Diversity roadmap - Kick it Out’s Roisin Wood: ‘If you want more fans you have to be inclusive’

Roisin Wood, chief executive of soccer inclusion organisation Kick it Out, discusses the need for the sports industry to reflect the communities it represents, and how we can begin breaking down the barriers of closed doors and old boys’ clubs and level the playing field.

Diversity roadmap - Kick it Out’s Roisin Wood: ‘If you want more fans you have to be inclusive’

Sport prides itself on providing opportunities for talented people from all walks of life. Those who lead it, though, have historically come from a narrower background.

While participation in elite sports has become more diverse in some instances, representation in leadership and management positions in the sports industry remains low. Ways to tackle this lack of diversity have been variously introduced, most notably through the Rooney Rule, which was first introduced in the US in 2003, and requires every team with a coach or general manager opening to interview at least one minority candidate. Though the rule has seen some success, critics have argued that its lack of substantial change remains due to the fact it addresses the symptoms and not the underlying issues surrounding diversity in the industry.

Meanwhile, as the industry gets to grips with ways to tackle exclusionary phenomena, sport last year bore witness to numerous prominent athletes staging demonstrations to raise awareness of racial issues. Colin Kaepernick, former San Francisco 49-ers quarterback, sparked a furore in 2016 when he refused to stand during pre-game renditions of the American national anthem in a protest against police brutality and racial inequality. His protest led to the #TakeAKnee movement, which became a lightning rod for debates about social injustice, and also brought racial issues to centre stage.

Roisin Wood, chief executive of soccer inclusion organisation Kick it Out reflects on sport’s progress in terms of diversity and inclusion, over the last decade, and discusses the strategies needed to enact meaningful and sustainable change throughout the industry.

How have you seen the climate in terms of inclusivity and diversity change over the last five and ten years?

In some ways it has got better. However, it has been worrying in terms of the trends that we see post-Brexit, with the rise of hate crime in society being reflected in football as well, especially on social media. We are a reporting bureau so you can report any form of discrimination to us and so you see midseason reports of an increase of 59 per cent. While part of that is down to people having increased confidence about reporting because they think something is going to be done, you couldn’t put that 59 per cent down to only that. Social media is a big concern for us; in many ways this has been taken out of the stadium and online.

Roisin Wood, chief executive of soccer inclusion organisation Kick it Out, says that 

What sort of ongoing challenges do you think still need to be addressed in terms of diversity and inclusion?

Reporting is important. You need to be as accessible and transparent and as reactive as you can so that people feel confident about reporting and think that if they do something, it will be taken seriously.

I think we’re still, in the sports industry business, not diverse enough as you progress up especially. At senior levels and on boards, there is still a lack of diversity. We have our Raise Your Game programme which helps provide opportunities for people who aspire to work within the football industry, and is currently supported by the Premier League.

Football as an industry needs to get much better at telling people what it does both internally and externally. I think we need to get better at collating all data in regards to diversity and equality because you can’t really set targets unless you have baselines and if you don’t have data then you can’t set the baseline. You need to make sure you’re educating young players in the academies. Education runs through every single thing we do and it has to, we have to educate managers and young players from all levels and parents and so in to show them what is and isn’t acceptable in the same way we have to educate fans, clubs, and support the clubs and challenge them and give them credit for when they do it properly.

How do you think the lack of diversity in leadership roles affects how organisations in sport operate?

It has a massive impact because where clubs are really good around diversity and inclusion is when it’s led from the top. It’s where equality and inclusion runs through every single thing they do. If you’ve got a chairman or a chief executive who believes in that, it impacts everything that that organisation then does and becomes part of the core business.

Where do you stand on quotas? Necessary or unhelpful? Good or bad?

I’m not a great one for quotas, I think positive action is the best way. The Rooney Rule and variations of are a good step forward, however, and it’s about education as well. We are not just giving jobs to women or minorities, we are suggesting there should be a level playing field to make sure the best person gets the job.  If you can’t have a level playing field, it will stay with being who you know.

People just want a chance to show that they can do the job. They don’t want to be given the job because they’re a woman, or BAME, or gay, they want to show that they are deserving and competent enough for the role.

What would you say are some of the barriers preventing women, BAME and LGBT individuals from attaining leadership roles in sport?

It’s a lot of things. We need flexibility so people can bring in elements like childcare and things like that. It’s also about being able to make people feel comfortable there. That’s why our mentoring programme is good because there are 99 mentors who can talk to young children and people who want to come into the business and show them the things they need to do. Like most businesses it’s about who you know. If you’re not able to meet and connect with these people then you’re not in the running.

It’s about breaking down those barriers of closed doors and saying our organisation is one that embraces diversity so you get people who want to come and work for you because they feel welcomed there. I think that the more diverse your workforce is then the better and stronger it is. 

What are the ways your organisation is going about overcoming some of the challenges to inclusivity and diversity that you’ve mentioned?

We work with every bit of football. We deliver diversity and equality training for nine to 23-year-olds, for parents and coaches for every Premier League club, we do the EFL clubs, we do the fans for diversity programme, which we give small grants to diverse fan groups so they can do different activities and raise the profile of their groups, whether that’s LGBT, BAME or women’s fan groups.

We are also a reporting bureau so you can report discrimination you see, hear or encounter to us or through our app, and we pass it on to the FA and the club and we will act as an advocate for the victim. We do rehabilitation education with the person found guilty.

We run the mentoring leadership programme to try and diversity the work force in football and try and get young people who want to work in the business in the door and matched with high profile mentors. We also do work with grassroots organisations and we fund grassroots initiatives and we work with FAs as well. We are a campaigning body so we’ll do campaigning around combating homophobia, biphobia and transphobia, tackling discrimination on social media.

Brighton manager Chris Hughton is one of the few BAME managers working in English soccer and the only one in the top flight

What are some of the success stories for the last couple of years for your organisation or more broadly, the sports industry?

Our Fans for Diversity programme has been really good and grown from strength to strength and there’s new funding coming into that— it’s great for fans to have their own voices and is very empowering. Raise you Game has been amazing too—we have a women’s one and a media one in the Emirates every year. One of the big things we’ve done this year is in partnership with TSB we are going to launch 25 fully paid scholarships to do a football degree at undergraduate and postgraduate level.

The more diverse your workforce is then the better and stronger it is

How do you think narratives can be told by brands and the media to further work to grow inclusion?

We have a good relationship with the media but often we’re gaining visibility only when we’re reacting to something, something has happened and we’ve put out a statement. It would be nice if some of the good things we do were given the same level of coverage.

Also sponsors have much more of a vocal platform because of the diversity of their brand and of their market. They have to be really clear that if they are going to sponsor something, they need to ensure that diversity is being taken seriously. Their voice has to be strong and it is a real responsibility.

How do you think sport can showcase the benefits of diversity?

If you look at English football, 30 per cent of players are from a BAME background in the Premier League; it’s considered one of the most multi-cultural leagues that there are. What we’re trying to say is, what if the progression from a player to a manager of coach or in the business of football also reflected that? You need to represent your players. It’s about trying to get diversity reflected in every room and that lends the credibility to organisation.

You want fans, the diversity of fan bases is changing. Smaller clubs are not selling out. They’re sitting in a diverse community and they’re wondering why that community aren’t sitting there as fans. If you want your fanbase to grow then you’re going to have to diversify it.