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Transnational fans: The new asset for clubs does not have a passive role

12 Feb 2021   ·   

Some academics have described football today as one of the “driving forces and examples” of globalisation. It is not just an agent for the expansion of the economy and commercialisation of the world, but also an ecosystem through which the changes that global society is generating can be observed. The sport has become popular in all corners of the planet. Initially, an important factor in this expansion was played by diasporas. A love of football was a way of maintaining ties with their place of origin for foreign workers or expatriates. However, with the expansion of sports broadcasting, football clubs began to become the nexus of transnational communities that only had in common a shared passion for their team, without having to have ties to the city or country where the club had its base.

With the push from these fans, clubs have become totemic representations of the community, according to the concept set out by Émile Durkheim, in which members of a group, admiring the symbol that represents them, vindicate themselves. This fanbase would stand out for a desire for distinction, individuality and for acts of self-love, in which the distinctive elements of each football club would play a crucial role in their choice outside of their cities. The phenomenon can be approached using postmodern theory: Contemporary cultural transformation has demolished national borders – and also borders between social classes and genders – along with the appearance of pastiche cultures that mix the classic with the new. Finally, there is the configuration of new identities in virtual spaces. Under these premises, love for a football club has become a universal value and demand.

Hybrid passions

However, we must add to the consolidation of supporting a club as a hallmark of an indebted identity of a person that occurred in the second half of the 20th century, with the 21st century idea of multiple identities derived from the global economy and media reach. New fans follow several clubs, and may change allegiance. Even in national team football, which should be the most clearly compartmentalised, preferences are changed. Facebook found that, during the World Cup in Brazil, its users were changing their interest in a national team as the rounds progressed and their teams were knocked out. Academic studies already speak of the hybridization of fanbases. The dynamics of the new transnational football audiences can only be interpreted if one is able to distinguish complex cultural interrelations.

Despite globalisation, there are very well established poles of attraction. The European leagues make up a core club hub that welcomes the best players and talents from around the world, surrounded by a semi-periphery and a periphery with a gradual decline in the quality of national leagues. Daniel Evans and Glen Norcliffe have talked about the success spiral, a recognisable phenomenon in many commercialised sports, not just football. Being competitive and winning requires an investment, in the same way, financial survival depends on good sporting results. Good players -assets- are needed, regardless of where they come from. Progressively, barriers have been eliminated with the inclusion of more places for foreigners as a result of the Bosman Rule -just like in the rest of the free market’s economic relations. Only then can good results be obtained, objectives that translate into better audiences and more dividends with which to start this same process again. This dynamic, which has shaped the European club elite, is also global.

Hating “Modern football”

When a club develops and grows this way, if the strategy is successful, the immediate consequence is the denaturing of the team with respect to its neighbourhood, city or region of origin. Sometimes, the initial investment may even be made by a tycoon from another country. At the very least, the club’s commercial department will have to open up to new horizons and try to attract fans from other countries and continents, including tourists. This is a situation that generates resistance. First, amongst the local fans, who complain that their club are losing their essence. An example of this malaise would be the “I hate modern football” movement.

Secondly, there will be a rejection from the new markets. The growing influence of the main clubs has come to be interpreted as an act of cultural colonisation. However, academic studies agree that the phenomenon occurs in both directions. It is not unique. The new fans are not “colonised”, because their support is an asset that transforms the clubs and turns them into something new that would no longer belong exclusively to the culture of their place of origin. Therefore, the transnational fan is not a satellite fan -he is just another part in the dynamics of this sport.

However, among the traditional fans, what is relevant about these changes are the increase in ticket prices, the gentrification of stadiums, and the arrival of tourists in the stands. Evans and Norcliffe cite an event in a Liverpool vs. Everton  Merseyside derby, in which Everton fans sang to spectators ‘You’re not from here, you’re not from here, go back to Norway, you’ re not from here.” to which one of them replied” How do you know that I am Norwegian?”

