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Liverpool fans with scarves

“Some people think football is a matter of life and death. I assure you, it’s much more serious than that.” Bill Shankly, Liverpool Manager

One of many quotes around football that you read and possibly dismiss as utter nonsense. How can anyone imagine that a simple sporting game can be THAT important. Well, if you look at the images on TV of the thousands of grown men (and women!) that are reduced to tears at the end of the footballing season when their team gets relegated to a lower league for the following year, you will see just how much it means to them.

As we head in to the 2018 World Cup in Russia full of the usual optimism and pessimism in equal abundance at England’s chances of not only progressing out of the group stages but also further than the quarter finals, it is perhaps worth looking at just how serious football is.

It is one of the only sports where you will see billionaire Russian, Arab and Chinese magnates willing to spend their time at the same cold, draughty stadiums as the guy from the factory, office, or the apprentice builder – it truly crosses all class barriers and for that 90 minutes, they have more in common that not.

It’s more than a game – revenue generation:

Setting aside the game itself, and the wages of the players themselves – which is a whole different matter – when looking at football and the wider impact of the industry, and particularly the Premier League, research carried out by EY and published in 2015 which looked at the 2013/14 season, showed that in revenue terms, it is the third largest league in the world behind US Major League Baseball and National Football League (American Football).

When taking into account revenue generated from television rights, ticket sales and other associated commercial activities such as shirt sales, EY’s report records that more than £6.2billion worth of economic output was generated by the Premier League, contributing £3.4billion to the overall UK GDP in the 2013/14 season.

In terms of direct taxes, whilst it is arguable just how any single player can command the wages they do, there is no doubt that the government does benefit from the high salaries paid by the Premier League – in 2013/14, employee PAYE contributions stood at £941million and employee NIC at £276million employee along with employer NI contributions of £475million. Unlike some other corporations, it would appear that the Premier League clubs do at least pay their corporation tax – some £298million in the 2013/14 season as well as business rates of £25million.

It’s more than a game – employment

Given the popularity of the game in the UK, it is unsurprising that the Premier League also supported the employment of over 100,000 FTE (full time equivalent) jobs in 2013/14. The Premier League itself directly employed 99 people whilst the clubs employed a further 6,140. The indirect effect of the Premier League and clubs means that over 65,000 FTE jobs have been created in the Premier League and the clubs’ supply chain, notably in labour intensive sectors such as hospitality and catering as well as retailing which are very much required in supporting matchday activities.

It’s more than a game – social inclusion

In the 2013/14 season, the average attendance at Premier League games stood at 36,691 which was an increase of 74% against the 1992/93 season’s figure of 21,125. What is perhaps surprising is that the number of females attending a Premier League game in 2014/15 was recorded as 26% according to EY’s report (maybe if you can’t beat them, you join them?!) which is more than the number attending from black, Asian or minority ethnic groups which was 17%. Despite not always having the best reputation for being family friendly places to be on a Saturday afternoon, 12% of all season ticket holders were under-16.

It is perhaps outside of Premier League game days themselves where football has its widest reach. In the UK alone, in 2014/15, over 546,000 young people were engaged on community projects led by the footballing community of the Premier League, Football league and Conference Club, including 18,917 girls participating in the Premier League Girls Football programme across 450 locations and 137,000 youngsters involved in the Premier League Kicks programme organised at 50 Premier and Football League Club. What’s more, there were 4,158 schools engaged with Premier League sport and education programmes.

Most clubs across all levels of the game have a community side to their business models whereby they run outreach programmes in schools and community projects, often aimed at disadvantaged or socially challenged areas in their respective neighbourhoods. These outreach programmes have been used to good effect in some of the London areas covered by the likes of Millwall and Charlton Athletic. Independent research carried out on behalf of Millwall by Substance in 2015 concluded that the minimum value the work undertaken particularly based in the two London Boroughs of Lewisham and Southwark was £7,156,449.50 in cost savings to society with the biggest impact on substance abuse, crime, education, health and NEET status (young person Not in Education). Similarly Charlton’s initiative Street Violence Ruins Lives (SVRL) which has been held up as a model of best practice for other football clubs.

