By Damian J. Rivers
Professor, Center for Meta-Learning, Future University Hakodate, Hokkaido, Japan
The participatory affordances created via social media platforms have positioned contemporary football fandom within “a complex cultural, ideological and technological mediascape that is continuously evolving as a result of the constant exchanges between capital-driven businesses and users” (Ortega 2019, p.15). The football fan channel phenomenon represents one such example. The most prominent football fan channel within the context of the English Premier League (EPL) is AFTV, a channel dedicated to Arsenal Football Club. AFTV has over one million YouTube subscribers with over 10,000 video uploads producing almost 500 million views (Vaghela 2018). Yet, despite significant viewer interest the channel remains problematic in terms of its motive, function and the audience which it attracts (MacInnes 2017).
Positioning AFTV as a source of entertainment for fans of rival EPL clubs, and in reference to the one million YouTube subscribers, Stavrou suggests that such a number reflects “one million Spurs, Liverpool and Chelsea fans that swarm to the comments sections to ridicule these ‘personalities’ when Arsenal lose”
Criticism of AFTV has come from various sources. Mike Stavrou, the author of the “We are the Arsenal” fansite argues that AFTV have “made z-list ‘celebrities’ out of the average supporter” further describing how “AFTV cherry-pick their most controversial pawns and prod them with a stick. They wind up the fans at their most vulnerable – a heavy defeat – until they embark on another angry tirade, which draws in millions of viewers”. Positioning AFTV as a source of entertainment for fans of rival EPL clubs, and in reference to the one million YouTube subscribers, Stavrou suggests that such a number reflects “one million Spurs, Liverpool and Chelsea fans that swarm to the comments sections to ridicule these ‘personalities’ when Arsenal lose” (https://wearethearsenal.uk/columnist/football-fan-channels-get-boot). This raises questions not only concerning the intended target audience of AFTV, but also concerning the nature of the comments posted as ridicule on platforms such as YouTube.
Banter in Football Discourse
Football fan discourse is often inclusive of discriminatory expressions (Garland and Rowe 2001; Millward 2008). A more acceptable channel through which affiliations and exclusions are expressed is through humor inclusive of irony, sarcasm, hyperbole, understatement, satire, rhetorical questioning, and banter. Banter is a relational form of teasing aimed at ego deflation, one which departs with the intention of creating and reinforcing relationships via social acceptance and other friendship strategies (Gibbs 2000; Leggitt and Gibbs 2000; Plester and Sayers 2007). While banter shares certain characteristics with terms such as joking and teasing, these terms, and the actions which they reflect, are almost entirely one-sided whereas banter demands some form of shared contextual knowledge and interactive reciprocity. In other words, “banter’s effectiveness in creating a sense of intimacy relies on its exclusivity, a shared realm of knowledge that is difficult to break into” (Kennedy 2000, p.77) meaning that community newcomers are often excluded.
Moreover, and relevant to the male dominated world of football participation, Hein and O’Donohoe (2014) suggest that banter can play a defensive or competitive role in male interactions, both of which are able to contribute to the creation of a sense of community among similar-minded individuals (Crawford 2004). Easthope (1990, pp.87-88) calls out the double function of banter in stating that “outwardly banter is aggressive, a form in which the masculine ego asserts itself. Inwardly, however, banter depends on a close, intimate and personal understanding of the person who is the butt of the attack”. The author further outlines how it “works as a way of affirming the bond of love between men while appearing to deny it”. This commonplace form of male-to-male communication often serves as “the social glue at football clubs” (MacInnes 2011) where lines of affiliation to a particular club and social identity are often fiercely drawn.
After each EPL fixture, AFTV interviews a selection of Arsenal fans outside of the stadium as part of their post-match reaction videos uploaded to YouTube. It is typical for the channel to upload between 5-10 videos per fixture. At the end of the 2018-2019 EPL season one AFTV post-match fan reaction interview per EPL fixture was selected. The selection process was made based upon the interview that had amassed the most views on YouTube per fixture. This method gave a sample of 36 individual post-match reaction videos which had amassed 14,880,218 cumulative views and drawn a total of 59,574 YouTube comments (while there are actually 38 EPL fixtures in a season, data was only available for 36 fixtures).
… this method gave a sample of 36 individual post-match reaction videos which had amassed 14,880,218 cumulative views
From the preliminary analysis undertaken it was apparent that the number of views and comments were significantly greater when Arsenal had lost a particular EPL fixture. The average number of video views was 44% higher when Arsenal had lost (638,346) as opposed to when they had drawn (355,998), and 47% higher when Arsenal had lost as opposed to when they had won (333,291). Similarly, the average number of YouTube comments was 35% higher when Arsenal had lost (2,784) as opposed to when they had drawn (1,807), and 59% higher when Arsenal had lost as opposed to when they had won (1,127). This suggests that AFTV is more profitable when Arsenal lose than when they win or draw due to the larger volume of participants. Across all 36 post-match reaction videos the same two interviewees were responsible for the single most viewed videos, two Arsenal fans known on the channel as “DT” and “Troopz”. DT was responsible for 78% of the most viewed post-match reaction videos (28/36), while Troopz had the most viewed post-match reaction video on 22% of occasions (8/36). However, DT was the most viewed interviewee on every occasion when Arsenal had lost (9/9) and on 83% of the occasions when they had drawn (5/6). This suggests that there are certain characteristics which make DT more appealing to viewers when Arsenal have lost or drawn a game as opposed to when they have won.
