.
The report reveals that for some families supporting smaller football clubs offers a closer, more intimate, connection with other supporters. The club and smaller venues offer more of a ‘family’ atmosphere for these fans who want to attend matches with their kids. Some had already sampled the atmosphere and attractions of larger clubs but found them wanting in the sort of attachment and sentiment they themselves wanted for their kids in sport.
Although larger clubs offer the glitz, the allure of success and a national profile, family fans at smaller clubs felt the bigger venues lacked the sense of ‘belonging’ and loyalty that some parents felt supporting a football club should really be about. Parents felt support for a smaller club was like being part of a ‘family’, something much more important for their children than what football’s major stars offer.
Searching for new families
In the new era, successful clubs will learn to chase ‘non-traditional’ football families much harder. Leicester City is a club doing just that, in order to target local fans from ethnic minority communities.
Parents interviewed had themselves been the targets of racist incidents when they were youngsters and were only been drawn back into watching football by their children’s enthusiasm. These parents were pleasantly surprised by the extent to which the climate at football matches had changed for the better.
Like many parents interviewed, football offered parents from ethnic minority communities the chance to discuss issues with their children which were difficult to address at home.
Families and football in Scotland
The old firm clubs are so dominant in Scotland that we often forget the strong local and family appeal of some of the smaller Scottish clubs. These are often clubs striving to modernise and to keep hold of the support of local families, even as their sons and daughters are often drawn by the allure of the Glasgow giants.
Supporting a big club in Scotland meant you weren’t the ‘odd one out’ at school for many parents and this is now true for their children. The sense of being pressed by peer pressure into supporting one of the ‘big two’ in Glasgow was highlighted by family supporters at Fir Park. Strong, too, was the sense that Motherwell offered a welcome release from the intensity of the main Glasgow rivalry.
Supporting smaller clubs like Motherwell offered the strange pleasures of the common ups and downs which fans of medium and small size clubs have to contend with: to enjoy the triumphs but also to learn to cope with defeat.
Unusual family/football links
This area of the research looked at ‘unusual’ family links with a football club. Separated families and football as a means of keeping in touch with one’s children or a partner’s child. Divided families – families torn between support for different rival clubs and football families across generations – grandfathers and grandmothers attending with grandsons. Female family members – mums and daughters, mums and sons.
Parents we interviewed revealed that football offered them the opportunity to share ‘quality time’ with their children. The findings of the report suggest that football is a truly shared activity and one of the few things today’s families manage to do together.
Parent interviewed felt that football released them from the pressures of their normal parenting duties. For youngsters, football was one of the only activities still ‘cool’ enough to be seen doing with their parents. For older family members, football offered the chance to stay in touch with youngsters, across generations.
For divided families and step-families football was seen by those interviewed as an important way of connecting with children they did not see regularly or making new family bonds with their step-children.
The report also reveals that a new generation of knowledgeable and confident young female supporters is emerging. But this can also cause family tensions in families, especially where the mother is not typically a fan, inviting feelings of exclusion. Some mums interviewed felt a little robbed of an expected and anticipated relationship with their daughter - because of football.
Football: A role model for youngsters…and parents
What sort of experience is football for youngsters today? What sort of role models do sports stars play alongside other popular celebrities for youngsters?
Parents – and children – saw football as a chance to address moral, ethical or even practical questions. The focus on teamwork, loyalty and working together over individual success or selfishness were cited as important lessons children could take away from the game by parents interviewed.
Parents said that they worried about the rewards and perceived lifestyle of some of the top players and feared this could lead to a ‘something for nothing’ attitude in their children. But they liked the football ‘triers’ and team players: like Manchester United’s Paul Scholes and Leicester City’s Robbie Savage.
Commenting on the report, John Williams, Sir Norman Chester Centre for Football Research said:
“Today, despite real issues of rising costs, football in Britain is more widely identified with broader forms of community inclusion – it is more accessible to women and girls, attracting more minority ethnic fans, and is more child and family friendly. Much of the fan research to date has been quantitative, or has concentrated on young male fans. This is the first attempt to look more closely at the new generation of family supporters at football, and to try to understand more about the role played by football in family life.”
Eddie Bensilum, head of communications at McDonald’s said:
“As a commercial sponsor of areas of football grounds given over exclusively to parent and children for five years, we have long believed that football plays a major role in family relationships which goes beyond 90 minutes on a Saturday afternoon. The report shows that football is still the people’s game and the prawn sandwich culture is not the real story.”
Note to editors
The Football and Families report was conducted during the 2000/01 league season by Sir Norman Chester Centre for Football Research by means of focus groups and face-to-face interviews with families selected from the FA Premier League National Fan Survey database.
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