There are many other examples across the country where the positive effect of using sport and specifically football based activities has had a dramatic effect on the community: Manchester City’s report into their community activities over the last 30 years showed that their Kicks programme reaches 500 young people per week. Delivered weekly across 8 sites, analysis also showed that Anti-Social Behaviour (ASB) fell by 18% when comparing data from the 12 months before the delivery of the programme. This contrasted with a 1% rise in ASB across the same period in Manchester as a whole.

“Kicks has given me direction in life. It’s a safe place to play football in the community and it’s made me more confident, given me new skills and created opportunities I wouldn’t have had.”
Manchester City Kicks Participant.

Programmes run by the Community Trusts really do have the power to change and save lives.

It is also interesting to note that it is not only with the young that the positive impact and influence of football can be seen. As the population of the UK continues to age and there is an increase in pressure on resources, particularly in relation to healthcare, there has been an increase in the number of older people continuing to enjoy football. In 2016, the Walking Football Association was launched with the aim of inspiring safe and social activity for the over 50s and seeking to have an impact on the physical and mental wellbeing of participants. With the hashtag of #inspiringactivity, it is a way to encourage the older generation to look after their health while having the opportunity to mix with fellow footballers, thereby reducing the sense of isolation that is often found among the elderly. The health benefits for the ‘walkers’ include reducing the risk of cardiovascular disease and strokes, improved blood pressure and blood sugar levels, improved balance and strength as well as boosting self-esteem and confidence. Having watched one the local teams on a couple of occasions now, I can certainly confirm that everyone benefits and if you thought it was not competitive, I can assure you it really is very competitive and the desire to win appears not to diminish with age! There is however a real sense of camaraderie and enjoyment after the game which is as evident as among any of the younger players, perhaps even more so – inclusivity at its best.

It’s more than a game – global social impact

It is not only in the UK that football has such an integral part in educating and developing the youth. This is replicated globally and many of the millionaire footballers in the Premier League and elsewhere are involved in projects in other countries designed at improving the lives of the children in poorer communities. The Premier League’s Premier Skills programme in association with the British Council has benefitted 26 other countries.

UEFA Foundation for Children is also involved in across the world using sport to better the lives of children. At the end of March 2018, “Beyond the Green Pitch” was one such project launched with their financial support by the Instituto Fazer Acontecer, based in Salvador de Bahia. Founded in 2003, the Instituto promotes sports activities and training in human rights to young people living in disadvantaged areas. The main idea is to use football to educate through play and fun, providing opportunities for social inclusion and development of personal skills to the young participants in the programme. Football3 methodology is already used in 16 municipalities and reaches young adults in the rural areas where most of the challenges lie. Combining sport with environmental awareness activities works as a tool for effective social change in the target communities and provides education in human rights, establishing a relationship of respect and a feeling of being respected and of belonging in the community.

The Instituto Fazer Acontecer plans to extend its action to reach an additional 15 municipalities with the financial support of the UEFA Foundation for Children. The project aim is to:

  • train 300 instructors in football3 methodology and in combining football with environmental awareness activities;
  • involve 900 young people (boys and girls) aged between 11 and 17 from 15 municipalities in the programme.

The indirect impact of the training instructors and involving the young people is that they estimate a ripple effect will reach a further 5,000 people (families, institutions and communities).

Tackle Africa is another organisation that specifically uses the power and popularity of football – this time to deliver sexual health education since football is recognised as a s great way to engage with young people which is something that regional health programmes and clinics often struggle with. Tackle Africa provides a platform for regular health education with a respected and informed coach and creates a safe environment for young people to discuss sensitive issues as well as providing access to youth friendly services such as HIV testing and counselling. As HIV is still the number one killer of adolescents in Africa, Tackle Africa’s programmes target HIV and related sexual and reproductive health rights issues – including contraception, family planning, gender-based violence (including FGM and child marriage) and girls’ empowerment.  Building resilience to HIV often requires a holistic approach that helps young people overcome challenges in their communities, and their programmes aim to give young people the tools to take control of their own sexual health.

It is definitely more than just a game as the programmes like Tackle Africa and Street Violence Ruins Lives demonstrate and whilst the amounts of money involved is eye-wateringly high, there is no doubt that the lasting and far reaching social impact goes beyond what most people ever perhaps think of. I believe it truly is life-changing and life-affirming.

Suzanna Bailes

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