Football, Behaviour and the Concept of ‘Nudge’

Posted by on May 3, 2013 in Uncategorized | 6 Comments
Football, Behaviour and the Concept of ‘Nudge’
Image available under Creative Commons (c) By Diana RocÃo

Prawn sandwiches may be pushing it too far, but with the regular Football League season drawing to a close this past weekend, imagine rolling up at Boundary Park or Gigg Lane next August to find an array of food choices containing only locally sourced meat and vegetables?

Or you could picture arriving at the Pirelli Stadium to find the paper towels of yore have been replaced by those poncy blade hand dryers, while a series of green footprints denote the path to some shiny new recycling bins.

Efforts to encourage us to behave in ways that lead to better social outcomes — ranging from environmental to financial, and designed to induce greater health and wellbeing, have been all the rage in the past few years, but football has largely remained monolithic in its resistance — you’ll see enough chips consumed at an average match to make a million portions of corned beef hash, while I actually don’t think I have ever seen a recycling facility at a football stadium.

The controversial topic of so-called ‘libertarian paternalism’, more commonly associated with the concept of ‘Nudge’, as popularised in Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein’s 2008 book of that name, has begun to exert huge influence on society, with Sunstein acting as a key advisor to Barack Obama and this country’s coalition government setting up its own Behavioural Insights Team’, the much lampooned ‘Nudge Unit’.

The basic premise is that people tend to be lazy and need to be nudged towards opting for sounder alternatives in all areas of their lives, while maintaining the veneer that personal choices are still being made. In this, the government (or any other controlling institution for that matter) aim to act non-coercively towards a greater good. Rather than outright regulation indicating that ‘thou must do this or that’ — choice are framed in order to point consumers in the right direction and — make no mistake — consumers we are.

Among the more famous examples from Thaler and Sunstein’s book, there is the requirement that credit card issuers offer automatic monthly payment as a default, a mandatory waiting period before anyone gets married, and automatic enlistment into pension schemes, organ donor programmes and the like.

Central to this is notion of the opt out — when registering with the National Health Service, you could be presumed willing to donate your kidneys in the event of your death unless you tick a box to prevent this — as opposed to the former system which required people to opt in. Hence, ‘Nudge’ works on the premise that folk are usually happier taking the path of least resistance.

This variety of paternalism can have some encouraging results — the green footprint idea detailed in the second paragraph of this article may sound a little preposterous but was part of an actual experiment carried out by a Danish research group – the result, a 46% reduction in littering; while you may be aware of the fly motif etched into the urinals at Amsterdam’s Schiphol airport and how this dramatically increased the aim of the building’s Jimmy Riddlers.

So, given the sheer volume of kneejerk behaviour patterns in football — turning up for the next home game after a 5-0 defeat to Port Vale or paying £22 to see a match at the Kassam Stadium for instance — the sport would seem to be tailor made for the ‘Nudge’ treatment.

Despite occasional bursts of activism when things get really, really bad — the opposition to ID cards during the Colin Moynihan era, the formation of AFC Wimbledon and the rise to prominence of certain clubs’ supporters’ trusts — the majority of us are happy to take things as they come — a kind of ‘status quo bias’ if you like — but more do with Giuseppe Rossi than Francis.

So why not ‘frame’ decisions for fans in order to provide better outcomes? How can ‘Nudge’ work in football?

A post I wrote a couple of years ago for this blog, positing 10 modest proposals for a greener football, explored related themes and although many of the recommendations came from the angle that good, old-fashioned intervention from the authorities should be the main leader of change, some could certainly be characterized within the context of ‘Nudge’.

Recycling was one, as was pedestrianism — and Arsenal have in many ways acted paternalistically in laying on so little car parking at the Emirates. Rather than try and justify demand and the wishes of a few moaning journos, they’ve made it near mindless to even consider bringing one’s car —and the streets at the southern end of Holloway Road are less clogged as a result, making for a much more pleasurable match day experience.

During last summer’s London Olympics, tickets were sent out accompanied by travel passes, thereby actively discouraging — although not banning — people from driving to the events. Although it may be asking too much for Southwest Trains to lay on free tickets as part of the experience at Aldershot, literature illustrating the wisdom of taking public transport to the match, including timetables and examples of special offers might be a nice touch.

Similarly, I explored the food options in that earlier missive. Roy Keane may eschew eating healthily but you might be surprised at how many will choose to have that roasted vegetables baguette in preference to a pie, even if few foods are not enhanced by the addition of a pastry case. Local, sustainably sourced options will go down better than you might think amid the mountains of potato, while the reduction in the number of Tango Men and Jimmy Five Bellies will perhaps curb the ‘humour’ but lead to a healthier fan base overall.

Financial options are also worth exploring albeit not perhaps less so at the club level — ‘Nudge’ is a resolutely microeceonomic concept and we can only dream of a programme of ideas that might lead Queen’s Park Rangers to behave responsibly. However, there are ways that the balance sheet can be improved while not compromising the wellbeing of fans.

That can be seen with a practice that is already much in evidence in the lower divisions — unallocated seats have the advantage of encouraging supporters to show up in good time, spend more time at the ground and provide more money for the club’s coffers, while feeling more connected to the whole match day experience as a result. I’ve lost count of the number of times I’ve arrived at a stadium unsure as to whether seats are preordained or not — most recently, at Brunton Park, the result was chaos among the visiting supporters. Make it clear that you always choose your own seat when you arrive and the worry disappears. If you are travelling in a group, you need to get there early.

