Signed, sealed, delivered

A lovely little example of how elite professional footballers are viewed by (some) young people and the extent to which their very presence can generate awe. It’s also interesting to see how a) the two boys glance at the camera before pulling their ‘OMG’ poses b) signatures might still be a commodity in the digital age!!


Reaching out with role models

The National Literacy Trust have just send us details of a piece of research they carried out a few year’s ago concerning young people’s role models. The trust was interested in finding out about the kind of role models that could be used to inspire young people to read. Interestingly, while the largest number choose their parents as their primary role models, outside the immediate social environment, sportspeople and, in particular, footballers were mentioned most often.

This is a summary of their findings;

The study found that 78% of children and young people have a role model. These come predominantly from within the immediate family. A fifth of pupils spontaneously mentioned that their role model is either their mum or dad. Sportspersons, footballers in particular, are the most frequently mentioned role model after the immediate social environment. More girls than boys have role models (82% vs. 75%). Girls are also more likely to choose role models from within the immediate family, while more boys chose a sportsperson. Primary pupils were more likely to have role models than secondary ones (81.4% vs. 76.5%), and more likely to say that having a role model who likes reading is important (39% vs.16%). Role models from the immediate family figure prominently for all ages, but more secondary than primary pupils say that their role model is a sportsperson or musician. When the data was examined according to allocation of FSMs, role models from the immediate family figured prominently in the choice of both pupils receiving FSMs and those who are not. However, sports figures were particularly prominent for FSM pupils, who were over twice as likely to choose a sports figure as a role model (15% vs 6.5%) Cultural background, gender, age and celebrity status are largely not important characteristics of a role model. Instead, most choose a role model because of their internal qualities, such as being hard-working, honest and kind/caring. By contrast, only a quarter of children and young people believe that their role model needs to be famous, a reader, good-looking or make lots of money. When asked about figures that could inspire reading, again the immediate family are the most prominent figures, followed by their friends and teacher. The immediate family are the most important in inspiring reading for both boys and girls, but more boys than girls said that a sportsperson, politician, religious figure or cool kids at school inspire them to read. Primary pupils are generally more likely to say that a range of people are very important people who inspire them to read,  while friends at school are prominent in inspiring reading for secondary pupils.

Although the sample size was impressive (2176) there are a couple of methodological issues that might be flagged, notably with regard to the use of questionnaires for this type of research. First, while they are excellent for capturing simple responses to ‘who’ or ‘what’ questions, they don’t always allow you to answer, in any great depth, the key question of why (why are these people role models, why might this or that person inspire you to read). Second, with an issue such as this (reading, role models),  there is a tendency for respondents to offer socially desirable answers, such as ‘my mum/dad is a role model’, ‘reading is important’, ‘role models should be honest and hard-working’ and so on – and there is relatively little researchers can do to probe these responses. Therefore, what we hope to achieve with our research (which is qualitative and much more interested in exploring people’s experiences and attitudes in detail through a series of discussions and exercises) is an understanding of some of these key ‘why’ questions – notwithstanding our very small sample size!!

Are elite football’s community programmes part of the ‘new philanthropy’?

According to the PFA (Professional Footballer’s Association) an official programme of community engagement by professional football clubs began in 1986. As their website notes;

‘the PFA were instrumental in setting up Football in the Community Programmes. Originally based at six clubs in the North West, former players were recruited to re-energise those troubled communities when the game was at its lowest ebb’

The reference to ‘its lowest ebb’ is a rather coy nod to the mismanagement, poor facilities and hooliganism that blighted the game in the 1980’s culminating in the Heysel, Hillsborough and Bradford disasters and repeated attempts by the Conservative governments to ‘police the game‘ in ever more draconian ways.

The seismic transformation of professional football since 1989 has been well documented as has the money now pouring into the game primarily as a result of revenues from the media.  For instance, the latest domestic TV deal generated £5 billion for the Premier League. Allied to this rapid growth in money, profile and popularity is the expansion of the sport’s community programmes with around £7 million being spent by the PFA alone and professional footballers now taking part in almost 40,000 appearances at various ‘community’ events. The Premier League, FA and Department for Culture, Media & Sport also spend millions each year on grassroots football through the Football Foundation.

