Millions of people love and watch football worldwide. For many, allegiance to their team is a strong part of their identity and community. Bringing climate change into the matchday experience is in theory a powerful way to normalise climate action and spark conversation about its connection to the game. But how best to reach and inspire football fans? Climate Outreach partnered with Pledgeball, a campaigning group of football supporters, to find out. This case study includes a video conversation between Climate Outreach and Pledgeball team members.
This case study is a result of our Climate Engagement Lab, which helps charity, community and campaigning organisations in the UK to inspire people to meaningful climate action. As part of this, the Lab runs ‘innovation partnerships’, working hands-on with groups that want to try to break new ground in who they engage and how. Innovation partnerships are all about learning and testing what happens in practice, and drawing lessons for the wider sector. Climate Outreach can help innovation partners in different ways, from conducting new research to advising on the fundamentals of engagement strategy.
From late 2021 until early 2022 Climate Outreach partnered with Pledgeball, a UK-based charity that aims to inspire football fans into conversations and action on climate change.
Pledgeball focuses on shifting the relationship that people have with climate action – moving away from the sense of paralysis and overwhelm, to a feeling that it is possible to do something of significance as a part of a wider collective. In this case, that collective is the fan base of support for their football team. It encourages football fans to commit to low-carbon lifestyle pledges – including ones around the game itself, for example using public transport rather than driving to a match, but also wider actions such as installing solar panels. This creates a competition where the team that has collectively pledged to save the most emissions wins a fixture, ultimately determining their position in a ‘league’ of commitments.
The organisation’s focus on ‘pledging’ is based on academic research and practical experience of engaging football fans with issues such as climate change. Pledgeball’s theory is that publicly pledging makes the efforts that people are already making visible, building a sense of efficacy – that it is possible to do something and that doing something makes a difference, thus broadening people’s appetite to do more. It also prompts conversations between football fans about climate change – helping to normalise action and build a sense of collective empowerment around a mass social activity. The ‘league table’ also helps fans to feel they are part of a broader community taking action.
What we did
In our partnership, we primarily focused on how to frame messages about climate action for football fans, and how best to encourage the football clubs and supporters associations that the organisation works with to be authentic messengers promoting Pledgeball’s campaign.
We collaborated on the content of a new toolkit being disseminated to supporters’ associations via Pledgeball partners the Football Supporters’ Association (FSA), with advice for fan groups on how to engage other supporters of their team.
The toolkit aims to activate each club’s supporter’s group identity by communicating with fans via the relevant supporters’ association, rather than by Pledgeball directly – becoming a ‘trusted messenger’. It needed to be flexible enough to be usefully tailored by each set of supporters or club to their own communications and club identity, trusting that the supporters’ associations understand their own communities. This presents an audience challenge – as well as a significant opportunity – as football fans and team identities are not at all homogenous.
Climate Outreach provided communications and framing support in the development of the toolkit. This included participative workshops exploring theoretical underpinnings – find out more in this slide deck – of our work on connecting lifestyle changes with wider systemic shifts in climate engagement. We also provided strategic advice, clarifying audiences and commenting on the text of the draft toolkit. We particularly focused on how best to make the language and approach authentic for football fans, with Pledgeball bringing its understanding of fan culture, and Climate Outreach providing wider social science insights and recommendations.
The project also provided support in measuring and understanding whether Pledgeball’s activity will result in increased, fan-led conversations about climate change, through a partnership with consultants m2.
Watch a conversation about this partnership between our Climate Engagement Lab lead Dave Powell and two members of the Pledgeball team, Katie Cross and Jennifer Amann.
What we learned
Climate Outreach’s recommendations centred on reducing technical jargon and focusing on positive, fan-led stories of how football supporters have rallied together in the past to oppose or tackle big issues. This includes highlighting and validating the work that football fans have done in the past, in support of food banks for example, or rallying against the proposed European Super League.
We advised on the importance of encouraging readers of the toolkit to tell climate stories in ways that make sense to the heritage and identity of their particular club, and ‘passing the mic’ to let fans of that club speak authentically about what climate change means to them. The final toolkit avoids words and narratives that make the climate problem seem remote from people and the game (e.g., ‘saving the planet’), instead focusing on football fans telling stories in a way that makes sense to them.
Our work with Pledgeball was at an early stage of the organisation’s development, ahead of its wider roll-out throughout the football pyramid. This includes the Green Football Weekend, due to take place next year that Pledgeball is organising alongside the FSA, Forest Green Rovers, Sky, BT Sport, Planet League and Count Us In. A focus group with members of the FSA was “incredibly positive” about the toolkit, with participants getting excited about, and being able to visualise, applying the Pledgeball work within their own communities.
The project’s additional work with consultants m2 helped Pledgeball to think about how best to apply their existing impact strategy given their resources. The strategy focuses on understanding the short and long term impact of its work to encourage fans to pledge, and to measure whether more fan-led conversations about climate change are happening as a result. We will update this page in future as Pledgeball’s impact data comes in.
This thinking has also informed the advice that the Lab team gives advocacy organisations on how to understand and measure the impact of their engagement.
Reflecting on the partnership
Football clubs have begun to be greater ambassadors for climate action – for example, the ‘climate stripes’ kit from Reading FC. Our partnership with Pledgeball was a great opportunity for Climate Outreach to apply our research and expertise to the world of football fandom – helping to inspire fans themselves to be active leaders of the climate conversation, making talking about climate change normal and everyday as part of the matchday experience. By definition, it is the fans of a particular club that best understand how to do this in a way that makes sense to the unique history, identity and culture of that club – which is why we focused together on helping to ‘pass the mic’ to fans to tell their own story about climate change in their own words.
We’ll watch Pledgeball’s development with keen interest and will update this page in future as the toolkit is rolled out and used.
What happened next
Update January 2023
It’s been a brilliant year for Pledgeball. Following on from our partnership, we asked Pledgeball what they have learned since our work together about football fans and climate change, and how best to engage fans with the Pledgeball model.
There seems to be a link between how well the football team is doing on the pitch, and their reception to the Pledgeball campaign and climate messaging. Pledgeball are keen to do more research into this: does a general good feeling around the club increase fans’ willingness to interact with ‘bigger than us’ issues like climate change, and if so why?
Engagement is more successful when there is a recognisable ‘face’ behind each club’s campaign. This bears out our original recommendations on the importance of seeing recognisable ‘people like me’ normalising climate action. Pledgeball have also utilised the power of visuals and images in helping fans conceptualise the possible scale of collective action – for example the impact of one stadium’s worth of fans acting on climate
Finally, while it can be hard to get fans’ attention, particularly during a cost of living crisis – Pledgeball have found that there is a lot of interest and concern about climate change once the conversation gets going. They’ve found that their prize draws have been the most effective way to attract initial interest.
In the video below, Katie Cross from Pledgeball and Dave Powell from Climate Outreach speak at the The Natural History Consortium’s Communicate conference in November 2022, discussing how sport can be used as a vehicle for reaching new audiences, and ultimately bringing about behaviour change.
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