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Harnessing the Power of ‘The Beautiful Game’

March 2023 by Richard Lindsay & Graeme Heyes

The following is a guest blog written by Sustainability & Insights Manager at Birmingham County Football Association, Richard Lindsay, and Carbon Literacy trainer, Graeme Heyes, about the first-ever accredited Carbon Literacy course for Grassroots Football. 

Football is at the heart of most UK communities. Fans claim the moral ownership of clubs, whilst clubs are reliant on fans and their wider communities for income and for their identity.

At the same time, whilst most businesses come and go, most football clubs (whether at the professional or grassroots levels) have been around for over 100 years. This means that not only have they been around since we started ramping up the burning of fossil fuels in the 1800s, but they will also be some of the only businesses that will be around long enough to see the worst impacts of climate change.

Clubs, therefore, not only have a requirement to act on climate for moralistic and reasons of self-interest, but they are also organisations with some of the greatest potential to positively impact the wider community.

Birmingham County Football Association

Birmingham County Football Association is one of the largest regional governing bodies in the English Football Association’s network of 49 organisations. Unlike the name suggests, we cover the 3 main cities in the West Midlands, namely Birmingham, Wolverhampton & Coventry but our reach extends into the Black Country, Walsall, Warwickshire, Tamworth and into East Staffordshire.

Our membership includes 1200 football clubs, 7 of which are professional, but the majority fall under what is more commonly known as “Grassroots”. This number of clubs equates to 5100 teams, 1200 match officials, 25,000 volunteers and coaches, and upwards of 100,000 regular players participating in all formats of the game. Within the region, over 48,000 affiliated games happen each season.

The Economic Report for Football published by the Football Association in 2019 estimated that, for our region, through social and economic value, grassroots football generated c.£522 million to the local economy each season.

Save Today, Play Tomorrow

As a local governing body, we recognise the need to act now to ensure the beautiful game significantly reduces its environmental impact, whilst helping to educate those involved in football at all levels to make informed decisions that will shape how much future generations will be able to enjoy and sustain the game in the long term.

On June 8th, 2021, we proudly launched Save Today, Play Tomorrow, the first-of-its-kind sustainability programme in the UK that looks to empower and engender grassroots football to support the ambitious goal of creating a low-carbon, greener game across the region.

In February 2021, to coincide with this work, Birmingham County FA were accepted as participatory members of the UN’s Sport for Climate Action Framework, the first County FA to do so, joining the likes of Liverpool FC, Tottenham FC, the Olympics Committee and over 270 other national and international sports organisations in using the power of sport to combat climate change. Subsequently, we have accelerated our commitment by joining ‘Race to Zero’ and committing to Net Zero by 2040.

Carbon Literacy for Grassroots Football

From research we have carried out with our regional football community, we know that 86% of club volunteers feel that they should be doing more to reduce the impact the game is having on the environment. However, the common theme for not taking decisive action came down to simply not knowing where to start, coupled with climate anxiety. This unmet need prompted an internal conversation about what was already out in the market that could be adapted to suit our audience. Having already completed Carbon Literacy training back in 2020, Richard Lindsay, Sustainability & Insights Manager at Birmingham County FA, recommended this would be the best place to start.

Developing the course

When setting about creating the course, the aim was not just to help clubs at the grassroots level to become more sustainable themselves, but to also ensure an extended positive impact with the many millions of people across the UK who actively engage with grassroots football on a week-by-week basis. Football clubs are not the cause of climate change; most clubs are SME sized, often loss-making enterprises with microscale carbon emissions. However, the potential carbon savings they can deliver through courses like this via their wider networks is perhaps unparalleled.

Pre-Course Feedback

Involved in the course pilot were Birmingham County FA team members, including non-exec directors, representatives from neighbouring Counties, The English Football League Trust and consultant partners. An eclectic group with a blend of knowledge about climate change, with 87% of learners agreeing to some extent that we are in a climate emergency and its relevance to them as individuals with a responsibility to help tackle it.

Motivation and confidence that we can achieve change were high within the group, as was how confident people were about comfortably talking about climate change with family, friends and co-workers (75%). However, when asked whether they currently feel comfortable talking about climate change with the people they delivered to, 62.5% were not at all or only moderately confident, with 75% saying they rarely or never mention climate change to these groups.

Post-Course Feedback

Overwhelmingly, those who attended the course left feeling highly or extremely motivated and confident in implementing changes, both personally and professionally, that would significantly reduce their carbon footprint.

Following the course, learners reported 83% positively that, compared to before the training, they were more likely to mention climate change when talking with those they deliver to, confident with the knowledge they have gained to have that conversation with others.

Some of the big takeaways from learners include:

“The course offers ways to link the climate crisis to my work in football, and new techniques to communicate about it in a way which is positive and relevant to people’s lives”

“The urgency and gravity of the situation, but also the role that football can play to help support positive climate action”

“It’s an excellent course, and I would recommend that organisations across the football sector roll this out to their staff”

Those that attended the course were asked to rate the quality of the course and its content out of five, and we are proud, from the first session, to have been rated four stars.

Pledged Action

Some of the collective pledges for climate action made by learners as part of the pilot include:

“I would like to reduce the amount of new kit distributed annually across the BCFA workforce, I would like to explore how we renew, reuse and recycle our staff kit more effectively.” – Luke Bowles, Football Development Manager, Birmingham County FA

“I want to work with colleagues in the sector to roll out more training (whether Carbon Literacy or similar environmental sustainability themes) to my organisation and the network I support (70+ members).” – Ben Fisher, Sustainability Development Coordinator, EFL Trust

Plans for the course

We have ambitious plans for the course. Firstly, to offer its delivery to the other 49 County FA’s (CFA’s) in the network where we know there is an unmet need. In turn, those CFA’s could also offer this invaluable education resource to their clubs. In support of the rollout, we plan to work with Climate EQ, a Carbon Literacy training provider based in the West Midlands, who can facilitate both in-person & online learning for our 1200 football clubs and 25,000 volunteers. We plan to take advantage of the Spring and Summer months, where less or no on-pitch activity is happening, so we can really make an impact.

We are also working on sourcing some external grant funding to subsidise or even offer free places to those volunteers from more economically deprived areas of our region during the current cost of living crisis, helping commit to our wider organisational ED&I commitment. Furthermore, to help reduce the burden of cost on the volunteers and clubs, we plan to have a course sponsor who will play their part in making this course as accessible & inclusive as possible for all learners.

Already, there is interest in the course in Germany, Spain and the Netherlands! While we haven’t agreed on any activity yet, this is certainly something we would love to make happen.

With over 17,000 clubs nationally and c.14.1 million people regularly playing, the opportunity to create substantial measurable change using the vehicle of football is huge. We want to get to a position where, within the structure of committees at these clubs, at least one individual has completed the Carbon Literacy training and takes the lead on advocating for a greener game.

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