Allied to this expenditure is the fact that football authorities have become increasingly proactive about promoting the work that they do. As the Premier League website notes (in a statement that is particularly pertinent for this project!!),

“Premier League Communities supports clubs in their role as hubs at the heart of their communities. Effective partnerships are built that underpin club delivery of a wide range of activities for young people”

Elsewhere, the PFA is even more florid, arguing that ‘the modern professional footballer seeks to embrace current social issues, community cohesion and other charitable initiatives‘. It’s no doubt true that many players do take their community work very seriously and make concerted attempts to get involved in a range of beneficial projects. However, in trying to think about the place of football in contemporary society, and the apparent correlation between a rise in revenues and the expansion of community engagement we wondered whether some of these activities could be viewed as forms of modern-day philanthropy?

Philanthropy – ‘love of mankind and good nature’ according to Samuel Johnson – is often associated with the Victorian era whether in the form of benevolent societies, dedicated charities or, most notably, the largese of individual entrepreneurs who contributed to the building of libraries, schools, hospitals and other facilities.  Much of this work was rooted in a religious tradition and while historians and others have debated its effectiveness in material and moral terms, it was also a useful way of managing one’s public profile, both within the corridors of power and across wider society.

More recently,  academics and others have began to note the emergence of new forms of philanthropy, often involving ‘entrepreneurs’ who made their fortunes working in finance, IT and the media. Often the motivations and actions of these individuals and organisations are seen to be somewhat different from those in the past. In the first case, there religion is much less of a driving force although many philanthropists still talk in terms of morality. In the second, their activities are more professionalized and often focus on building partnerships, and even generating revenues, rather than simply giving away money.

What connects these activities with those in the past and, perhaps, with professional football is that they are taking place against a backdrop of rising inequality. According to the Equality Trust, the UK is the most unequal developed country in Europe and the fourth most unequal in the world. Likewise, since 1977 the Gini-coefficient (which measures inequality) has risen from 0.24 (where 0 is perfect equality) in 1977 to 0.34 in 2012. A similar process is happening in football where the elite division, the Premier League is becoming richer and richer, while the rest of the football pyramid (and notably the grassroots) is struggling to stay solvent.

These disparities can also be seen in players’ wages where those in the top tier raked in £1.9 billion in the 2013-4 season. In 2011, the Daily Mail reported that Premier League footballers earned five times more than those in the second tier and 30 times more than those in League Two (the fourth tier). However, these figures pale into insignificance if one compares average wages between top-flight footballers, who now earn an average of £31,000 a week, and your average worker in the UK who takes home £26500 a year. Now, some argue that elite players are worth every penny they are paid because, like major film stars or singers, they put bums on seats, sell merchandise and generate profits for employers. The key issue for football is that while the players are, of course, fundamental (and ever larger amounts of revenue comes from TV deals and associated sponsorship), much of the colour and excitement of the game comes from fans who are – by and large- based in the local area. And this is where the community programmes seem to come in, as this blurb from Manchester City’s (7th richest club in the world, highest average wage for a sports team) website indicates;

‘Social responsibility is deep seated in our Club’s heritage and essential in its future, and in this City in the Community plays a central role. Everyone involved with Manchester City in any capacity is part of the ‘City family’. Together we share and work to resolve issues and develop hope and aspiration across the community’

In this way, such programmes serve as both a useful counter against accusations of exploitation (we do give something back) but also enable sporting elites (players, teams, authorities) to gain at least some of the moral high ground in the face of spiraling revenues (and wages), growing inequality and some of the more dubious activities this may engender.

Another feature of these activities is the extent to which they are taking up some of the slack in the provision of sports activities, healthcare, education, skills and enterprise training as a result of wider government cutbacks. Just as an earlier generation of philanthropists provided public amenities in areas where the state was unable or unwilling to act, so professional sports clubs have taken over some of the services once provided by, say, local councils. Indeed, this is something that was highlighted in the government’s recent consultation on sport where there is a specific section on ‘philanthropy and fundraising’.  The fact that the clubs offer services that benefit local people is, no doubt, a good thing. However, relying on private organisations to replace the activities of statutory bodies is something that should be carefully scrutinized.

While these views may sound a little cynical, the notion that elite football clubs and players may be involved in a new wave of philanthropy offers a useful way of thinking about the increased focus on community activities. In other words, we want to try and answer the question of why clubs bother with programmes that cost time, effort and money, when they are certainly not required to offer anything. Observing the growing divisions across society and across football and the ways in which elite clubs are increasingly orientating their activities to global audiences and sponsors, a little local philanthropy may go a long way.

