'What football players do .. is part of the kids lives': Exploring the connections between young people and sporting celebrity

Lead Research Organisation: University of East Anglia
Department Name: Politics Philosophy Lang & Comms Studies


In the summer of 2014, photographs of the Arsenal and England footballer Jack Wilshire smoking a cigarette whilst on holiday in Las Vegas made headlines across Britain. This comment from the Chelsea manager, Jose Mourinho, reported in The Guardian newspaper was typical; "What football players do, millions and millions are watching, lots of kids are watching ... Everything they do ... is part of the kids' lives. If they smoke, maybe the kids think they do it a lot of times and they will probably do the same". This argument about the power of celebrities to influence the lives of young people, is a common one but has not been subject to much academic scrutiny. Sports celebrities, in particular, are held up as role models because they are dedicated athletes, high achievers and often come from the same background as those they are seen to inspire. However, there is a paradox at the heart of this relationship, which will also inform our study . On the one hand, football has become a multi-billion pound global industry, with the top players becoming national and, sometimes, global icons as a result of increased media exposure. On the other hand, these elite players form a 'community' of wealth and privilege that is increasingly disconnected from the worlds of the ordinary supporter, notably when compared with a past when players generally grew up, played for and lived in local communities. Therefore, we are also keen to examine the extent to which the dominance of the top tier within English football in terms of both finances and (mediated) visibility, may be impacting on the ability of smaller clubs to build relations with local populations, including young people.

For the purposes of this project we will partner with the community organisation, Football Unites, Racism Divides (FURD), which has extensive experience of working with young people and professional football clubs on community projects, primarily in the city of Sheffield. In order to take advantage of these extensive local connections, we will conduct our primary research in Sheffield and, in doing, so will engage with a range of community stakeholders. First, we are interested in exploring the views and experiences of young people in relation to sport, celebrity and community participation. To this end, we plan to use a number of collaborative, interactive workshops to involve them more fully in the data gathering process. These will involve the production of short films and other documentary materials, role playing activities and discussion groups. Second, we will build on the arguments of a recent Connected Communities scoping project (Griffiths & Armour, 2013), which argued that 'more research is needed that gives a voice to volunteer coaches', by conducting interviews in each locale with sports coaches who work with young people. This will allow us to provide an alternative perspective on the connections between young people and sporting celebrity and also assess the role of such coaches as 'community assets' involving in building or sustaining relations between these groups. Third, we will examine wider media debates, both mainstream and in social media, to examine how key campaigns and issue discussed in the workshops were reported.

The project will produce a number of significant outputs including; two peer-reviewed papers for international journals, a summary report with a series of recommendations for those bodies (government agencies, sports associations, charitable organisations) involved in building communications between young people, local communities and professional sporting bodies, an end-of-project symposium designed to discuss these findings and an online platform, which will be used as a resource by all interested parties as well as forming the basis for follow-on research in this area.

Planned Impact

Who will benefit from this research?

This project bid has been developed in conjunction with our main community partner, Football Unites, Racism Divides (FURD), and seeks to engage with a number of distinct communities of interest; young people, professional football clubs, sports coaches and governments agencies and NGO's who look to address issues of exclusion and prejudice among young people through their involvement in sports-based community projects. All of these groups are envisaged to be direct beneficiaries of the research.

How will they benefit?

Young people

This research is designed to give a voice to young people by treating then as active social agents and involving them in the research process so they can outline and justify their own preferences, activities and values. In this way, we will be able to critically evaluate the common assumption that young people unthinkingly replicate the actions of sports celebrities and in the process will offer them a voice through the summary report and, in particular, the online platform. One of the activities in the workshops will involve participants designing their own community-sport programme involving professional teams and players and these will be discussed in the end-of-project symposium with representatives from a range of agencies and organisations that fund and organise sports-related activities for young people.

Government agencies

The project will also give the wide range of groups who look to engage with young people through sport, insights into how best to employ the 'celebrity capital' associated with particular players and clubs so as to make community engagements more successful and cost effective. As well as local and national government agencies, this would include, local community sports organisations, charities, schools and youth clubs.

Professional clubs

Likewise, we also suggest that the project has the potential to inform how professional clubs, and their sponsors and advisors, seek to build relationships with young people in the local communities in which they operate. This is a key feature of the study given the relative paucity of the extent literature around this topic and we plan to make a series of recommendations in the summary report and to discuss these at the symposium.

Sports coaches
The project will also impact on the activities of volunteer sports coaches and those that work alongside and fund them. In seeking to understand the position of such coaches, we will explore their role in working with young people and community partners (including professional clubs) and be able to make concrete suggestions as to how such partnerships might be better tailored or marketed to meet the needs of all concerned. In emphasising the role of coaches as community assets, the study can be used to informing developments in wider professional practice and public policy in an area (community sport) that has been seen as key in contributing to regeneration, community cohesion and social inclusion

The end of project symposium will be used to bring together all of these interested parties (government agencies, charities, sports associations and representatives of professional clubs) to debate these issues and to think about how applications for follow-on funding might be developed to incorporate a wider number of actors across a greater range of sites. The online platform will be used to both present some of the key findings from the project (drawing on material from the workshops, interviews and media analysis) and, subsequently, promote the project and act as a shared resource for interested parties, notably those who may wish to support or be involved with further research.


