On Sunday I went to see West Bromwich Albion, the football team I support, play against Arsenal at the Emirates stadium. It was a pedestrian game, which provided a fitting conclusion to a pedestrian season. West Brom barely had a shot on target and ended up losing one-nil to a Gunners side who were also bereft of inspiration.
And yet it was a lot of fun. As always with football there were two forms of entertainment: there was what was taking place on the pitch and there was what was taking place in the stands. The West Brom fans were great: singing and chanting throughout.
I’m interested in how the vocal display varies: sometimes it is inspired by the sporting action, sometimes it inspires the sporting action, and sometimes it is just entertainment of its own. Supporting a team like West Brom, the latter comes to the fore. The supporters relish out-singing other fans, even when the team is losing. There is a good repertoire. It always features Psalm 23 and you often hear the Dambusters March. There are now several Spanish tunes in honour of manager Pepe Mel. There are also taunts that are aimed at more elite teams such as Arsenal and their notoriously quiet support (‘shh!’, ‘one-nil and you still don’t sing’), and there are the tunes that all supporters seem to use (‘Tom Hark’, ‘Papa’s Got a Brand New Pigbag’, ‘Go West’, ‘Cwm Rhondda’). This shared repertoire used to bother me. I wanted more originality from each set of fans. I’ve come to understand the great utility in it, though. The practice relies on subtle (and far from subtle) variations of lyrics and can provide a great to and fro between the home and away fans.
Football fans also take advantage of mediation. The Premier League is the most televised in the world. It is claimed that its global audience, across a season, is 4.7bn people. I’m not sure when it first started, but crowds are now making use of the 90-minute timeframe of the game. For example, at the Emirates, there was 60 seconds of applause from the West Brom fans at the nine-minute point of the game. This was in honour of Jeff Astle, who wore the number nine shirt for the club from 1964 to 1974. He died in 2002 of a degenerative brain disease, which was almost certainly caused by his frequent heading of the ball. His family is currently campaigning for the Football Association to look into this problem. Another example of time-based action came at St James’ Park on Saturday. Newcastle United fans exited the game during the 69th minute, marking the fact that the team hasn’t won a trophy since 1969. Broadcasters are briefed about these actions and they usually televise them, even in edited highlights of the games.
What about pop? Music audiences also react to mediation, and the activity in the crowd is often disconnected from the activities on the stage (a subject I discussed in a paper at Kings College in 2012). They do seem far behind their sporting counterparts, however. Would this change if more gigs were televised live? And how would pop fans make use of numbers?