This rejection, such as that of these English fans, can barely be heard when a third of all tourism the city receives is related to football. Specifically, 68.3% of Norwegian English football fans have travelled to England at least once to see their teams, while spectators around the world, following the matches from their homes, contribute the income necessary for the club to sign players according to the level their supporters hope to maintain among the European elite.

On the other side of the coin, if they had to choose, 60% of Norwegian football fans are more loyal to English clubs than to those in their country. Although, put in perspective, the passion for the Premier League in that country could have served to boost local clubs, as stadium attendance grew in parallel with English football audiences in Norway. Between 1991 and 2006, teams like Rosenborg doubled their number of spectators.

Manchester United are often cited as pioneers of the commercial globalisation of a club. With Peter Kenyon, CEO in 1997, they signed an agreement with the New York Yankees that allowed Manchester United games to be seen in the United States through YES, a subscription television network, and through a deal with Terra Lycos generating content on the Internet expressly for non-British fans. In the period of 1995-96 Barça earned 58 million for every 62 million earned by the British club. After the consolidation of this strategy, in the 2002-03 financial year, Barça had income of 123 million and Manchester United 251 million. Manchester United were the first to see the potential of the transnational fan, which is now a sine qua non for a club to be able to compete with the big teams regularly.

Uncertain choice criteria

The analysis of this type of supporter is still in an incipient phase, but the Scandinavian countries, such as the aforementioned case of Norway, have been the subject of studies. The investigations coincide in that fans have been cultivated over decades, with the coverage that the local press gave to the English league and their broadcasting of matches, -for years the live English match was the only alternative for Saturday nights. Where they show more confusing results is in the reasons that lead a foreigner to become a fan of a team from another country. In many cases, it is because of a match that affected them or a player they liked, but in many responses the fans have indicated that they chose their favourite club because they liked their kit, because of the design of their badge or because they were the favourite team of a rock star. There were even surreal situations, such as fans thinking that Norwich City was referring to Norway, or the case of a Derby County fan who had a Derbi bicycle as a child.

This type of criteria and decisions are an obstacle -or good fortune- for the international expansion of a football club and its recruitment of season ticket holders. Manchester United had problems in Islamic countries when clergymen pointed out that the red figure with a trident on its shield was Satan and that one should not feel devotion to a club with that symbol. On the contrary, marketing studies of preferences amongst Generation Z consumers clearly indicate that, for a long-term strategy, the new young global fan will opt for clubs with which they can share human values, such as inclusive policies or environmental commitments.

At the same time, the extraction of the fanbase is so wide that different global behaviours are observed. For example, in Asia there is a tendency to follow players more than clubs. It is the reason why many teams have signed Asian players, allowing them to access that supporter market. In turn, when David Beckham -the most followed star of his day- left Manchester United, he signed a contract with Audi and Siemens that aimed for both firms to expand their client base in Asia.

In addition to an increase in its commercialisation, football has also been boosted by new technologies. Richard Giulianotti has referred to the ‘horror vacui’ of sport. The rejection of nothing happening, of unproductive playing time. That is why the media frequently fill in these “gaps” with controversies of all kinds, even if they are sterile, which increase expectations when there are no notable incidents. At the same time, the technological revolution, particularly data analysis, has managed to constantly generate news where there was nothing before.

We are witnessing a perfection of the highly refined commercial football product which, when it reaches the consumer, also makes them a producer of more information with their reactions on social media -which are followed by other fans through the phenomenon of the second screen.

The show is now a mosaic of constant stimuli. An intense experience at various levels, which is related both to the cultural and identity values ​​of the consumer, as well as the tactical or even scientific-technical interest that may have been developed by this sporting discipline. In this way, the clubs, which have become multinationals in the leisure sector, are orienting their strategies towards the objective that all their fans around the world can show the passion they feel for their club in all facets of their lives, something that, in turn, inevitably redefines the identity of the teams themselves.

Álvaro González


Football events, memories and globalization, Richard Giulianotti

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Building the future of the sports industry