14 May 2024

Football club loyalties can strengthen inclusive belonging and bridge divides: new research

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New research, working with clubs in the Premier League and EFL, explores the unique power of club football to bridge divides by fostering a shared sense of identity and pride in local towns & cities, across people from different backgrounds.

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Steve Ballinger
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The tribal loyalties of football club identities can play an important role in helping bring people together across social divides, according to new research from British Future. While rivalries between teams may run strong, our local club affiliations can also help to connect diverse communities and strengthen shared local identities.

A new report, Shared Goals: the power of football clubs to connect diverse communities, explores the role of football clubs in bringing people from different ethnic, faith and social backgrounds together through a shared pride in their team and their local area. The research is funded by Spirit of 2012, the London Olympic and Paralympic Games legacy funder.

The report finds that football, often called the ‘universal language’, has unique reach across different sections of society: nearly six in ten adults in England and Wales (57%) support a football club and nearly four in ten (37%) support their local club. Importantly, this audience includes much of our diverse society, reaching across all ethnic groups (with 55% of Asian respondents and 70% of Black respondents supporting a team), social classes, ages and appealing to both men and women. Clubs’ fanbases also span people with different political views and with differing attitudes on issues of immigration and race.

This endows clubs with a potential to increase social connection in their local areas, at a time when other community institutions are becoming scarcer and people have fewer spaces to mix outside their social and political echo chambers. Through their community foundations and in their terraces, clubs can tap into this reach to promote ‘bridging contact’, which research has shown can break down prejudice between people from different walks of life.

Football clubs are also among the strongest symbols of place-based identity. The report finds that support for a local football club can help create a shared, inclusive sense of belonging in diverse and even segregated communities. A majority (80%) of those who attend live games see their local professional football club as an important part of their local identity. This view is shared across ethnic groups, social classes and political tribes.

To fully realise this potential, however, clubs will need to make further progress on inclusion to ensure a welcoming matchday atmosphere for all. The new research finds most people feel their local football club is an inclusive place – but those from ethnic minority backgrounds are slightly less likely to feel that their local club is open to people from all backgrounds (55%) than the public as a whole (64%). Three in ten ethnic minority ‘armchair fans’ (30%) also say they would be interested in going to watch more live matches at their local club, but worry that the atmosphere is not welcoming to people from different ethnic, faith or social backgrounds. Addressing these concerns will require a sustained commitment to kicking racism and prejudice out the game, and to strengthening relations with under-represented sections of a community, for example through fan groups and inclusion campaigns.

Building on this, Shared Goals applied its research in practice, to demonstrate how football clubs can create a welcoming atmosphere and connect their fans across divides. The project partnered with two clubs, Brentford FC in West London and Huddersfield Town AFC in West Yorkshire, holding consultations with fans from different backgrounds to help design campaigns that strengthened social connection and inclusive belonging. Both clubs then produced video campaigns based on the results (watch the Huddersfield AFC video here and the Brentford FC video here).

In both cases, evaluations found that these campaigns strengthened inclusive feelings of shared identity among the clubs’ fanbases, compared to a control sample not shown the video.

Zoe Shackleton, Head of Equality, Diversity and Inclusion at Huddersfield Town AFC, said:

“The Shared Goals project has helped us better understand the role we can play in bringing people from different backgrounds together in Huddersfield and building a shared sense of belonging. It’s also made us more aware of the potential barriers to members of some local communities attending matches.

“We are now much better placed to tailor future initiatives to reach different groups. We’ve seen the potential of our Terriers Together video to celebrate the inclusive nature of Huddersfield Town AFC, and this is definitely something we will build on in the future.”

 Rhiannon Maher, Equity, Diversity & Inclusion Manager at Brentford FC, said:

“We embarked on this research to gain an understanding of how we can use our campaigns and communication to build a sense of belonging.

“The findings have underlined the importance of inclusion to our fans and the sense of pride they have in the club. The also show the impact that the club can have to act as a bridge to connect fans from different communities and to create a sense of place here in west London.

“We look forward to embedding the research findings and continuing to ensure Brentford remains as a club for all.”

The Shared Goals report makes a series of recommendations for how clubs can play a proactive role bridging divides in communities, including by communicating narratives of inclusive pride and through trialling ‘buddying’ schemes for new fans who would be more likely to attend a live game if they had company. It calls on league bodies to fund this type of activity, and to incentivise work in this area within their equity, diversity and inclusion accreditations. And it calls on the government to work with football clubs in their levelling up mission to create place-based civic pride, and in work to build community cohesion and welcome refugees and people seeking asylum.

The survey research finds strong public appetite for clubs to help bridge divides, with 75% agreeing that: “I want my local football club to be part of efforts to bring people from different backgrounds together in my local area.” In the wake of the Black Lives Matter anti-racism protests and the fan-led review, football clubs and leagues are also seeing increased scrutiny to strengthen their inclusion efforts and community engagement.

The Shared Goals project offers positive, evidenced examples and guidance that can strengthen clubs’ efforts to welcome fans of all backgrounds. Importantly, the research highlights the capacity of football clubs to create a wider social impact in their local area, strengthening connections across communities that can bridge our divides and – in an all too polarised society – build common ground.

Download the Shared Goals report here

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