On a more extreme level, clubs might wish to assume that the previous year’s season ticket holders will want to renew. As someone currently vacillating over this very issue, I can say that I for one would happily have the decision taken away from me — in any case, supporters would still be provided with a refund if they objected to such direct debiting of their account after the fact. If Virgin Media can presume you are renewing your subscription, then why not the soccer club you love?

Of course this is all close to the world of incentives — win/win scenarios which include season ticket adoptions, special offers on club merchandise and a ticket to that cup tie against Liverpool if you turned up the previous week to see Hornchurch. This takes us into the realm of behavioural economics of which ‘Nudge’ is a prime manifestation.

The thinking works particularly well in the world of charitable ventures, increasingly part of any football club’s portfolio. Much research confirms that great pleasure is indeed derived from giving — it might make sense to combine regular ticket sales with the chance to donate to registered charities, in particular those in partnership with the club such as Acorns in the days before Aston Villa invited a betting firm to emblazon their logo on the claret jersey. Yes, fans will be a little poorer but they’ll enjoy that warm glow.

So ‘Nudge’ can bring much to the sport even if its potential range inevitably fails to extend as far as it does to society as a whole. Of course there are disadvantages — it obviates the need for essential regulation and actual laws, absolving an ideologically non-interventionist government from spending our taxes where they should. It can be very short-termist and occasionally trivial while creating the risk of the creation of an irrational and risk-prone underclass. Above all, who decides what is good for us is a concept fraught with moral question marks and the links to neuromarketing have more than a touch of Big Brother about them — the Orwellian, not McCallian vintage.

But at its best, ‘Nudge’ can provide inarguable, simple solutions and part solutions to sub-optimal situations, allowing testing of ideas on a small scale before they are wheeled out more extensively and leading to a host of beneficial outcomes for our health and happiness, while potentially making all parties financially better off along the way. Football clubs should start investigating.

Rob Langham
Rob Langham is co-founder of the defiantly non-partisan football league blog, The Two Unfortunates, a website that occasionally strays into covering issues of wider importance. He's 50 and lives in Oxford while retaining his boyhood support of Reading FC. He tweets as @twounfortunates and has written for a number of websites and publications including The Inside Left, When Saturday Comes, In Bed with Maradona, Futbolgrad and The Blizzard as well as being nominated for the Football Supporters' Federation Blogger of the Year Award in 2013.


  1. Stuart Howard-Cofield
    May 3, 2013

    A really good read, that. So many interesting points and some amazing synergy that I should be reading this and a leaflet has just dropped through my door from Tesco, to say that they are in planning stages to build a new store in the vilage/small town just outside Rochdale where I live.

    We are all consumers.

    The leaflet states that it will provide an economic boost to the village and stop people travelling to Rochdale for their shopping (we do actually have two other small “supermarkets” -we aren’t THAT remote) – god knows, Rochdale needs that footfall and we could do without more traffic flowing through the one main road.

    My point is – I’ll submit a “not in favour” vote – but eventually, it will go through. And with sad inevitability I will eventually pop in as it is the easiest and most convenient.

    Roasted vegetable baguettes at the match? I’m in.

  2. Pigo
    May 4, 2013

    A lovely, chewy article Rob. It would be heartening to see fans nudged in the right direction every now and then, as opposed to being funnelled into revenue streams. At the very least, this kind of approach couldn’t fail to bring about a deeper level of engagement between clubs and fans (even if that takes the form of grumbling and reactionary toilet barbs).

    This does make me wonder whether you could follow up on this with a series of pieces from those of our colleagues who can bring some subject knowledge from our place of work to bear on the game. A piece on the ‘performative turn’ in football, or something from further afield in the HSS pasture.

  3. Stanley
    May 7, 2013

    A thought-provoking article, LR. TTU at its best. I would share your scepticism as to the expropriation of `nudge’ by free marketeers looking to shift responsibility, but the theory still has some merit. The idea of `nudging’ supporters to make donations to charitable causes, in particular, chimed with something that I’ve long thought was worth exploring, albeit in slightly a different, and possibly less altruistic, direction.

    When booking tickets for `off West End’ theatres, museums etc., there is often a `suggested donation’ of a relatively small amount towards refurbishment projects or, under our current philistine government, to ensure the very existence of the arts. This – among other methods employed by arts organizations – is something that could easily be applied to football, especially in the League. It shouldn’t be beyond the wit and means of smaller clubs to reduce ticket prices slightly, but ask for a small, donation toward, say, the upkeep of the youth training scheme, community trust or benevolent fund for ex-players, that would round up the price to an even number.

    The benefits of such a scheme would be many: providing lower admission fees for those who really need it; giving those supporters who choose to donate a tangible stake in the club they follow; and promoting deeper engagement in its day-to-day running.

  4. Ramster68
    May 12, 2013

    Having just enjoyed a weekend in Germany, we were able to travel by train from Dusseldorf to both Leverkusen and Gelsenkirchen – including tram to the stadium, within the cost of the match ticket itself. That having been said, unlike here, the Germans have relatively few midweek games (when time is tight) and transport networks that is designed to offer convenience.

  5. Lanterne Rouge
    May 12, 2013

    Thanks to everyone for their comments and Pigo, that seems a great idea – getting our publishing industry experts to examine football in the light of various academic disciplines could be illuminating and we’ve already done economic geography, crime & football and regional studies to name but three.

    Hope the Tesco doesn’t make it Stuart although you do have the Greater Manchester CAMRA pub of the year to drown your sorrows!

    The suggested donation idea is a no brainer Stanley.

    • Stuart Howard-Cofield
      May 14, 2013

      Haha, the Baum. A fine establishment, for sure! And situated next to the home of the co-operative movement for social history buffs.


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