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What Football Teaches About Community Building

There is a beautiful connection between being a sports fan and feeling like you’re a part of a supportive community. When we all gather together to watch a game, all divisions seem irrelevant, and we’re all just chanting and enraptured by the competition in front of us. And nowhere is this more prevalent than in the football community. Fans of the beautiful game just get what it feels like to be in a family of fans that live, breathe, and dream of their club.

Football Creates Community Relationships

Football is played, viewed, and loved by millions, if not billions, all over the world, and fills fans with a feeling of belonging, loyalty and passion. Everyone can be a part of a football community. There aren’t very many barriers to entry, if at all. Whether you want to support your city or your country, you’ve got a home team to root for. You can go into any pub or bar, anywhere in the world and find a football game on tv. If you’ve got a grassy field and a ball, you can start a game of your own, and invite the neighbourhood to play.

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Football, and any sport, really, is the great equalizer when it comes to building relationships. They say that ‘strangers are friends you haven’t met yet,’ and that’s especially true when you love the beautiful game. You can strike up a conversation with anyone watching a match, and get deep into stats, players, and preferences, before you even formally introduce yourself. This is staggering. One of the greatest challenges as human beings seeking connections and companionship, is how to break the ice with someone new; start the conversation. In football, the game’s already started the dialogue, you just need to jump in and carry it home. Many lasting friendships or relationships have started with “who’re you cheering for?”

 

Football Means Showing Up

You can’t build a community without attendance. People need to show up and participate in the communal activities and interests, in order for it to grow. Whether people are participating online or in person, a community needs engaged members. So whether you’re coming to the stadium to watch the game every week, occupying the same stool at the same pub at the same time weekly, or meeting up at a friends house to watch the live broadcast, you’re showing up. The same could be said for the fans of many other sports as well, sure, but there’s something different about football fans. They evolve their fandom into a passionate belief system, akin to a religion.

But the beauty of the football community isn’t just in being there in person, it lives online too. Between people sharing their opinions, top 5 goals, and participating in live-tweets pre/post/during a match, not to mention being active within sports apps, they’re building connections. In fact, some are even falling in love and getting married. There is a consistency and continuity to their support of the team and of each other. Between being there in person, or catching up online, no one is missing out, or feeling left out.

Teams and players know this, and use the tools at their disposal to engage their fans with social media posts, surveys, contests and other engaging content to continue the feeling of belonging to a fantastic supporters community.

 

Starting a Conversation and Keeping It Going

A quiet community isn’t a thriving one. It’s key that whoever is leading a group, be it a team, a local sporting organization, an intramural rec team, etc.. that they keep on top of their group’s interests and values, and inspire conversations and participation organically. Everyone is there for the same reason, to watch their team win, help their team win and to talk about the game. This last point is especially important.

Recall how we mentioned above that there are very little barriers to entry into being a supporter of your local football team? A common fear from anyone looking to start watching a sport and joining a supporters community, or even starting to play, is the language of the game. Between what’s outlined in the rule book, as well as the terms used off and on the field, it can be a barrier. Thankfully, football fans can be some of the most welcoming in the sports world. They’ll take you under their wing, tell you what you need to know, and help you feel like you belong. Whether you’re looking to be an active fan or a passive one, there are ways that the community will get you up to speed and make sure you’re included.

Even teams are getting in on facilitating introductions. For example Everton FC introduced a program where they offered young fans attending their first game a goody bag on their seat, a chance to play on the pitch and even meet a player prior to the match. On the other end of the spectrum, was Chelsea FC who spent time partnering with non-sports sectors like gaming, music, travel and health, to create a synergy between being a fan and other interests. Not every potential fan, or someone interested in joining a supporters community is hardcore into sports sites and content. They might be elsewhere and can easily be swayed into the community.

 

A Community of Competition

What is football but a battle of skill between two groups of athletes? That’s why we watch; for the triumph, the ‘us vs. them’ aspect of the sport. Loyal fans back their teams and unite with each other, comfortable in their shared experience and passion. But that competition doesn’t just play out on the pitch. Fans love to compete with each other as well. There’s plenty of smack talk, bar bets, and impromptu quizzes over a pint. It’s all done in good faith with a healthy respect, but it does get fierce.

In fact, that sense of competition is a cornerstone of the community. Sports organizations have been using this characteristic to help find ways to better engage their audience, with surveys, quizzes and polls, and incentivizing their supporters to join in the conversation and share their opinions. This brings the community together, and gets them to know each other better.

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A Community With Heart

Finally. football is unique in that it crosses geographical boundaries, cultures and beliefs. Everyone’s played or watched at least a game, and that’s all it takes to forge a connection. And these connections have heart. Out of all the varied supporter communities globally, football fans have an extra capacity for kindness. You love the game? Great, you’re now family.

For example, in 2014 a group of 200 Burton Albion FC supporters travelled 150 miles to watch their team take on Bournemouth, only to have the game called off. A group of Bournemouth fans then started a charity drive to raise £800 to cover the cost of coaches to send them back home. They ended up with over £3,000. Or, there’s 2010 example of Portsmouth FC fans raising the money owed by the club to St. John’s Ambulance after the club went bankrupt. None of this, and all other heart-warming acts done by football fans, would have been possible without the sense of belonging and unity that the supporters feel.

Everyone wants to be a part of something, and they want their participation to have meaning and enrich them. Being a part of a club’s supporters community, or of a local team of weekend warriors who kick a ball around, makes them feel at home.

That's something we, at Belong, take to heart.