10 25 50
Title Film of the FURD Football Circus 2016 
Description The film provides an overview of the activities that took place at the FURD Football Circus 
Type Of Art Film/Video/Animation 
Year Produced 2016 
Impact A number of the participants in the film asked if they could use it for school-related activities 
URL https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JZizUGh__h8
Description Community
Football based connections that for previous generations of young people may have provided regular liminal moments for strengthening community bonds through the commonality of localised support have changed. Such continuity exists for young people whose family background has remained consistent across more than one generation but connectivity with other young people through football is just as likely to be through the consumption of extra-local football, including teams with regular success in England and the two most successful teams in Spain, Real Madrid and Barcelona. This is particularly true for the 2nd or 3rd generations from BAME backgrounds.

Role models
Our research shows that elite professional football players are admired for their skills and followed through a range of media platforms. Some use Twitter and Instagram to keep up to date on what their favourite players are doing and saying but all showed a healthy degree of cynicism towards what was done and said. In short there was no real evidence that football players are seen as role models beyond wanting to be as good as them at football (perhaps along with some of the material benefits this generates, though this was never dwelt on for long).

The fact is though, that the valorising of these skills does not mean that young people view their performances or lives uncritically as many of the more hysterical role-model debates suggest. Young people are not easy to impress at the best of times. Combine this with an informed knowledge of the game derived from a range of sources (the media, yes, but also friends, family and so on) and the healthy scepticism that negotiating with these different sources entails and you have a group that is a long way from the cultural dupes that purveyors of lazy clichés imagine them to be. This also means treating with caution the surveys which apparently show how many young people view footballers as role models. Simply ticking a box or writing down your favourite football player doesn't really indicate why they are considered to be role models and we strongly suspect that as for our participants, young people admire their on-field skills and aspire to be like them, but only in that respect.

What was also noticeable was the fact that across all the young people we spoke to three names were consistently mentioned, Messi, Ronaldo and Neymar, who we came to see as the holy triumvirate of young people's football aspirations and horizons. Most obviously for young people living in Norfolk and Sheffield, these players are first and foremost media stars, their performances viewed on satellite television (Sky covering La Liga on a regular basis) and subsequently scrutinised via countless Youtube clips, where particular goals, tricks, skills and celebrations were endlessly pored over and, usually, exulted). Interactive gaming, notably FIFA, also seemed important in generating knowledge of both foreign leagues, clubs and players and in allowing young people to experiment with playing styles (the aforementioned goals, tricks, skills and celebrations). Indeed, as an aside, we were told by more than one youth coach that the skills viewed and practiced in online environments were often transferred onto playing fields.

Young people from ethnic minority low income backgrounds also highlight the achievement of players like Neymar & Messi as coming from what they perceive to be tough backgrounds to becoming the best in the world at what they do - possibly reflecting their own relative positions and aspirations.

Football provides loose ties for young people to connect through digital means but is most likely to supplement face-to-face relationships. Football, participation and consumption, provides a communicative form for face-to-face interaction and reinforces existing bonds through digital interaction with existing social networks. This is through their allegiance to specific teams and demonstrating their 'authenticity' of support by watching favourite teams on television and seeking information online from club websites or bbc.co.uk, etc. as well as football clips on YouTube of funny/controversial on-pitch events, favourite players' (who play for other teams) goals/skills, freestyle football tips which are shared, tagged or discussed in the playground/at training. Engagement work such as that provided by FURD or Sheffield United Community Foundation provides alternative locations for young people to meet other people to those they go to school with or from their local neighbourhood. How they find out is either through conventional outreach techniques or word of mouth rather than online means of advertising.

Film making acts as a tangible way of engaging young people in the research process, familiar as they are with documentaries, feature films, vlogs, YouTube and facetime as part of their everyday lives. This works on two levels as the process encourages debate about what is important regarding the topic (and how it is presented) and it provides a research output that can be variously participant and researcher led.

Community football coaching is a 'way of life'. It is seen by young people as a viable career when they realise they are not going to make it as professional footballers. Those that do earn money as community coaches also do a lot of voluntary work alongside the paid work. They act as mentors to the young people they coach and are seen as role models by them

For sports coaching, successful community engagement comes in part from the mix of coaches with local knowledge (gaining trust and credibility) and outsiders who can encourage the children to 'up their game' because they have a more objective view of the children's skills.

