‘It’s Just Such a Class Thing’

Rivalry and Class Distinction Between Female Fans of Men’s Football and Rugby Union

by Stacey Pope

leicester sports statueThis article draws on 85 interviews with female fans of men’s football and rugby union to explore sporting preferences and social class in one locale in Britain. Although it has been widely contended that social class is no longer a major source of people’s identity and people will usually deny class identities, these findings demonstrate that sport can operate as a unique space in which people openly discuss class distinctions. The findings examine the perceived class differences between football and rugby union fans and rivalry between respective groups of supporters. There is very little work on the cross sport perceptions of sports fans so this article makes an original contribution to sociological research.

The UK city of Leicester was used as a case study site for the research. This research is sociologically important because these findings demonstrate that sport may operate as a space in which people openly discuss social class and thus challenge Bottero’s (2004) claims that British people usually refuse to position themselves ‘within’ social classes and adopt an ambivalent attitude towards class labels.

In my research differences in sporting preferences were directly linked to social class distinctions and female sports fans openly discussed class based differences through their rivalry with other sports fans. There is very little sociological work on the cross sport perceptions of supporters, or on the area of female sports fandom, so this paper offers a highly original contribution to sociological research. Pseudonyms are used to protect anonymity – football fans are represented by the letter ‘F’ and rugby union fans ‘R’, followed by the case number assigned to each respondent.

i) Perceived Class Differences Between Football and Rugby Union Fans

Although there has been a relatively large body of research exploring club rivalries and especially hooliganism in English football, there is very little sociological work on fan perceptions of other sports and their fan cultures. These data offer an insight into the cross sport perceptions of female football and rugby union fans, which show the complex intersection between space, gender and social class in this unusual social and cultural landscape.

Of the 85 female fans in my sample only three confessed to actively supporting both football and rugby union. Even here, these fans had a clear preference for one sport. There seemed to be a general assumption that different kinds of people watched football and rugby union. But rather than adopting a ‘defensive’ or ‘ambivalent’ attitude to class labels (Bottero 2004: 987) female sports fans generally spoke openly about how the differences in sporting preferences were the result of class distinctions:

It’s just such a class thing…Cos I’m working class, that’s why I go to the football. Posh people go to the rugby…I think in this village there’s an “in crowd” that goes fox hunting and played rugby (posh voice) And then there’s, like, the other people that work in petrol stations and things… Now I look back on it I can see there is this kind of rugby and class divide. (F4, age 26, season ticket holder, PhD student, Dad=mechanic, Mum=works in garage)

A small number of respondents did however suggest that these sporting class barriers have now been eroded. This was usually attributed to recent changes – especially in rugby union – which have made this sport ‘more accessible to the ordinary people’ (F49). A small number of mainly younger group female rugby union fans challenged the idea that class and school background largely determined which sport an individual followed. Professionalism in rugby union and the advent of BSkyB televised sport was also argued to have made the sport ‘more accessible’ to people from ‘working class’ backgrounds (R15) as it was suggested that the increased televised coverage allowed the sport to ‘open up to a much more wider audience’ (R3).  In football, some respondents suggested that as the sport was now ‘big business’ (F37) its appeal had been extended to the moneyed ‘middle classes’, suggesting that the traditional class distinctions between the two sports have now blurred.

However, despite the recent transformations of football and rugby union which have arguably opened up these sports to a broader spectrum of social classes, social class was widely perceived to play a central role in determining local sporting allegiances. Nearly three-quarters of respondents (61/85) explicitly linked sporting preferences to social class differences based on schooling and/or acquired wealth. Some respondents drew class distinctions based on levels of ‘economic capital’ (Bourdieu 2010); it was described how rugby fans were simply more ‘middle’ or ‘upper’ class – more ‘wealthy’, ‘moneyed’, ‘better off’, ‘well to do’ or a ‘higher’ or ‘better’ class, possibly travelling into matches from the county, and football fans were more ‘working class’ or ‘less wealthy’ and could be assumed to be more city based. This challenges Bottero’s (2004) claims that people will usually deny class identities and adopt an ‘ambivalent’ or ‘defensive’ attitude towards class labels as sporting preferences were clearly linked to social class differences. In the sports context, social class did not appear to be an ’embarrassing topic’ (Sayer 2002, 1.2), with many rugby union fans keen to self-identify as ‘middle class’ and stating in a matter-of-fact way how rugby union remains: ‘very much still a White middle class sport…the people who are interested in rugby are a very small socio-economic group of the city or county’ (R29).