A new strategy for sport

The Department for Culture, Media & Sport has just released a new consultation paper on sport. Partly this is because the last one took place over a decade ago and much of the social and economic landscape has changed since then, notably with regard to funding cuts and the impact of digital technologies. Partly, this is because there is some concern over falling participation rates in sport after a brief post-Olympic spike. As the Minister for Sport, Tracey Crouch writes;

‘This is why we need a new sport strategy. It is time to recognise the importance of
sport and be clear how we are going to make it an integral part of our everyday lives … In developing a new strategy we will need to re-think the traditional ways of funding sport participation. We need to embrace technology and appreciate the power it has to get people active. We need to consider how we make sure that everyone – no matter who they are and no matter what their ability – has the opportunity to take part. As part of this we need to ensure that sport is designed to meet the demands of consumers, who each have different motivations and engage with sport in different ways’

Interesting that technology is seen as an enabler in this vision (given the amount of debate around its impact on decreasing activity rates, notably among the young) and that we are now simply dealing with ‘consumers’. Not citizens, not communities, not people but those who just buy stuff. Beyond this, the following bits and pieces caught our eye, particularly in terms of how they relate to this project on how football impacts on and is integrated into the lives of young people.

Sport for social good

Sport also has a positive impact on integration, bringing together groups and individuals who might not otherwise interact. During the 2012 Olympic and Paralympic Games, we saw the power of sport to bring people together. But it doesn’t have to be major global events. A local sports club can play just as important a role ensuring that everyone playing has a common goal and a shared interest, showing that sport can be an excellent way to bring together those of different backgrounds.

Young people

Promoting physical activity – The Chief Medical Officers have recommended that young people aged 5 to 18 should be undertaking at least 60 minutes of moderate to vigorous intensity physical activity every day. The importance of physical activity and sport in a child’s routine cannot be overstated.

It is vital that there are strong links in place between schools and community clubs so that all children and young people are aware of other opportunities on offer and feel comfortable crossing from one environment to another.

Income distribution

There are a number of sports that have benefited from lucrative TV deals in recent
years. While Premier League football is the prime example, it is by no means the only one. Their success has come in part from developing a successful and marketable brand, and we would not want to do anything that would undermine that. However, their success also comes in part from the broader success and popularity of the sport, something that no NGB or commercial organisation can own. With the success of trading on a public good like sport comes a responsibility to maintain that sport at all levels and for a range of participants including under-represented groups such as women and disabled people. There are some excellent examples of sports reinvesting money generated through the sale of their TV rights into the grassroots, but as income increases further so should the benefits seen at every level.

Coaching, workforce and good governance 

How to ensure that sports coaching is as effective as possible, at grassroots
and elite level, with diverse representation and reduced barriers to entry, and
that coaches are given the necessary training to work with a variety of clients,
including children, older people and disabled people

High quality coaching can be the thing that makes the difference between building a
sporting habit for life and putting someone off sport for life. It is the whole front-line workforce however, that plays a role in creating the right environment for individuals to feel that sport and activity are for them. It is therefore crucial that all staff in a role promoting physical activity, including those in direct contact with the public, have the skills and the continuous professional development they need.
In this context, it is important that sport participants are seen as consumers and that their needs are taken into account. This is not just about technical coaching skills, but also the soft, human skills, behaviours and attitudes which can make the difference between someone wanting to come back and someone feeling that sport is not for them.

Elite and professional sport

Inspirational Athletes – All funded athletes have been asked to give up to 5 days a year to inspire children and young people to get involved in sport. UK Sport manages and monitors this athlete volunteering work via the sports’ governing bodies. The December 2014 survey of this activity confirmed athletes had given more than 10,000 days and the latest survey confirms this has since passed 12,000 days. Future plans include introducing a self reporting app for athletes to report their activities directly.

Professional sport

Given its popularity, reach and influence, football is often looked at differently to other sports. While this should not always be the case there are specific areas where government does have a direct interest and can work to make positive changes. The Coalition Agreement of 201011 and the Culture, Media and Sport Select Committee Football Governance Inquiry in 2011/12 and follow-up in 2013 both recognised the value and growing popularity of supporter ownership, and the need to encourage its further development. In response to this, the Expert Group on Supporter Ownership and Engagement was established in October 2014, with the mandate: “to identify solutions to current barriers preventing greater collective supporter share ownership of football clubs and explore the greater facilitation of supporter engagement and involvement in the governance and running of football clubs”.

