Sports clubs are often accused of taking their local fans for granted as they focus their attentions on commercial opportunities further afield.
On the evidence of recent years though, such criticism is broadly unjustified. Community programmes and corporate social responsibility initiatives are now so common that clubs who have failed to nurture close relationships with their grassroots followers are more conspicuous than those who have.
However, in a cutthroat sector in which off-field positive news stories can seem sparse at the best of times, innovative schemes can still ripple into the mainstream media; and two recent examples since the turn of the year in English football prove the point.
Firstly, Premier League Crystal Palace announced it would offer part of its Selhurst Park stadium as an emergency shelter for up to 10 rough sleepers per night as freezing temperatures hit. Just days later, 32 clubs from the Premier League and the Football League signed up to the Twinning Project to deliver coaching, stewarding and lifestyle skills to help newly-released prisoners find paid employment.
With schemes like these – unlike pure fan engagement programmes – a direct return on investment is not the motivation. Community programmes arguably occupy a unique column on the balance sheet of clubs that otherwise meticulously structure their business models to maximise value at every opportunity.
Although a commercial return on investment is not the primary focus for successful schemes, organisations are well-placed to benefit from the glow of a successful CSR programme, enhancing their reputation to customers, stakeholders, employees and partners.
“The community aspect is something that has become increasingly important for sponsors to identify in a partner in recent years,” says Joel Seymour-Hyde, the head of Octagon UK. Sometimes a sponsor wants to work with a property to amplify its own community scheme or chosen charity, whereas on other occasions, the opportunity to support a club’s programme is an appealing factor. Alternatively, initiatives can be jointly conceived by the property and the commercial partner.
For example, in 2011, England’s Football Association teamed up with confectionary giant Mars to launch the Just Play! Initiative, establishing hundreds of centres across the country to encourage adults to play football. By 2017, the scheme had surpassed one million participants.
Brands like Mars – seeing that they can be part of the solution to obesity levels rather than merely a cause of the problem – have a strong incentive to involve clear active lifestyle components in their sponsorships.
The reputational factor, enhanced by a successful community scheme, can be beneficial for everyone involved in a partnership.
West Ham United, Everton and Watford are just three English Premier League clubs that have extensive community engagement programmes in place.
Case Study 1: West Ham United
As brands in their own right, players are beginning to recognise the benefits of being involved and building engagement initiatives around first-team stars is a trend being replicated across the sporting world. Players are literally at the heart of West Ham United’s new community initiative, which was launched in November.
Speaking at the launch of the Players’ Project, the Premier League club’s captain, Mark Noble, said: “As players, we are all aware of our role as ambassadors, representing not only the football club but the community that surrounds us, and it is important that we continue to strengthen that bond.”
The project is described by West Ham United Foundation chief executive Joseph Lyons as “the most ambitious and integrated community programme ever created by a Premier League club” and comes on top of investing almost £13m (€15m/$17m) across local education, health and social mobility projects since 2013.
“The Players’ Project was set up to further expand the club’s reach whilst at the same time creating deeper provision with our more deprived communities,” Lyons says. “First-team players from both the men and women’s teams are now ambassadors for an area of community work. They will work on projects that are important to them personally, as part of our commitment to creating opportunities, delivering a sporting legacy and changing lives in the community.”
The aim is to provide support and opportunities to as many as 100,000 people over the next three years. The club’s home borough, Newham, has the lowest percentage of physically active adults in the country.
“These programmes will fundamentally change the lives of people, whether it’s providing a mentor to a younger member of the community; helping to break down barriers that local East Londoners face when looking for employment; or tackling loneliness by simple acts like having a cup of coffee with someone who just wants some company,” Lyons adds.
So far, the project has brought first-team stars into direct contact with the public on several occasions, including at a gathering for the club’s ‘Any Old Irons’ fans group, which tackles loneliness for the elderly; at a Christmas dinner event helping families with young children who are facing extreme challenges; and at a children’s hospice.
Case Study 2: Everton
Some 230 miles northwest of West Ham’s Newham home, Everton has been entrenched in the community of its home city, Liverpool, since the late 1870s. On a scale of deprivation, Liverpool has more neighbourhoods that rank in the bottom percentile than any other city in the country, according the UK government’s latest figures.
