Tag Archives: football

Celebrating our Summer of Sport: In Conversation with Professor Geoff Walters

Headshot of Geoff Walters, Executive DeanWith the Lionesses roaring to victory in the European Championships and the Commonwealth Games in full swing, summer 2022 is set to be a fantastic summer of sport. We sat down with Professor Geoff Walters, Executive Dean of the School of Business, Economics and Informatics to discuss his research and teaching in sport management and the work still to do to promote diversity and inclusion in sport at all levels.


Tell us how you got into researching and teaching on sport management

I initially joined Birkbeck as a researcher in the Football Governance Research Centre in 2003, which at the time was at the forefront of research into the governance of the football industry and the supporters trust movement. Birkbeck was also the first to launch an MSc in Sports Management, so it was an exciting place to come and study for my PhD, which focused on the football industry. At that time, academic research on governance in sport, and the teaching of sport management, was in its infancy and so coming to Birkbeck was a great opportunity.

Can you give us an example of how research in this area has an impact on the world of sport?

My colleague Dr Richard Tacon and I started looking at organisational governance (boards) in 2010 and realised there was not a great deal written on this at the time. We have looked specifically at the UK context, trying to understand how policy shapes board roles, primarily in National Governing Bodies of Sport in the UK. Through sector-wide reports, in-depth case studies, workshops and training, we have helped to raise the level of public debate, improve organisational practice and more recently, through our involvement with the Diversity in Sport Leadership project with UK Sport and Sport England, contributed to greater diversity and inclusion within boards across many different sports.

Sport has traditionally been a male dominated industry – what more do you think needs to be done to increase inclusive leadership in sports?

There have been significant changes in the sporting sector due to the Sports Governance Code that was introduced in 2016. This mandated minimum gender diversity requirements on the Board of any organisation funded by UK Sport or Sport England. All funded bodies also have to implement a Diversity Action Plan. These changes have accelerated inclusion within the sector, which at board level, has historically lacked diversity. There are also things that we at Birkbeck are seeking to do. This year, we are committing to a pledge with Women in Football by hosting bi-annual career events for female students interested in the football industry alongside our annual Birkbeck Women in Sport ScholarshipNevertheless, there are still some parts of the sports industry (e.g. within professional team sports) where there is a lack of representation at board level. There is also a need for more understanding of power relations within sport (and sport organisations) and how they construct gender and race. These are important issues to address so that representation is not seen as merely a box that needs ticking.

How do you think sport can make a positive influence in society today?

I think sport is dichotomous. Yes, on the one hand it can make a positive difference to people’s lives, supporting their development or having health benefits for example. However, this requires joined up Government policy and not simply the usual platitudes about the role of sport without real commitment to supporting positive change. I think this goes for sporting events also – the legacy of the London Olympics for example has not really delivered on much of what it promised in many areas such as sporting participation and creating a healthier nation. Perhaps too much is expected of sporting events, but with competitive bids requiring a strong narrative and certain nations still using sport events as a way to exercise soft power or greenwashing/sportwashing, then the positive influence of sport events will remain a divisive topic.

Any final messages to our sports people over the next few weeks?

Good luck, and I hope you can replicate the success of the England Women’s team!

Further Information


A ‘merged season’ solution for the Premier League post-coronavirus could be the best for all

Dr Richard Evans is a sports economist and an Associate Research Fellow at the Birkbeck Sports Business Centre with a focus on football finance. He discusses a potential solution to catch up the football season post-coronavirus.

It appears from the media that there is an understandable impatience, verging on panic, on the part of the FA and the Premier League to get the remaining games of the 2019/20 season played.  Clearly this would overcome commercial threats, in particular from the broadcast rights holders, and negate problems with player contracts if the season is extended.  However, even if the authorities in the UK go ahead with their preferred solution without alignment with UEFA for international competitions, it may be in the commercial interests of the Premier League to take a longer term view.

