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Engaging football fans with climate change – case study

By Robin Webster on July 25, 2022

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.

 

Fans ahead of an English Football League Cup match in Nailsworth, western England in 2017

What we did

It’s about shifting that relationship that people have with climate change - moving away from that sense of paralysis because you feel as if you have no control, to realising that you do - and you’re part of a collective taking action and your individual actions feed into systemic change.”

Katie Cross, Pledgeball

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

We have confidence from the partnership, knowing there is so much expertise out there with Climate Outreach and the wide amount of research that is already out there. Whether football fans or other communities, we didn’t have to reinvent the wheel. Knowing that what you do will actually have an impact is so important when it comes to climate change.”

Jennifer Amann, Pledgeball

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. 

Read more

 

We are grateful to the Samworth Foundation and the John Ellerman Foundation for their support for the Climate Engagement Lab, including this partnership.

2 responses to Engaging football fans with climate change – case study

  1. Les Gunbie says: says:

    This looks great, can I be kept in touch with further developments please? Best wishes, Les Gunbie, Brighton, UK

    • Climate Outreach replied: says:

      Thanks Les for your interest. Best is probably to sign up to our newsletter if you haven’t already, and follow Pledgeball on social media – thanks!

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By Robin Webster

Robin leads the Advocacy Communications programme for Climate Outreach, focusing on providing civil society campaigners with knowledge, tools and research to help them engage all sorts of people on climate change. She loves working with campaigners for their resilience and positivity even when facing up to the world’s biggest challenge. She has been knocking around the environmental world for twenty years as a researcher, journalist and campaigner, first becoming interested in the disconnect between political debate about climate change and how we talk about it in real life whilst working as campaigner for Friends of the Earth. She helped to start up Carbon Brief when it began life as a climate science and energy blog and has spent more time than is healthy digging into the intricacies of climate policy, including as a researcher for the European Climate Foundation. 

Robin has a Masters in Conservation from UCL and an undergraduate degree in Biology. She is the author of Climate Outreach’s #TalkingClimate handbook amongst many others, and has lived in the UK, USA, Uganda and Austria. In her spare time Robin hikes, swims, cycles and teaches and plays at comedy improv, which she thinks is the best art form in the world.

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