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Birmingham County Football Association fighting for a more sustainable game

December 14 2022

According to research by Global Sustainable Sport, there are less than 50 organisations globally that are really ticking the box in driving sustainability across the board.

Birmingham County Football Association fighting for a more sustainable game

One organisation that stands out like a “lone voice” amongst its regional counterparts is Birmingham County Football Association, the regulatory body that is responsible for governing  football participation throughout the West Midlands region in the United Kingdom.

Birmingham County Football Association affiliates  seven professional football clubs, 1,200 grassroots clubs, 5,000 teams, 100,000 players and 25,000 volunteers. Its remit is to increase participation across men’s, women’s, and disabled football, but it is in the area of sustainability that Birmingham County FA have most recently excelled.

As a signatory to both the UN’s Sport for Climate Action Framework and the Race to Zero programme, it launched its first-ever sustainability strategy in June 2021, entitled ‘Save Today, Play Tomorrow’.

‘Save Today, Play Tomorrow’

 The strategy to “create and support lower-carbon football in the West Midlands” is driven by Richard Lindsay, the Business Insights Manager for Birmingham County FA, who is at the forefront of positively influencing local football’s response to climate change.

“We wanted the project to be more than just about football,” Lindsay says. “We wanted to step outside our comfort zone and look at actual social impact, social cohesion, and social responsibility. During Covid when football was on a hiatus, we started to really push forward with ‘Save Today, Play Tomorrow’ – and we wanted something that could be replicated across the country.”

The campaign, designed to drive environmental impact whilst changing how football clubs operate and individuals behave, is a long-term project. Its intention is simple: safeguard the game and benefit the world around us.

Part of a network of 49 local county football associations across the UK, the campaign launch saw Birmingham County FA become the first to officially unveil a project aimed at tackling the topic of sustainability, which Lindsay hopes will become a model for other county associations in the future.

“I come from a very fortunate place in which Birmingham County FA is financially stable,” Lindsay adds. “The last couple of years have been tough for many of the County FAs that possibly don’t have the resources or the budgets to look at sustainability at the level that Birmingham has. Getting people playing and helping the game thrive has been the priority for County FA’s, but the interest is now starting to swell.

Mixed response

‘Save Today, Play Tomorrow’ has, as Lindsay admits, encountered a mixed response from clubs and individuals. Without wider education, the project has come seemingly out of the blue to some who read conflicting reports in the media on climate change and perhaps do not see a link between a football association and sustainability.

One route to changing perceptions has come through air quality tests at venues across Birmingham. Research conducted by the WM-Air team – a leading air quality team based at the University of Birmingham – has found more than 30 football venues in Birmingham alone that have air quality levels that exceed WHO safe guidelines.

Linking the research to potential health issues has become an integral part of convincing clubs the programme is worth endorsing.

However, there are still many who are not convinced. “It’s a very new subject to a lot of people,” continues Lindsay. “It’s making the connection [between football] and climate change.

“Last year was a real struggle, but this year has been completely different. One example is our sustainability pledge. Last year we introduced it and we had about 80 clubs sign the pledge over the season, which means they will commit to six key areas of their operation, and look to make changes.

“Not all six are possible, but we asked them to look at two or three around travel and transport, energy use, water, waste food, community engagement. This year, we’ve got over 129 clubs involved already, with 858  teams and approximately and 10,000 players.

“Now we’re seeing – through a digital platform that we use – huge carbon savings that these clubs are undertaking and hopefully making on a regular basis. People can make all sorts of simple small changes associated with football activity, and now they are starting to switch on to it. There is an appetite.”

Fundamental shift required

Lindsay believes there needs to be a fundamental shift in the core values of football where changes in behaviour and operations could have the largest impact.

“We started investigating the scale of plastic in the game and what that looked like at grassroots level. [We looked] at plastic bottles and then suddenly it escalated into the things like the use of showers, water bottles and training cones,” he says.