If, as seems likely, the coronavirus pandemic has not passed by the scheduled start of next season the effect on that season (and possibly future seasons) will also need to be considered. At present it appears that either this is not being considered or it is assumed that, at that point, new contracts would be negotiated and things would carry on from there as normal.

Consider the (quite likely) possibility that the point when football could continue as normal is not the convenient start of a scheduled season. Perhaps some new competition could be introduced to fill the gap until another season started. But perhaps that period could provide a window for the remaining games from this season to be played. For example, if games could resume sometime before March next year the current and next seasons could be merged into a 2019/21 season and ‘the narrative’ (as the Premier League likes to call it) could be continued to a sporting conclusion. This ‘merged season’ scenario would preserve the integrity of the competition for the Premier League and the fans and thereby be more attractive and consequently lead to a more advantageous commercial resolution with broadcasters, sponsors and players.



2018 World Cup Q&A with Ben Mackriell, Head of OptaPro

OptaPro is a sub-division of Opta, focused on supporting professional clubs with analytics, for example match analyses, players’ and team performance, and scouting reports. Birkbeck spoke to Ben Mackriell, Head of OptaPro, about the 2018 World Cup games and football in a digital world.

Birkbeck and OptaPro have joined forces to deliver a Football Analytics module in 2019.

Overheard in a pub during a World Cup game: “Technology is killing football; it is a sport by humans for humans, and humans err.” How would you respond to this statement about the beautiful game, in an era of big data and digital technology?

This is understandable – ultimately, football is a game played by people, and people make majority of the key decisions.  I would say that data and technology are additional strands of information to players, coaches, analysts, and managers, in the same way a scouting report or physio assessment would be considered. With data, there is a challenge to ensure that what is produced is tactically relevant and can help inform decision-making. “How will this information help me win?” is a key question that should always be asked when conducting, producing, or presenting data-driven analysis.

People talk about the “World Cup champion’s curse” – what does OptaPro’s data analysis say about this? Does it exist, and if so, what are the factors involved?

We must remember that a World Cup is played over a very small number of games – a winning team will play seven matches. In such a small sample, random events that can affect the score may happen, and the impact is magnified because of the small sample, as well as there being hardly enough time to revert to underlying form.

Take Germany for example – despite their performances, they still created enough high-quality chances that would often see them win the matches they lost (Their expected goals (xG) totalled 5.59 – the highest in their group). While there are of course many factors that contribute to their early exit, in such a small sample it is possible that these chances could have gone in and this narrative would not exist.

The world cup can potentially affect a player’s reputation and value. How are clubs using data from the World Cup in their player targeting and acquisition strategies?

This is something clubs are extremely careful about, and this particular landscape has very much changed over recent tournaments. The World Cup is useful in that it provides a unique scenario for players to showcase their talent, and that can be valuable. However, tournament football brings such a small sample that it can be extremely difficult to draw any firm conclusions. Clubs would be considering this information of course, but they would also look beyond World Cup performance to investigate how a player has performed over a longer period.

What kind of information are football clubs most interested in receiving, and how has Opta’s research helped coaches and football teams?

Every football club is different. Some will be in the early stages of the journey with data, and others will have full analysis teams across different age groups.

A good example of the information clubs might look for is consistency. 99% of clubs cannot simply scout every player in South America – it is too expensive and too time consuming. A consistent dataset provides a club with player information which they know they can compare with more familiar players. This comes down to consistent definitions when we collect data, ensuring that a right winger in Brazil can be accurately compared with a right winger from the J-League.

This year, we saw the introduction of video assistant referees (VAR), which fans continue to discuss. Does OptaPro have any data on player performance following VAR decisions? For example, does VAR slow the game down or potentially increase the risk of injuries?

It is still very early days with VAR, and more research needs to be done in this area. It is an interesting question to understand how breaks in play may impact performance. A lot of work is being done across VAR to ensure delays are minimal, and I think that this is a trend we will see continue.

What makes Opta unique, compared to other organisations providing performance data?

