Summary of JOIE article ( First View 11 May 2021) by David Butler and Robert Butler, Department of Economics, University College Cork, Cork, Ireland. The full article is available on the JOIE website.
When a Malaysian consortium took control of Cardiff City Football Club in May 2010, I suspect very few would have predicted that a decision by majority shareholder Vincent Tan two years later might appear in the Journal of Institutional Economics. This decision was not one of the many typical decisions made by football club owners, but rather something much more profound – changing Cardiff’s traditional home colour from blue to red.
Having worn blue since 1908, Cardiff City supporters reacted as expected. There was outrage and overwhelming defiance from the fanbase. Wearing blue had been part of the tradition and identity of the Welsh club for over a hundred years. Changing to red, for a club known also as ‘the Bluebirds’, was a step too far. Not to mention, local rivals Bristol City had worn red since 1984. Cardiff City’s identity was as much about not being red.
The actions of Tan and the response of Cardiff City supporters highlights that club colours do not have a superficial meaning. Rather they offer a wonderful lens into the past. In many respects, club colours encapsulate the establishment and protection of informal constraints such as customs, approved norms and habits across English society. These informal constraints originate from a formal rule dating from the 1891 Annual General Meeting of the Football League, when the registration of team colours was made a requirement under the laws of the game.
Our paper explores both formal rules and informal constraints in football today, and how more than a century of informal interactions has shaped the jerseys of today. We draw on the work of North (2005), Hodgson (2006), Lawson (2015), Rebar et al. (2018), Fleetwood (2019), Spong (2019) and others when exploring the role of customs, norms and habitual behaviour of individuals. From here, we examine examples in the “Beautiful Game”, with the jersey becoming our focal point.
The now customary and habitual wearing of traditional colours has its roots as far back as Victorian Britain. The Sheffield Rules of 1858 and establishment of the Football Association in 1863 were the forerunners for what would follow. We explore the evolution of the jersey through five unique phases up to today.
Which club has the longest tradition of wearing a single colour in English football? That honour goes to Nottingham Forest who have worn red since 1865. The “redshirts” of Italian general and republican Giuseppe Garibaldi would be the reason for this. His tour of central and northern England at the time would have a lasting effect on members of the football club.
Similar critical junctures exist across the Football League and are touched upon in our paper. Blackburn Rovers, Oldham Athletic, Sunderland, Wolverhampton Wanderers and Burnley, to name but a few.
While informal constraints have established the colours we see today, such as the red of Manchester United and Liverpool or white of Tottenham Hotspur, the modern jersey is a commercial vehicle. The objective of the garment is almost as much about revenue generation as it is about identification and fulfilment of a formal rule on the football pitch.
But identity remains so important. Not just on the pitch but off it. As our Cardiff City example demonstrates, supporters identify with their club’s colour. We explore this in our paper by touching on the seminal work of Akerlof and Kranton (2000), as well as others such as Hogg et al., (1995) Akerlof and Kranton (2010), Bénabou and Tirole (2011) and Kranton (2016). And as recent events have shown us, football supporters don’t just identify with their club’s colours, but also the league they play in. This is one of the key reasons why the European Super League collapsed less than 48 hours after it had been revealed in April 2020.
Branding and reputation also play a part and are linked to informal constraints. Klein and Leffler (1981) is an important starting point. As we argue in our paper “Branding and the associated reputation effects, create goodwill…the consequence of this…can be inertia, loyalty and increased switching costs. These switching costs can be financial, temporal or psychological [and] include “the cognitive hassle of changing one’s habit” (Bronnenberg, et al. 2019)”.
Informal constraints such as customs, approved norms and the habits of agents are all part of the early story of club colours. They can explain why traditional colours have emerged, and largely remained constant. As loyal fans will know, clubs change their home jersey every year now. But one thing is almost certain. They will never change the colour. We can thank custom, norms and habits for this.
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