ii) Rivalry Between Local Football and Rugby Union Fans

Many of the football respondents felt that they were ‘under scrutiny’ from middle class rugby fans. They claimed they were variously labelled by rugby fans as: ‘thugs’, ‘riff-raff’, ‘hooligans’ and ‘oddities’. By the same token, rugby fans typically regarded themselves (it was said) as both a superior type of fandom and people. This sort of oppositional class conflict, played out by women in the cultural arena of sport, provoked a barely hidden antipathy articulated in class terms, especially among football fans:

I think they consider themselves to be a higher class of fan, don’t they? They consider that it’s a gentleman’s game, don’t they? So I think that rugby fans would see themselves as a slightly higher level of fan than a football fan…I think that they do really think that they are a different kind of fan; a gentlemanly fan I think. (F32, Age 50, season ticket holder, trade union official, Dad=in the building trade, mum=caretaker)

Skeggs (1997) in her earlier study of White working class women argues that it is an ‘imaginary’ ‘middle class’ that ‘working class’ women aspire to. The middle classes were often a source of ridicule and contempt, behaving in ways they did not want to be associated with, such as talking too much, and ordering things in a ‘hoity toity’ manner, so ‘working class’ women did not want to take on the whole package of middle class dispositions. In a similar vein, female football respondents described rugby fans using terms such as ‘civilized’, ‘reserved’, ‘refined’, and who were ‘well behaved’ at matches. Rugby union fans also described themselves using such terms. But many football fans did not want to take on these traits and critiqued the ‘calm’ (F8) and withdrawn behaviour typically exhibited at rugby matches: ‘Boring people go to rugby and the people with lots of energy go to football’ (F33).

Football and rugby union fans certainly seemed to define their sporting practices or lifestyles in opposition to one another. Some rugby union fans claimed football fans constitute the ‘rougher crowd’ and described football fans as ‘thuggish’ or ‘thug-looking’, ‘violent’, ‘aggressive’ and those who take part in hooliganism. There was a tendency to generalize yobbishness to all football fans and gentlemanly behaviour to all rugby equivalents. R9 for example says: ‘I just don’t like football fans, I think they’re evil’, and R20 confessed: ‘You sort of come across football fans; I’ve no desire to mix with that really’.

Rugby union’s ‘middle class’ heritage and historical association with amateurism and football’s ‘working class’ history and connections with hooliganism, has no doubt contributed to the widely held view held amongst rugby fans that football harbours violent followers, generating friction and general hostility between supporters. But it could also be suggested that ‘taste’ in rugby union is used to signify distinction and the lifestyles of rugby union fans were perceived as more ‘distinguished’ than those of ‘vulgar’ football fans (Bourdieu 2010: 168). The sense that there was a hierarchy for rugby union fans who ‘don’t want to mix with the riff-raff’ (F2), helped to generate a general division between ‘them and us’ (F35):

I think the football is a bit more of a working class game than the rugby. The rugby [fans] tend to look down their nose at football supporters…If we’ve got a game on the same day, they’ll walk past you with their nose in the air if you’ve got a football shirt on…I think they see football fans as hooligans…There’s quite a lot of animosity in Leicester between football and rugby, I think there’s just accepted hatred…It’s just accepted that they’re the rugby and we’re the football and there’s no room to mingle. (F14, Age 37, season ticket holder, tenancy support worker, Dad=electrician, Mum=packer).

The class distinctions between supporters also prompted different responses in terms of what constitutes acceptable forms of fandom. These findings show that such struggles for legitimacy, i.e. which sports are appropriate, who should play these sports and how they should be played (Donnelly and Harvey 2007) can be extended to spectatorship and how sports should be watched. Football fans argued that their highly expressive and passionate styles of support, and their intense rivalries with opposition fans (including in a small number of cases violence against other fans) was actually superior to the ‘reined-in’ repressed forms of fandom typically exhibited by stiff-lipped rugby fans. 28 out of 51 female football fans described how they enjoyed the segregated home and away fans. With no away fans there is no distinctive football ‘atmosphere’ (Giulianotti 1999: 69). This fan intensity also highlighted the importance attached to the match; for F10, ‘It does make the matches a lot more exciting, and there’s a lot more riding on it’. Many football fans described the behaviour of rugby union fans as ‘bizarre’ or ‘too regimented and strict’ and thus the rugby approach to fandom was ‘boring’ and not the best way of showing committed support for your team.