“But then there is kit. There is a huge opportunity to influence behaviour around how we purchase kit, how much kit we purchase, and the frequency of purchasing. From the research we’ve done, parents pay a premium for their children to be part of grassroots clubs, and in the majority of cases they want the newest and nicest kits.

“But currently there isn’t an appetite from some of the kit suppliers to offer incentives for clubs to hand back old kits, or a pre-worn market. It’s all about a unit sales model.”

The impact of fast fashion on the world continues to rise in the public consciousness. However, as second-hand becomes pre-loved and vintage attire becomes the option of choice for many, football has yet to follow the trend.

Lindsay asks: “Who’s going to take that first step? Maybe it comes from parents saying, ‘actually no, we don’t want to keep buying new kit.’ Or ‘can we think of a responsible way of disposing or reusing this kit or handing it through other clubs?’ There is real opportunity for change in the kit space.”

Premier League club Brentford was praised after announcing it would keep the same kit for the 2022-23 season as used in the previous campaign. It was a small step at the elite level of the game, but perhaps it could trickle down to the lower leagues and into the minds of youngsters and their parents.

Partnerships are the key

Changes have come from partnerships with companies like UtilityWorks, Smol, Planet League, Pledgeball, LiftShare, and CTM Sport.

In March 2022, Birmingham County FA announced an initiative with Utilita’s Football Rebooted programme aimed at saving one million pairs of football boots from landfill and redistributing them across the West Midlands through a network of collection points at grassroots football clubs. In July, the organisation launched a series of workshops with Spirit of Football to educate and inspire positive actions and messaging on climate change through the lens of football.

Lindsay says: “We are proud to be working with the Spirit of Football and be part of the ‘One Ball’ journey. The aim of these workshops is to give our grassroots clubs the knowledge and confidence they need to consider making fundamental changes in how they operate that supports climate positive football, and helps to safeguard the game for future generations.”

The economic and social value of football

According to a report published by the Football Association (FA) of England the value of regular grassroots football for adults is estimated to be £10.77bn per year. This total comprises £2.01bn of direct economic value and £8.17bn of social wellbeing value, with grassroots players reporting significantly higher levels of happiness, general health, confidence and trust versus those who play no sport. Birmingham County FA’s estimated contribution to this socio-economic figure is estimated at £522m annually.

Football participation in the region stalled during the pandemic, but Lindsay has since seen a spike in women playing football since England’s success in Euro2022, with now nearly 8000 women playing across 455 female-only teams. Disability football has been slower to recover with only 1100 players across 127 teams, but Lindsay hopes this figure will improve in 2023 as more programmes are rolled out.

‘Football’s Toughest Opponent’

In October, Lindsay featured in the Sky Sports documentary, ‘Football’s Toughest Opponent’, which explored the impact of climate change on football, how football contributes to climate change and what governing bodies, clubs, managers and players are doing to tackle the climate emergency. The programme included contributions from across the footballing world including Ben Mee, Chris Smalling, Jen Beattie, Petr Cech, Ralf Hasenhuttl, Serge Gnabry, Sofie Junge Pedersen and UEFA’s Michele Uva.

Author and academic David Goldblatt told the Sky Sports documentary: “Extreme weather leads to extreme flooding. We’re not talking about a few puddles on the pitch; we’re talking about 1.5 metres of water which means no football.

“In England, this is really serious. My calculations are that around a quarter of professional stadiums in the top four leagues are under threat of annual flooding or actually being under water by 2050.”

The German Olympic Committee estimated that flooding in Germany, in 2021, caused more than £112m worth of damage to grassroots sports infrastructure in the country alone.

If Lindsay is right, the value of more football clubs and associations focusing on environmental issues could significantly dwarf the £10bn socio-economic value estimated by the FA when the environmental factor is included.

What value is put on saving the future of football by the environmental actions of organisations like Birmingham County FA?

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