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Can football clubs become the ultimate civic brands?

11.01.2019 Sport : Inclusivity : Culture

A rise in incidents of discrimination on the terraces is driving debate around the game’s role in helping to tackle major societal issues.

Real Madrid kit made from recycled plastic by Adidas Real Madrid kit made from recycled plastic by Adidas

As businesses step up to act as forces for good in society, football clubs should be doing the same, rather than shying away from difficult issues.

Adam Steel, senior writer, The Future Laboratory

Football has long had an image problem, but a recent rise in incidents of discrimination on the terraces is serving to renew debate about the game’s role in helping to tackle key societal issues.

According to anti-racism body Kick It Out, incidents of racism, homophobia and other forms of discrimination are up by 38% in England’s top four leagues compared to this time last season. When the top four tiers of non-league football, grassroots games and social media are also taken into account, the increase in incidents of discrimination related to football rises to 59%.

The professional game is leaving a lot to be desired when it comes to combatting these issues. Funding is one case in point, with the Premier League now donating just under £280,000 annually to Kick It Out, despite its last three-season tv rights deal netting the organisation £5.14bn. More clarity, meanwhile, needs to be brought to reporting processes. A global survey released by Kick It Out and the live-score app Forza Football revealed that 50% of UK fans say they have witnessed abuse, but only 40% know how to report it.

Underpinning this limited action, and putting the brakes on any real progress, is the sense that discrimination needs to be tackled by society first and football second – suggesting that change will come only once wider communities are more inclusive, with football merely a reflection of society.

It’s a view also held by those in the game. As former England and Liverpool player John Barnes tells The Guardian: ‘Change it in society and it will change in football, not the other way around. But because football is media attentive, you are looking at football to drive society. You cannot do that.’

Real Madrid has created a kit made from recycled plastic, while Lewes FC has started paying its men’s and women’s teams an equal wage.
Real Madrid kit made from recycled plastic by Adidas Real Madrid kit made from recycled plastic by Adidas

However, as businesses increasingly step up to act as forces for good in society, football clubs should be doing the same, rather than shying away from engaging with difficult issues. I would argue that football clubs are uniquely placed to make an impact on society and drive it forward, instead of the other way around.

Like other leading businesses, football clubs have huge global audiences and loyal fanbases, with the Premier League alone watched by 4.7bn people across the world, according to the British Council. They also have inherent links to local communities, enabling them to communicate and engage with their audiences in an authentic way.

A number of fan-backed movements at grassroots level are demonstrating to bigger clubs exactly the kind of initiatives that can affect this change. Lewes FC has started paying its men’s and women’s teams an equal wage. Non-league Clapton CFC, meanwhile, recently achieved viral fame with its ethically produced anti-fascist away shirt commemorating the Spanish Republic, receiving 5,000 pre-orders for the garment.

If this is the impact at lower- and non-league levels, imagine what clubs at the top of the football ladder could achieve through similar campaigns. It could prove truly game-changing, shedding invaluable light on certain issues and helping to kick others into touch for good.

Encouragingly, there is a growing precedent for this kind of action from within the highest echelons of football, with Brighton & Hove Albion becoming the first Premier League football club to provide female fans with free sanitary goods last year, driving a more inclusive attitude around the sport. Beyond the UK, Real Madrid has prioritised sustainability as its civic-impact area, working with kit sponsor adidas and environmental organisation Parley for the Oceans to create a kit made from recycled plastic.

Those football clubs that adopt similarly innovative initiatives and embrace a civic role can become relevant across sectors and engage on a deeper level with the 65% of consumers who, according to research from Havas Group, believe businesses bear as much responsibility as governments for driving social change.

For more on how your brand can step in as a force for good in society, explore our Civic Brands macrotrend.

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