- Football clubs attempting to provide social and economic support to fans during Covid-19 pandemic
- Shortfalls in funding made up for by donations from club owners, officials and players
- Sponsors also offering assistance through services and financial support
For most people reading this, sport provides an income. For millions around the world, it offers entertainment and escape. For many, however, sport is a lifeline, providing vital social connections and community support to vulnerable fans.
While the global shutdown of sport due to the Covid-19 pandemic has sown chaos across the industry, it has also left those fans who rely on it for more than just 90 minutes of distraction each week exposed.
Almost all top-level European football clubs operate a charitable arm, with the majority of the work they carry out taking place within the clubs’ immediate surroundings, supporting economically deprived members of the community and often picking up the slack where social safety nets have failed, contributing to things like food banks and youth employment skills schemes.
“At the top level, football is ultimately entertainment,” says Matt Parish, director of the LFC Foundation, the charitable and community arm of Liverpool Football Club. “But within our fanbase and particularly within our communities, people’s lives revolve around it, it’s how they stay connected with the world, it’s how they receive crucial social support. We think the club still has a responsibility to serve those people and do everything we can to help them out.”
Sarah Atherton, neighbourhood manager at Liverpool’s city rivals, Everton FC, says the inability of its community initiative, Everton in the Community, to operate at its full capacity during the shutdown “is having a huge impact on our community”. The so-called ‘Blue Mile’ – the wards of Walton, Anfield, Everton and Kirkdale within a one-mile radius of the club’s Goodison Park stadium – comprises the fourth-most economically deprived area in the UK. Atherton regards it as “mine and my team’s responsibility to help bring that up to the national average, where possible, by operating projects around fan and non-fan community welfare, mental well-being, food bank collections, education”.
That is a difficult job at the best of times. With football shut down entirely, not only are those communities now lacking the social aspect football brings to their lives, but the fundraising avenues for the clubs’ community work have been closed off.
The LFC Foundation, for instance, has an annual turnover of around £4m, with which it funds 150 separate community activity sessions per week, and pays its 50 full-time staff. Half of that amount is generated through ongoing fundraising, with a full quarter of its yearly revenue brought in from a single day – the LFC Legends game, which this year had been scheduled for March 28.
The game, against a team of Barcelona legends, will be rescheduled for later in the year if possible, but until that time, it “leaves a hole in the region of £1m in our budget”, says Parish, a significant shortfall at a time when it is most needed. In an effort to continue to its efforts to support the most vulnerable in the city, LFC Foundation has stepped up its contributions to both the North Liverpool Foodbank and the Fans Supporting Foodbanks initiative.
“Matchday contributions represent about 25 per cent of the food donations that the North Liverpool Foodbank receives,” says Parish. “With the Premier League being on hold, that’s four home games that the food bank was going to be short of donations at a time when they need more, those who are relying on food banks are going to be facing even more of a crisis in the coming weeks and months, so we stepped in.”
The day after the season was put on hold, Liverpool appealed to its players to help make up that shortfall. The response was a donation of £20,000, which was then matched by the LFC Foundation. That £40,000 has since been topped up by further private and public donations, helping to ensure that the food bank continues to meet demand through the summer. Brakes, the catering company for Everton’s Finch Farm training ground, has also redistributed food that would have gone to club staff to food banks in the area.
In Italy, which until recently remained the most-affected country in Europe by Covid-19, AS Roma has taken an even more direct approach to tackling the pandemic.
“I think we saw the severity of it earlier than other countries, and certainly football was stopped earlier than elsewhere,” says Paul Rogers, director of strategy at the club. “We saw that we had a role and a responsibility as a prominent member of the community, and a club that has millions of followers, to do whatever we could to help not just our fans but the Rome community as a whole. We wanted concrete actions.”