‘The lost soul of the beautiful game’?

I’ve just finished reading Lee Price’s book ‘Turning my back on the Premier League‘. In it, Price, a long-term Manchester United fan, recounts his experience of following the English League 2 side Dagenham & Redbridge after becoming disillusioned with the hyperbole and spiraling budgets of the Premier League. It’s a fairly standard tale of mediocre football and facilities leavened with the growing feeling of belonging to something meaningful and authentic. At one point, Price writes about his grandfather who watches MK Dons on a regular basis and explains his support in the following terms;

‘I don’t just go there for the result, the winning. It’s for the friendship and everything else we got there. Sure we moan and complain when things aren’t going our way like the best of them – but we’re still there the next week. as much as for the friends we’ve made as anything else. I’ve become a hardened supporter because I’m part of something’

Price then writes, ‘that something is a group, a collective … the notion of a football club being the centre point of a community isn’t a new or novel idea but it’s something I’d never experienced quite so profoundly while following Manchester United’. Subsequently, he goes on to talk about conversations he has had with his own younger brother who lives in Milton Keynes and supports Chelsea. The reason being, ‘the Dons are rubbish’.

As Prices notes, these ideas, around community, belonging and authenticity and the ways in which they are tied to football-related activities, are not new. Much has been made of the deterritorialisation of English professional football as the top tier of clubs now generate support from around the globe rather than a local city or region. Likewise, many of these arguments are framed by a local=authentic / global=ersatz dichotomy and an acknowledgement of the growing power of media to shape understandings of the game. For instance, the Price’s brothers’ allegiances  are almost certainly informed by the success Manchester United and Chelsea were having (and the media coverage they received) in the 90’s and 2000’s, respectively.  Asides from these features, and Price makes useful reference to them all in his book, what struck me about this particular discussion was the generational differences in what the respective members of the Price family were hoping to get from football. Grandfather was less interested in winning and more concerned about friendship and community. For the younger brother winning was presumably everything, part of the need to mark himself out as a ‘winner’ (through association) in the formative years of his life. Price, himself, represented something of a cross-roads between the two. Formerly enchanted by the magic of the Manchester United team (and brand), he was now beginning seek something else, something more authentic, local and ‘real’.

The life cycle of football fans has been noted before. For instance, where there is no strong family association with a club children often switch allegiances before settling on a team in adolescence. Similarly, a major life transition (moving to a new city, for instance) may prompt a shift in allegiances for the sake of convenience and as a means of building new social networks in an unfamiliar location. However, these existing patterns are often predicated on the assumption that as individuals grow, football will continue to remain a meaningful part of their lives. Whether this will be the case for the next generation remains to be seen as while today’s children retain a healthy interest in playing football and following it through the media, they are increasingly unable to watch the game ‘in the flesh’.

Indeed, as those who attend football matches become increasingly older (with an average age of around 40+), one wonders whether future generations will also see football as a possible source of belonging and community (in the same way that Price and his grandfather do) or if other activities will serve that role, instead?



Celebrate better?

A marketing campaign by the fast food giant McDonalds recently caught our eye as it contributes to the ways in which goal celebrations have become an increasingly elaborate part of the spectacle of both playing and watching football.  In the following video you can see how particular ‘celebrations’ have become so well-known that they have been given their own names!!

As part of the campaign, the company has also produced a couple of interesting ‘features’ that add a further dimension to these activities. Using the ‘knee slide’ and ‘the pitch’ means that the celebrations no longer take place within a game or even on a football pitch. They also mean that you don’t have to play the game, or even really have an interest in football, to participate.

The hashtag associated with the campaign, CelebrateBetter, is also noteworthy. First, it contributes to the idea that people should pay time and attention to their celebrations, rather than, say, getting better at the game itself. Second, it suggests that current efforts aren’t good enough!

Our interest in this aspect of the game is linked to a number of different features; first and foremost, how such celebrations are tied to what academics call mediatization, the idea that everyday activities and social organisations become increasingly orientated towards the media. In the case of football, this would include both the recording of professional games by mainstream media organisations as well as the growing use of mobile phone cameras and social media in relation to grassroots football. Although sporting activities are always a performance of one kind or another, the growing presence of media encourages a particular style of performance that is far more reflexive (participants think about how they should present themselves and devise elaborate routines for celebrating their goals – see below) and extravagant (as players become aware of how others are performing).

