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21 November 2019

Part of Everton FC’s award-winning community programme, Sport Business lecturer and Football Collective Chair Dan Parnell updates on a creative and exciting period for sport and community engagement

On the 8th April 1995, I was sat in the living room with my cousins and grandparents around a small TV. I was nine years of age, and we had all taken our £1 stakes and many celebrated as Royal Athlete won the Grand National at 40/1.

Royal Athlete

Once a Blue always a Blue

The very next day my grandad, dad and a bunch of my Everton FC mates jumped on the bus en route to watch Leeds Utd to play against Tottenham Hostspur in the semi-final of the FA Cup. Like many Blues, our friends had made a connection between our manager at the time, Joe Royle and the then Aintree winner. Incredibly, Everton FC pulled off an equally remarkable win and went on to win the FA Cup at Wembley. It was a very good couple of days and generally I romanticise about that year as a particularly good one! Family, history, tradition, culture and friendships – all contribute to my connection with sport and many will share their own memories, but for me football and horseracing have been a consistent.

Despite Everton FC not winning any silverware since, my identification and bond with the club has not changed. In 2006, I began a PhD examining the effectiveness of community-based interventions delivered by Everton FC to deliver positive behaviour change. Initially, this included an intensive year of applied research within Everton in the Community, the community engagement arm and independent charity of the football club, Everton FC.

As a student studying sport science, I never envisaged working for the club I visited weekly from being two years of age with my dad and grandad and later my daughter, son and friends – it was incredible to take an opportunity at ‘my club’. Despite no success on the pitch, Everton FC was not short of plaudits and awards for their community work off the pitch. My research was to capture the impact of this work and help them improve upon their successes.

Sport’s impact an open goal

This research sparked a very creative and exciting period of work concerning sport and community engagement. The data collected during the first year at Everton FC helped identify change strategies to improve a number of strategic and operational practices. Here I helped develop these strategies as part of a broader quality assurance process. I loved this genuinely applied research and was personally captured by the potential sport has to make a difference.

Together with this I have been involved in the management of many sport for development projects in Liverpool (as part of the Sport and Physical Activity Alliance) and completed research for a host of community-based interventions nationally, including:

  • SmokeFree Sports: an intervention to prevent smoking in children and young people in Liverpool (first intervention outside of Tobacco Free Athletes in Maine, USA);
  • Football Foundation: the national evaluation of Extra Time, which was a football- based health intervention for older people across 20 Premier League and Football League Clubs (first national intervention and evaluation of football as a vehicle for health in older people);
  • Football Foundation: the evaluation of the sustainability programme surrounding the Barclays Spaces for Sports initiative (£40million investment and first known intervention evaluation of a corporate sponsorship deal including the development of community sport facilities);
  • The Premier League: two national evaluations of their £10.5million investment in 57 Premier League and Football League clubs to deliver Primary Physical Education (first national interventions concerning the outsourcing of Primary PE to external providers);

Loving every bit of it

I am very fortunate to have a position with academia that allows and supports me to work on exciting applied projects that are making a genuine impact in people’s lives. I am a Senior Lecturer in Sport Business at the University of Liverpool Management School and I maintain strong relationships with a range of stakeholders in sport and football, including the English Premier League, the Football Foundation (UK’s largest sports charity), The English FA, the British Council and the Colombian Government. I am also the Chair of The Football Collective, CEO of the Association of Sporting Directors and sit on the Advisory Group of The Sports Think Tank. From my teaching to my applied research within industry, I feel like I am pursuing things that I am incredibly passionate about – I love every bit of it.

Improvements for future generations

To work in sport it is key that whilst it is our passion and something we have deep connections with, we must act as custodians for the future. In this respect, I am fully aware of the challenges sport contributes to within our society. In the same way, I also have a sound understanding of the potential sport has to make a genuine difference to people, families, communities and society. My hope is that through the people I connect with; the students I teach; and research I undertake with organisations, that this all helps towards leaving different aspects of sport and, in particular, football in a better place.

The amount of CSR and community engagement activity related to sport has shot through the roof with respect to applied activities in the past twenty years. Undoubtedly, we have seen some of this work professionalise. I could outline some of the genuinely incredible people (and their projects) that change lives – whether it’s the work of organisations using sport’s history to help dementia patients, or some of the football clubs’ charities delivering high quality physical education and positive experiences for children in primary schools, but it would be remiss for me not to highlight some of the issues.

Staying power is key

There is an abundance of CSR activity that is, at best, short-term or project-based. This often means that organisations engage with projects and issues on a three-year basis. In principle, this sounds OK, but in practice it creates issues for recruiting the appropriately qualified staff and then keeping them engaged fully across three years, when at year two, who wouldn’t be concerned about the precariousness associated with only having 12 months left on your contract? Moreover, it is often the case that when funding dries up from one source, organisations then must to broaden their aims to attract other funding sources. Sometimes this dilutes the focus and quality of practice and staff with an inappropriate skill set end up working across multiple projects and agendas.

It’s about thinking bigger

There is more than a book’s worth of discussion to unpack about some of these issues, but one of the most inspirational people I have met working around the area of football and CSR (and much more) is David Connor.

David is the Founder of the 2030 Hub and when he talks about making a difference, people tend to listen. David is part of a unique project that helps deliver upon the United Nations 2030 Sustainable Development Goals (UN 2030 SDGs) at a city-wide level in Liverpool, to help nations deliver at a national level. It’s about thinking bigger, beyond CSR and if people and organisations can ‘level-up’ and target the big stuff, and by the big stuff, I mean the UN 2030 SGDs.

Ultimately, much of the CSR work undertaken is not sustainable. At worst, we are going to see more well-intended CEOs ‘sleeping-out’ for the homeless in football stadia or sitting in baths full of beans, to chasing ever competitive grants and diminishing public funds to maintain their monster-sized community programmes – this rubbish has to stop if we are serious about doing something genuine to make a difference.

United Nations: Sustainable Development Goals
United Nations 2030 Sustainable Development Goals

A challenge for sport to do good

Sport most certainly offers an incredible platform to engage with stakeholders to deliver community engagement activities. Given the social issues prevalent in society, as a result of government funding cuts, such work is needed. However, there are many issues around delivering sustainable and quality community engagement activities. Understanding the UN SDGs against local or national contexts may allow organisations to deliver more focused and meaningful community engagement in the future. Moreover, looking after ‘your’ communities can be important for generating goodwill with your stakeholders which may benefit your organisation – who wouldn’t want to be in the business of doing well, through doing good?

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