Through its Roma Cares foundation, Roma quickly paid for and delivered thousands of face masks and bottles of hand sanitiser to local hospitals, before setting up a GoFundMe campaign with a target of raising €500,000 in order to buy medical equipment for the city’s Lazzaro Spallanzani Hospital. Roma president James Palotta donated €50,000 to kick-start the campaign, which Roma Cares then matched. The current donations stand at €540,000, which had, at the last count, funded eight new ventilators and eight new intensive care beds for the hospital.
Roma has also focused on delivering care packages containing basic essentials – both medical supplies and food – to mainly elderly members of its community, using its season-ticket holders’ database to identify the most in need, but also to churches, care homes and shelters for vulnerable women. “The Italian government is recommending that people over the age of 70 don’t leave their homes at all unless in an emergency, so it was about, how can use utilise Roma Cares to give something back to these fans? These people come and support us every weekend. Now it’s our turn to try and support them.”
Clubs have provided emotional and social assistance as well as material support. Atherton says that the relationship between LFC Foundation and Everton in the Community has “gone to another level” since the lockdown, with both clubs initiating “virtual cuppa” programmes in a bid to reduce the impacts of social isolations, making calls to older local residents throughout the week. “A lot of that has involved other neighbours getting involved on a volunteer basis,” says Atherton. “They offer to take groceries, walk the dog, so as well as a lot of the calls being around crises and mental well-being, they’re also about giving something back. Out of over 2,000 calls, 124 have been crisis calls. The rest have just been about reaching out to our community and ensuring everyone is okay.”
Simply producing content for fans to engage with can be support in its own right, Parish argues. “In terms of connection it’s basically been about, how can we creatively stay connected with our with our fans and supporters, and certainly those that are most vulnerable among those groups?”, says Parish. Liverpool usually hosts a weekly chair yoga session for older fans in the community, hosted by Debbie Moore, the wife of the club’s chief executive, Peter Moore. She has instead taken to running these sessions online, helping to keep vulnerable fans socially engaged and physically active.
Roma has used its social channels to shine a spotlight on frontline hospital workers from around the world. “We spend all of our time semi-worshipping footballers,” says Rogers. “But in a moment of crisis, it’s actually the doctors and the nurses and the medical workers and the cleaners who are going in to hospitals in particular, and putting their lives on the line in some cases without the protective equipment that they need to keep themselves safe.
“18 doctors had died in Italy, and we thought this was a way of giving something back. Every day since launch we’ve focused on two different medical workers helping the fight against the virus from around the world, not just from Italy.”
That thanks will extend to when the crisis is over. Roma has promised to make 5,000 tickets for its first open-doors match back available free of charge to medical staff, will dedicate the game to them, and will donate a proportion of the gate receipts to the GoFundMe campaign.
Club sponsors have also stepped up, with some seeing the opportunity to engage in valuable CSR work, while at least one other, says Rogers, has made a major donation on the condition of anonymity. “They didn’t want to make it seem like they were cynically making a contribution,” he says, “they really just wanted to contribute to the fundraising and help out.
“But we’ve kept our partners informed of the situation and what our plans are all along, obviously because firstly this affects them too, but also because they’re looking for ways they can get involved and help out as well. There’s different ways partners can get involved but the size of the partner can impact what they can do because, obviously, everyone’s business is affected.”
Those ways have tended to be around educational support and offering services more than simple cash donations.
At Everton, the club’s sleeve sponsor Rovio began a “very foward-thinking campaign”, as Atherton puts it, last year when it began a project to help young fans to teach their grandparents to use technology to communicate. It has continued to support that project, helping to foster stronger intergenerational ties and encouraging children and teenagers to reach out to their grandparents during this time.
Liverpool’s front-of-shirt sponsor, London-based banking giant Standard Chartered, meanwhile, has, for a long time, run financial literacy workshops for fans, something it has continued to do remotely to help supporters who may be struggling financially to better manage their money. Axa, the club’s insurance partner, has been providing mental health-related training to club and LFC Foundation staff, including those who are manning the phones to speak with fans in the community.