Fan Aggression: The Counterproductive Effects of Playing Down Rivalries

Research of the German Sport University Cologne proves Club Officials wrong: Playing down football rivalries promotes aggression while acknowledging conflict reduces tension between rival fans. 

With fan violence mounting across Europe, club officials often try to placate fans by playing down the importance of clashes with the archrival, making statements such as “the derby is not a war,” “just for three points” or “only a normal game.”

Based on experimental studies with more than 4,000 football fans, researchers Johannes Berendt and Sebastian Uhrich from the German Sport University Cologne came up with surprising results – so surprising that they were invited to present them at the famed Harvard University in Boston in early March.

“Unfortunately, most clubs get it wrong,” said Berendt, who investigates brand and consumer rivalries as part of his Ph.D. work. “Playing down rivalries is counter-productive and makes fans aggressive in the first place. Fans get upset if clubs do not appreciate the ongoing conflict with the rival, which is a crucial part of their identity. People identify not only by who they are, but especially by who they are not.”

The researchers developed and empirically tested an alternative approach to reduce aggression: dual identity statements. Such statements enhance the fans’ unique identity (as fans of a team) while at the same time facilitating identification with the rival at a superordinate level (e.g., as joint fans of a region or supporters of similar values). “Fans seem to be willing to acknowledge certain similarities with the archrival,” said Sebastian Uhrich, who is a professor of Sport Business Administration at the German Sport University Cologne. “Take, for example, Borussia Dortmund and Schalke 04. Their fanbases have been at odds for decades. However, at a superordinate level, both clubs proudly represent the Ruhr Valley region. Our research indicates that aggression can be reduced by establishing common ground between rivals.”

Yet all communication about rivalry remains a delicate matter. “Rivalries are a double-edged sword with ambivalent consequences,” added Berendt. “Club officials need to appreciate what rivalry means to the fans and nurture these conflicts in the long-run. However, adding further fuel to the fire prior to a rivalry game should be avoided.”