Second, the influence of the professional game, and its major stars, on ordinary players. For instance, the following clip shows young children playing for Ajax in the Netherlands copying the celebrations of Cristiano Ronado, the Portuguese superstar who plays for Real Madrid!

Finally, its also worth noting that in some cases, the major objective of the game of football – scoring a goal – actually becomes largely irrelevant as players look to perfect their celebrations instead.

We’re still thinking about what this growing focus on celebrations tells us about contemporary football and social life and would welcome any suggestions. Could we view it, for example, as part of the culture of instant gratification, whereby the harder task (of actually working to score a goal) is avoided in order to focus instead on the relatively easy (and also enjoyable) job of celebration? Or is it just part of the wider culture of surveillance, where every action become orientated towards the ever-present gaze of the camera / social media platform?


Do mention the C-word!!

You may have noticed that the term ‘community’ has become something of a cliche in media and political debates over the last two decades or more. Community leaders are asked to work with community police offers in order to improve community relations in the local community. This will also no doubt contribute to community cohesion. The c-word is vague enough that the speaker or writer doesn’t really have to say who or what is involved but draws in the warm-glow of associated ideas such as trust, reciprocity, belonging and security. As the sociologist Zygmunt Bauman has argued all this talk about community points to a growing uncertainty about what it means to be part of a community in a world where human populations are becoming increasingly mobile and social relations mediated.  In the past when people lived in relatively small groups and were much less mobile, a sense of community was primarily tied to familial and kinship networks, work and, perhaps, religion.  As populations grew and became increasingly urbanized newer forms of community emerged, including those tied to sport. Again, these would have been quite localised prior to the emergence of mass personalised transport in the post-war era. What we have been seeing in the more contemporary era is a decoupling of the link between locality and support for a team, notably as sport has become increasingly mediated and people are able to follow a range of national and international teams and players at a distance. At the same time, it’s interesting to note that the use of the term ‘community’ has also been growing in relation to sport and, in particular, football. For instance, we carried out a content analysis of the UK press using Nexis software and generated the following results;

1995 – 40

2005 – 134

2010 – 142

2011 – 164

2012 – 322

2013 – 380

2014 – 535

2015 – 232 (as of August 2015)

These results show that there has been a notable increase in the number of newspaper reports using the terms ‘community’ and ‘football’. Although we plan to study these results in a little more detail to see how the term ‘community’ is used, the data from the world of football reporting seems to echo that from other spheres. In other words, the increasing discussion of, and emphasis on, community may indicate a growing uncertainty over what community means in the contemporary era and, in this case, what the role of professional football clubs and players should be in underpinning a sense of community.


When did footballer players become role models?

We’ve carried out a very basic content analysis of the UK press to try and see when the idea that football players are role models began to develop. Using Nexis software we searched all reports in UK national newspapers that featured the words ‘f’ootball’ and ‘role models’ at least three times. These are the results;

2015 – 84        2014 – 172           2013 – 70

2012 – 74        2011 – 55             2010 – 49

2009 – 18       2005 – 34           2000 – 5

1995 – 5

It’s a fairly steady upward curve with the notable exception of 2005 (for the record 2004 had 7 reports and 2007 17) – we’re still pondering what might have caused this spike. Initially we thought it might have been connected with the death of George Best but not many of these reports used the term ‘role model’. We were also wondering if the appointment of Jose Mourinho at Chelsea might have impacted on the figures but there doesn’t seem to be too much evidence for this either. We’ll keep working on it and post again when we have a better idea!

However, what we can say is that mentions of footballer players as role models has been growing steadily over the past decade with 2014 being something of a landmark year – here, the Ched Evans case is likely to have prompted much of this debate. As we move into the new season, 2015 is already looking very likely to hit three figures. We’ll be doing some further research around this topic and trying to answering the all important question of why professional football players are increasingly discussed as role models for young people, at least by those who write for the UK press.

FA announces new strategy for grassroots football

The Football Association announced today that it will invest around £260 million in grassroots football over the next four years. Speaking at the announcement, the FA’s chief executive Martin Glenn said: “There are challenges facing grassroots football both in terms of facilities and coaching. Today we have set out how we will tackle the challenges head-on.

“We have identified four key areas in which we have committed to investing £260 million over the next four years – facilities, coaching, participation and developing the football workforce. Our goals are ambitious, but achievable.”


However,  the Guardian’s sports journalist, David Conn argued that very little of this was new money