Successful grassroots coaching reveals a blurred boundary between paid and volunteering coaching; love of the game and community pride means that the coaches often volunteer extra coaching time, staying beyond their official clocking off time in order to develop and support the game in their community.
Exploitation Route These findings can be used by those with an interest in funding or supporting community coaching both in terms of understanding the motivation and experiences of (volunteer) coaches and providing frameworks in which their work can be developed and promoted

Professional clubs might benefit from our understanding of how young people perceive and engage with local clubs. This is particularly applicable to groups, including BAME young people, whose support often focuses on national or regional 'superclubs' as they are seen to be more relevant (often through media channels) to their own lives

Our use of a range of innovative research activities (role plays, practical activities, filming) in order to both engage young people and generate novel data provides both theoretical insights (into, for example, the mediatisation of football) and methodological rigour allowing those involved to become co-creators

We have provided some advice to the Professional Footballer's Association (PFA) on possibly avenues for conducting an evaluation of their community programmes, which has been informed by our experience of working on this project
Sectors Communities and Social Services/Policy,Digital/Communication/Information Technologies (including Software),Culture, Heritage, Museums and Collections

URL http://fc-communities.co.uk/
Description A group of predominantly Muslim girls helped produce a number of short films about their participation in football at a local youth centre. These will be shown as part of community partner FURD's programme of events around National Women's Day. Such outputs are useful in helping FURD to secure funding for such work and promote their work to wider audiences. Adds to FURD's portfolio of engaged research projects giving more credibility when seeking funding for further pieces of research in other areas of their work. One of our engagement activities which provided an opportunity for school pupils to engage with their teacher in a more informal role has reportedly had the consequence of strengthening the teacher's relationship with his class to the extent that one particular boy has become more engaged than before.
First Year Of Impact 2015
Sector Communities and Social Services/Policy
Impact Types Societal

Title Performative Participatory Methods 
Description Having struggled to engage young people with standard approaches (interviews, questionnaires, seminar discussions) to collecting data about their involvement/interest in football, we designed a series of activities modelled on existing practices in the professional game. For instance, we asked them to participate in a football match and before and carried out a pre-match press conference and post-match interviews. Through participation in these activities, and adopting the role of manager, star player, journalists, the young people demonstrated their knowledge of these specific settings and wider media frames as well as their own preferences. It also enabled us to build a positive rapport with the young people which provided the basis for subsequent 
Type Of Material Improvements to research infrastructure 
Provided To Others? No  
Impact Young people are not always the easiest people to engage in research. Our approach has had a notable impact on the quality of the data we have been able to generate leading to a better understanding of how young people engage with football (notably in relation to media) in the contemporary era. Likewise, when working in schools we have been told that pupils who take part in these activities alongside teachers, subsequently have a better working relationship in the classroom 
Description 'Sport mania' event for schools in Norfolk 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Schools
Results and Impact Around 80 pupils attended a 'Sports Mania' event at the University of East Anglia which I helped to organise. As part of the day, I discussed the research project with the group and got students to take part in small workshops looking at, for example; how to research sport, football and role models, media and sport. The feedback from the event was very positive and many students noted in the sessions that they weren't previously aware of how an interest in sport could translate into both academic study and future employment.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2015
Description Contribution to community event 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Local
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact A group of predominantly Muslim girls helped produce a number of short films about their participation in football at a local youth centre. These will be shown as part of community partner FURD's programme of events around National Women's Day. Such outputs are useful in helping FURD to secure funding for such work and promote their work to wider audiences.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2016
Description Football Circus, Sheffield, May 2016 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Local
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact Around 90 people attended a one-day event at U-Mix Centre in Sheffield. The event featured a number of football-related activities and involved the football freestyler, Dan Magness who holds a number of world records.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2016
URL https://connected-communities.org/index.php/events/event/football-circus/
Description Half-day event involving local school (Norwich) 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an activity, workshop or similar
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Local
Primary Audience Schools
Results and Impact We ran a half-day event for local school children which involved a series of activities around football fandom and the links between media and football. The event generated a lot of interesting discussion between the pupils and their teachers and was positively evaluated by all participants. The young people noted that they hadn't been aware that it might be possible to study sport (in this way) at university
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2016
Description Online comment pieces 
Form Of Engagement Activity A magazine, newsletter or online publication
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Regional
Primary Audience Public/other audiences
Results and Impact To promote the initial findings from the project to a wider academic and non-specialist audience
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2016
URL http://www.ueapolitics.org/category/topics/football-society-topics/
Description School visit (Sheffield) 
Form Of Engagement Activity Participation in an open day or visit at my research institution
Part Of Official Scheme? No
Geographic Reach Local
Primary Audience Schools
Results and Impact We ran a series of workshops with a group of school-age students in Sheffield as part of their school's 'Knowledge Enhancement' day. The activities related to football knowledge and fandom and the link between football and media. The event was extremely successful and the teachers who participated noted that it had had a very positive impact on their relationship with their students.
Year(s) Of Engagement Activity 2015