But for many rugby union fans, fan segregation in football and the general match day atmosphere was criticised with just over half (18/34) using negative terms such as ‘unsafe’, ‘threatening’ and ‘intimidating’ to describe the environment at football. Rugby union’s residual amateur ethos and ‘upper’ and ‘middle’ class heritage (Collins 2009) in contrast to football’s early professionalism and historically ‘working class’ background could help to explain the different perspectives around how sports should be played and watched. Light and Kirk (2001) found that rugby union players were expected to be ruthlessly competitive but even in defeat should shake hands with opponents and mix socially. For Bourdieu (1978: 823-824) this is a marker of the dominant social classes and such a show of detachment confirms that despite the ‘will to win’ it is important not to get so carried away as to forget ‘it is a game’. This is in opposition to the ‘plebeian pursuit of victory at all costs’. Thus, for football supporters creating an intimidating atmosphere for the opposing team was ‘part of the game’ (F35).

It might be suggested that much of this has concerned class rather than gender distinctions. Some studies have claimed that ‘working class’ self-identity in Britain is highly gendered, for example, Bottero (2005: 113) posits that the importance of manual work in working class men’s lives has helped to shape their masculinities as well as the identity of the working class and Surridge (2007) found that men were nearly three times more likely than women to say they ‘feel’ ‘working class’. However, these findings challenge assumptions that women are less likely to feel a strong sense of ‘working class’ identity as class affiliations are shown to play a prominent role in women’s identities – certainly in the cultural arena of sport.

Phillips (1998) notes that it is increasingly recognised that class should be seen as being in part constituted through gender relations. Gender, along with race, ethnicity and sexuality are important constituents of social recognition, self-identity and cultural differentiation. However, studies have shown that female sports fans will often downplay their gender identities in order to reinforce their fan identities as sports fandom is defined in ‘male terms’ (Jones 2008: 520). In the UK the recent transformations that have occurred in football post-1989 which have led to more middle class interest in the sport have coincided with rising numbers of female fans at matches, meaning that females have been directly associated with the alleged recent gentrification of the football crowd. This association of female fans with the increasing movement of middle class fans into the sport has prompted some resistance from male working class fans, with female fans typically perceived as ‘inauthentic’ in their support (Pope 2012). Thus, female football fans may emphasise their ‘working class’ credentials in performing class based identities in the belief that this ensures ‘gains in distinction’ (Bourdieu 2010: 12) or authenticity and credibility as a supporter.


There is very little existing research on the cross sport perceptions of sports fans or on the topic of female sports fandom so this paper makes an original contribution to sociological research. Despite the transformations that have occurred in football and rugby union in the UK in recent years which might be expected to have produced something of a convergence of appeal across the social classes, the findings showed that social class played a prominent role in shaping sporting preferences in Leicester, the case study site for the research, and thus rugby union and football remained strongly segmented in terms of their class appeal.

Bottero (2004: 999) has argued that ‘class’ and ‘class conflict’ is less significant as a feature of personal identity today and suggests that most commentators would accept Savage’s (2000) suggestion that social class is no longer a major source of people’s identity and group belonging. These findings are therefore sociologically important as they directly challenge such claims. Bottero (2004: 987) draws on evidence from various researchers to suggest that British people will refuse to position themselves ‘within’ social classes and will ‘shrug off’ class labels. Here it is claimed that people will be reluctant to claim class identities and will adopt a ‘defensive’ or ‘ambiguous’ attitude towards class labels. However, my findings showed that in the cultural arena of sport, social class was an important source of people’s identity. Respondents openly attributed their own (and others) sporting preferences to class based distinctions and the rivalry that emerged between the two sets of supporters could also be attributed to social class differences. Thus, perhaps sports fandom represents a unique space whereby it is somehow acceptable to discuss class identities and where people feel comfortable in labelling others on the basis of their perceived social class in a way that would not be appropriate in other areas of their lives.

Clearly there is a need for further research to explore this largely neglected area. It is important to acknowledge that the findings presented in this paper are based on one case study city and thus cannot be generalised to other regions. However, future research could examine cross sport perceptions of supporters in other UK cities and worldwide to see how these findings compare to other case study regions. It is hoped that this exploratory study will pave the way for more comparative research of this kind.

Dr. Stacey Pope is a Lecturer in the School of Applied Social Sciences at Durham University. She is especially interested in issues of gender and sport. Her research has incorporated the sociology of football and rugby union; comparative research in sports fandom; the meaning and importance of sport for women; and the formative experiences of females across different generations. She has published widely on the topic of female sports fandom.

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