The psychology and economy of the off season
In behavioural economics there’s a concept called ‘scarcity’. Boiling it down to over-simplified terms, it says that if you lack something – time or money for example – you’re less able to make good decisions. That’s why people on low incomes can struggle to be sensible with their spending, or why people on gameshows blurt out ridiculous answers when the clock starts ticking.
It couples with the standard laws of supply and demand – the more people that want a finite resource, the more it’ll cost – to create some bizarre outcomes. Say, a pony-tailed English-born centre forward with half a good season under his belt, and a price of £35million.
The imposition of a transfer window created this sense of scarcity of time. With all transfer business hemmed into two short periods of the year, buying clubs begin the process with that countdown clock already ticking in their heads, that scarcity of time already playing on their decision making. Selling clubs, on the other hand, know that the louder that ticking gets, the higher the price will ratchet – understandably, they bide their time.
The transfer window is a perfect example of a change in regulation which had unintended consequences once the behaviour of people was taken into account. The window was intended to stop teams chopping and changing players throughout the season, and to prevent bigger clubs from constantly poaching talent. A secondary purpose was to encourage teams to bring through homegrown talent – the logic being, if a team knows it can’t bring someone in at a moments notice, they’ll pay more attention to their squad depth.
Well, they do, but not quite in the way the authorities might have expected. Arsene Wenger points to the transfer window as forcing managers to in fact be more conservative with their squads. Wenger’s argument was that young players are a gamble and football is a results business – you might go a month with a player trying to prove themselves, but if it doesn’t work out you don’t want to be lumbered with them until the window opens in another three months’ time. Because of that, development spots in a top flight squad are going to be limited, and only the dead certainties for a starting berth will find themselves with a regular slot.
Of course, much of that pressure for results comes from fans. Here there’s another behavioural concept called the ‘peak/end effect’. This one says that you remember extreme cases, and the most recent cases and base your judgement on those alone, not on the whole body of evidence. This is where the football fan’s famously fickle mindset comes from – you remember the misplaced pass, but forget the previous 20 that were completed without fanfare.
At the end of a season, you remember the 5-0 home victory, and the 6-0 away defeat, but you forget all the 0-0 draws in the cold and the rain that came with them.
That explains why you keep buying a season ticket.
Habit and social norms also play a role here. If you bought a season ticket last year, and the year before and the year before – you’re more likely to let inertia carry you into buying one this year too. Even though deep down you know your dreams are unlikely to come true. And if everyone who sits around you is buying one again, and so is everyone you drink with before the match and everyone you talk about it with at work the next day, you’re more likely to get one yourself.
We are at our base level social creatures – that’s why we live in cities, feel safest in family units, and why we always park next to the only other car in the car park. That camaraderie, sense of community and sense of identity, are powerful motivators.
All of which is to say that almost no one in football, from owners down to fans, is a rational actor. We’re all acting and making decisions under the influence of some form of bias, which because this is football, tends to stack up to the same slightly irrational belief that this is gonna be our year.
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