However, Everton’s role in tackling societal issues that stretch back generations has received widespread acclaim.
Thirty-one years ago, Everton in the Community was established to deliver coaching sessions in local schools, before expanding to develop activities for the disabled and under-privileged. In 2003, the programme was granted charitable status, providing access to external funding, and then the arrival of Denise Barrett-Baxendale to lead the scheme in 2010 heralded a transformation.
Everton in the Community now runs more than 40 initiatives, covering a range of issues including health, employability, anti-social behaviour, crime, education, dementia, poverty, youth engagement, youth justice and disability. The charity engages more than 20,000 people every year and has 125 dedicated full-time staff.
In mental health, the charity has been pioneering, with its Imagine Your Goals initiative – the first of its kind in the country when it launched 12 years ago – becoming a blueprint for the Premier League and other clubs. The charity has also collaborated with Edge Hill University to develop Tackling the Blues, a sport-based programme aimed at children and young people.
Everton also became the first football club in the country to be awarded government funding to open a Free School, which now supports up to 200 pupils per year.
The importance of the charity is instilled in fans and players alike from an early age. Members of Everton’s under-23 squad were active participants in the launch of the Home Is Where The Heart Is campaign to buy and operate a house that gives young people who have fallen on hard times a place to stay.
In a survey, 97 per cent of supporters said that Everton in the Community’s work “is important to them and makes them feel proud of their club”, according to the charity’s chief executive, Richard Kenyon.
“We capture lots of data from every programme to make sure we can evidence the impact we are having, as well as recording attendance from every single one of our sessions,” Kenyon says. “We also work with the commissioners of our programmes on evidencing outcomes. For instance, we will work with the police to track how we contribute to crime prevention in the area.”
Where such figures are available, it is easy to see the justification for schemes that make a genuine difference. For example, Everton in the Community’s Safe Hands programme, which was launched in 2012 and is now funded by Premier League contributions, has achieved an 80-per-cent non-reoffending rate among young participants in comparison with the 27 per cent national average.
Everton’s commercial partners also support numerous initiatives, and the club is currently talking to a number of its sponsors about becoming founding partners of The People’s Place, a facility dedicated to mental health that the charity is planning to build near its Goodison Park stadium.
“Through the programmes we run, we can also provide support to our partners by providing things like mental health awareness training for their staff, so it’s a partnership rather than just a sponsorship,” Kenyon adds.
Case Study 3: Watford
Like Everton, the vision for fellow Premier League club Watford’s Community Sports and Education Trust was established in the 1980s before significant expansion in recent times.
“There has been a staggering development over the years, from a community programme that had one member of staff delivering football sessions, to a charity that employs over 50 full- and part-time staff members,” the trust’s community director, Rob Smith, says.
“If an individual has a positive experience with us as a brand, whether that’s through the trust or club, then they are more likely to continue their engagement. So, first and foremost it makes ethical sense, but by doing the right thing, you are of course going to benefit from outcomes surrounding identity and loyalty.”
The trust focuses on four key themes – skills and learning, health and wellbeing, football and sports development, and social inclusion – and has expanded to operate two community facilities in Watford and nearby Harrow after securing £7m in funding. Anti-social behaviour fell by 37 per cent in the locality of one of the centres within a year of its opening.
Other successes have included the Bringing Education and Sport Together (BEST) programme, which was created by the trust in partnership with Ferrero. The programme has been adopted by the English Football League and delivered across the country under the chocolate producer’s Kinder +Sport Move and Learn Project.
The trust has also collaborated with Camelot on the Watford Works employability initiative and Hilton Hotels on volunteering and skill development. Meanwhile, the trust’s Shape Up campaign has engaged more than 1,000 men, who have collectively shed 6.1 tonnes of weight.
The trust produces an annual impact report that is distributed to season ticket-holders and club stakeholders.
“We are increasingly looking at new and innovative ways of showcasing the true positive difference we are making,” Smith says. “Technological advancements in monitoring and evaluation tools have of course helped, with the recording of hard outcomes such as weight loss or softer outcomes such as an increase in self-esteem through surveyed responses. However, quite often, whilst statistics have a place, personal stories can be just as effective; sometimes even more so.”