All comments posted under each of the post-match reaction videos were extracted. This produced a cumulative database of 59,574 individual comments which were then ranked according to the number of likes given by other YouTube viewers. From this list the data was filtered to only include comments which had 100 or more YouTube likes. This reduction process left a total of 926 individual comments accounting for 376,623 likes (each comment had an average of 406.7 likes). As banter is able to promote solidarity and competition within communities of like-minded individuals (Crawford 2004; Leech 1983, 2014), it was believed that these heavily liked comments would provide the most representative demonstration of how banter was used and received. From this evaluative process four categories of banter were identified although within this short summary attention is only given to catoegorizations of personal banter. Comments categorized as “personal banter” were inclusive of examples mocking specific individuals including the AFTV interviewees DT, Troopz and Robbie the interviewer. This category was also inclusive of comments mocking serving Arsenal players in addition to non-present individuals such as related friends and family members.
The comments most liked by other YouTube viewers pertained heavily to DT and clustered around some specific “trait, habit or characteristic of the recipient of the banter” (Plester and Sawyer 2007, p.159). Instances of banter directed toward DT clustered around his perceived temperament, civility and lack of emotional control. The characterization of DT as an aggressive individual lacking in emotional control was most frequently expressed in relation to his family members. Representative examples posted after Arsenal failed to win included; “Thoughts and prayers are with DT’s family tonight”, “Rip DT’s wife unbeaten streak!”, “DT’s wife is already in the ambulance” and “DT’s wife bout to be the same colour as a smurf”. These comments frame domestic violence as humor yet such discourse is only effective as banter in that it conforms to Leech’s (1983, 2014) banter principle in that what is being said is untrue and/or obviously impolite to the hearer.
AFTV operator and interviewer Robbie Lyle was also a common recipient of banter. The representative comments focused upon the financial revenue generated by AFTV and the conflicted feelings assumed to be troubling Robbie (i.e. when Arsenal lose AFTV receives more views and thus revenue than when they win and while Robbie must be satisfied with the increased income, he remains a passionate Arsenal supporter and would therefore prefer his team to win). In addition, and in contrast to the personal banter aimed toward DT, Robbie was referenced through more affection/respectful terms, such as through the “Don Robbie” label as a status-marker to his position as the “man in charge” at AFTV. Examples which clustered around this included; “Robbie: I feel embarrassed / Inner Robbie: Time to buy another island”, “Away days are like paydays for Robbie”, “If Arsenal carry on like this, Robbie will have enough to buy Arsenal FC from Stan Kroenke”, and “Don Robbie’s happy, the bailiffs won’t be at his mansion for another week”.
Although AFTV might have started in 2012 with an anti-corporate agenda and a desire to give regular fans a platform to express their views, the unparalleled success of AFTV within the genre means that the channel currently seems more in alignment with the ‘corporate machine’ that Robbie was originally resistant toward. For instance, AFTV is not a channel that seeks to be representative of Arsenal fans in general as it is reliant upon a small number of regulars who perform the post-match reaction interviews after each fixture. Rather than broad representation AFTV has prioritized and promoted certain individuals and viewpoints over others. But why? This approach has led to the current situation in which AFTV features ‘known characters’ rather than ‘unknown fans’, characters who play a known role for the audience in relation to their personalities, characteristics and traits. It is also telling that only AFTV regulars are named within the title and description of the post-match videos whereas other fans who are not regulars are not mentioned by name, an act which places them outside of the formal AFTV structure. The named and consenting characters shown in the banner can then be set in opposition to each other as a means of creating drama and entertainment for the wider viewing public. AFTV might therefore be primarily framed as a source of financial income for the operators and the associated named characters who make regular appearances and spin off self-promotional sites etc (as shown in the channel’s YouTube banner).
Although AFTV might have started in 2012 with an anti-corporate agenda and a desire to give regular fans a platform to express their views, the unparalleled success of AFTV within the genre means that the channel currently seems more in alignment with the ‘corporate machine’ that Robbie was originally resistant toward.
Framing channels such as AFTV as producers of reality-TV-esque drama and entertainment (see the lastest AFTV mini-series “Blud Bruvvas” for example) facilitates an explanation as to why the channel might have a greater appeal to fans of rival EPL clubs and why the channel has also received criticism from various sources connected to Arsenal FC. As a form of entertainment, those who watch the post-match reaction videos and spin-off shows expect entertaining performances by the known and named characters. This is explains why DT is the most watched character on the channel and why viewing figures are significantly higher when Arsenal have failed to win. It must be remembered though that viewing figures and popularity do not necessarily correlate with one another as the significant interest in AFTV might also produce negative appraisals and ridicule. While a strong case can be made both for and against the AFTV channel, it is most likely that the significant attention given to named characters such as DT and Troopz serves as a general reflection of a society now used to instance gratification and polarization. In this regard, and not withstanding the pro-corporate financial revenue generated by AFTV, the channel stands as a beacon of success and aspiration helped in no small part by a vast social media landscape that faciltates and encourages cyncism, negativity and conflict.
This is a summary of a recently published article: Rivers, D.J. and Ross, A.S. (2019). “This channel has more subs from rival fans than Arsenal fans”: Arsenal Fan TV, Football Fandom and Banter in the New Media Era. Sport in Society: Culture, Commerce, Media, Politics. (https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/17430437.2019.1706492)
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