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Football clubs unite to improve environmental impact 


After a worrying report highlighted that half of the West Midland’s population lives with dangerous levels of air pollution, Birmingham County Football Association (BCFA) decided to take action with the help of local football clubs. Since 2021, football clubs in Birmingham have been part of an in-depth study to measure their attitudes towards climate change and explore options for sustainable travel between football matches.


The WM-Air report showed that approximately 50% of all registered Home Grounds and 55% of Training Grounds have low air quality. PM2.5 - or fine particulate matter of 2.5 micrometres or less in diameter - is the most dangerous pollutant, leading to long- and short-term illness and disease. According to the World Health Organisation (WHO) air quality guidelines, PM2.5 levels exceeded the recommended annual limit.


PM2.5 is mostly made up of emissions from gas, oil, diesel fuel and wood. BCFA wanted to raise awareness of the poor air quality and find solutions to reduce these emissions. Within BCFA, there are 1,200 football clubs with around 48,000 games a season, which sparked the realisation that travel to matches significantly impacts pollution. BCFA received funding from the 3D project to monitor existing travel behaviours and to engage with the football community to understand local barriers and what motivates behavioural change.


Richard Lindsay, Business Insights Manager at BCFA shares a rundown of the project, called Save Today Play Tomorrow, the lessons learned and what will happen next.


Save Today Play Tomorrow is BCFA’s parent project, focussing on action to minimise the impact of the association’s activities on the environment and aligned to the 17 United Nations Sustainable Development Goals. There are four main areas: health and wellbeing, positive education, climate action and reconnecting football to nature. After the air quality summer report was published, it became obvious that one way to help reduce pollution is to modify how people travel to and from football games.


Save Today Play Tomorrow wanted to achieve three main objectives:

  1. Engage with the football community to establish how to overcome local barriers to climate action and provide sustainable transport options.

  2. Explore what might motivate behavioural change within this community.

  3. Raise awareness of air quality and how changes to travel can make a difference.


We set out to do this by:

  • Conducting stakeholder mapping to determine which clubs to focus on.

  • Interviewing local football club users using incentives such as vouchers, free footballs, and match tickets to encourage more involvement.

  • Holding workshops with representatives from football clubs and local communities, discussing how to encourage sustainable travel habits.

  • Implementing pilot schemes encouraging participants to change their travel behaviour.


How was data used?


We wanted to choose five or six football clubs to engage with initially, to develop a collaborative approach that can be replicated across more clubs in the future.


Using data from the Football Association’s Whole Game System for clubs, teams, and venues, we identified potential clubs to focus on. We then looked at data around ethnicity, health, and socio-economic data. We wanted to select clubs with multiple levels of deprivation, as well as poor air quality outlined in the WM-Air report. These factors allowed us to demonstrate the importance of improving air quality for the planet and for health, as well as figure out the local barriers to engaging with climate action, such as money, resources, or knowledge.


Interviews and surveys were carried out with representatives from each club. This gave us useful qualitative data on travel behaviours, values and motivations which helped guide our approach to engaging with clubs. This research highlighted that lift-sharing was the most viable alternative to private car trips, leading us to focus on promoting this to club users.


What were some of the project challenges?


It’s been difficult to get buy-in from club decision-makers and leaders, leading to further challenges  getting club members to participate, which ultimately led s to a lack of engagement to drive or influence behaviour change.


BCFA quickly realised that environmental motivations were not enough to engage with club users and supporters. So, we switched to discussing the cost-of-living crisis, safety of children and the social challenges of noise, traffic, and parking. But even with layered messaging, we didn’t get the engagement we hoped for.


We initially wanted to do a co-creation workshop for representatives across the clubs to develop travel plans and explore how to get buy-in from club users. But, through initial research, we soon realised that all the clubs’ needs and motivations were different, and the workshops needed tailoring to reflect this. A lot of club users lacked an understanding of sustainability and pollution issues. This is something that needs to be addressed before club users can make meaningful behaviour changes. BCFA understand that this is a new area for sports and a lot more work needs to be done.


What’s been the biggest impact?


We conducted 37 phone interviews with football club representatives. This provided beneficial insight into club users and current travel behaviours, appetite for change and what barriers people are facing. These interviews shaped our method to promote lift sharing and highlighted the challenges we might face along the way. By the end of the project, we had a total of 37 club reps, seven coaches, ten parents and two community members actively engaged, showing there’s a desire within the community to make sustainable changes.


Throughout our engagement with the football clubs and members, we emphasised the importance of active travel. Not only for carbon emissions but also for individuals’ health and wellbeing. Using the information from the air quality report, and the feedback we got from club representatives, we were able to have detailed discussions about travel issues. To promote shared travel, we held workshops with Liftshare to promote sustainable travel. As lift sharing became more popular, we also noticed users began organising trips informally through WhatsApp as well. One football club pushed for lift shares for their Sunday matches, reducing ten cars being used down to four.


We’ve inadvertently tackled other social issues, such as rising resentment from residents near the football grounds, who were tired of extreme traffic and parking on match days. By highlighting the benefits of other travel options, traffic should reduce significantly.


One major achievement is that we’ve partnered with Birmingham City Council’s Travel & Transport team along with the Parks Department to offer all Birmingham-based football clubs and their respective teams a 25% discount on their grass pitch hire for the 22/23 season. The discount only applies to the clubs and teams that have signed the BCFA Sustainability Pledge and have signed up to and actively using  the  Liftshare app. Over the season, this discount could save a team an average £400-600 in pitch hire costs, which in the current financial climate could be vital in keeping a club running. There are over 670 teams that are eligible to join the scheme. This is a great incentive to get members to join and make positive behaviour changes.


The project has been very challenging, and while it hasn’t been as successful as we hoped, it did provide BCFA with a new level of understanding about football club users, their priorities, motivations and engagement with low carbon travel. This insight will be hugely beneficial as we navigate how to introduce sustainability and pollution issues to this community.


What’s next?


We want to continue encouraging positive action within our BCFA network. We can continue monitoring air quality data and transport use to see how people’s behaviours change, and what the subsequent positives for the climate emergency might be.


We’ll continue to build on our engagement with clubs and work with existing pilot clubs to encourage travel behaviour change. There are two lift sharing pilot schemes due to take place from October, which will give us more insight into how this can work practically. We’ll also be working with Birmingham City FA to encourage change through their supporters. The pitch hire discount presents a further opportunity to engage with new clubs and teams. We would also like to explore how to capture informal lift-sharing, as it became apparent this was also happening throughout the project.’


Replicating the project


A project like this benefits from researching behaviours, and how much knowledge of sustainability a particular area or group of people has already. Where necessary, education on sustainability might be needed before influencing behaviour change. This will help find an appropriate solution to a local issue that the users will be enticed by.


Interested in a similar project? The 3D Hub was developed by the Centre for Sustainable Energy (CSE), who can support application of data in other areas. If you’d like to produce a similar investigation, contact us for how we can help.


This was part of a project funded through the ICLEI Action Fund and managed by CSE. 3D was developed to work alongside Birmingham City Council, local stakeholders and community partners to decarbonise Birmingham and reduce emissions through long-term solutions.

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