Opta data has been part of the football conversation for years – be it through OptaJoe on Twitter, or data appearing on Match of the Day, or more recently, Monday Night Football. The detail of this data – every ball touch is collected live – is what makes Opta data unique. Having to capture this information to this level of accuracy in real time is certainly not easy, and in a fast-moving media and professional football world, live collection is essential.

Regarding OptaPro, it is all about how we apply this data. We’ve built bespoke tools that are tailored for professional clubs, allowing them to apply this data to inform their decision-making across performance analysis, recruitment, and even with their strategic planning, where teams will be using data to help bring through academy players, for succession planning with squads, and for recruiting managers.

How might someone interested in a career in sports analytics get involved?

There are many ways for people to get involved. In recent years, we’ve seen people enter the industry through presenting at our OptaPro Analytics Forum – an event that allows amateur analysts the opportunity to present detailed analysis to the professional football industry. The key is to not only understand how to work with data and maximise its impact, but also to understand how the game is played and what coaches are looking for in the information, which is arguably more crucial.


Sport Management at Birkbeck: Innovative perspective on the sport industry

Natalie Gedra at a sports stadium.

Over the past 30 years, there has been significant growth in the number of sports management programs offered by Higher Education institutions, from undergraduate level courses to MBAs with a focus on sport business. These courses aspire to provide students passionate about sport with the experience, management and leadership skills required for career success in this expanding and varied sector.

As a respected academic research centre, the Birkbeck Sport Business Centre in the Birkbeck Department of Management, offers a range of programmes to help students delve deeper into the business management, marketing and governance of the sports’ industry. Natalie Gedra, who was awarded a prestigious Santander Scholarship in 2016/17, recently featured in a short video outlining her positive experience of the Birkbeck Sport Business Centre, where she studied an MSc in Sport Management:

Before coming to Birkbeck, Natalie obtained a BA in Journalism and worked for 6 years as a sports reporter in Brazil, most recently with GloboTV. When she chose the Master’s programme in Sport Management, she hoped to pursue a role in the third sector related to sport. She says that studying sport management at Birkbeck has allowed her to step back from her industry position to view and assess the organisation, structure and behaviour of the sport industry from a broader, more detached perspective. These insights have enhanced her overall understanding of the sector:

“I’m already seeing a professional benefit from my Master’s; I already see sports in a different way.”

To find out more about the academic postgraduate programmes in Sport Business and Sport Management, please visit the Birkbeck website.

To keep up to date with Natalie’s sport journalism, you can also follow her on Twitter.


FIFPro global report on players conditions of employment

This post was written by Dr Andy Harvey – a Researcher at the Birkbeck Sport Business Centre and an Associate Lecturer in the Department of Psychosocial Studies.footballI am writing this as the January transfer window heads towards its final few frenetic hours, with breathless TV pundits reporting any last minute deals that clubs may make. The headlines during January have, as usual, focussed on the big money multi-million pound transfers, with Oscar’s move to Shanghai for a reputed £60m the stand out piece of business.

While the media will be concentrating on the Premier League and big name moves that helps to establish football in the minds of many as a game saturated in unimaginable amounts of money, a report from November 2016 tells a different story altogether.

On Tuesday 29 November, FIFPro, the global professional footballers’ union, released their long anticipated report on employment conditions of the world’s professional footballers. For those who are brought up on a daily media diet of staggering transfer fees and salaries of elite players at the top of the European leagues, the report will make sobering reading.

In a survey of over 14,000 players, out of a global membership of 65,000, and covering every region of the world, the report reveals that 45% of players earned less than $1000US per month, while just 2% could be classified as the super-rich elite with earnings of over $720,000 per month.

However, to observers of the global labour market such figures would not come as a huge surprise. Disparities of wealth between the lucky few at the top and the unfortunate masses below have been a growing trend to the point that in developed and developing countries, the bottom half often controls less than 10% of the wealth. Such disparities in income between rich and poor have been growing since 1980 and the adoption by countries across the globe of the neo-liberal economic model promoted by the IMF and the World Bank. It is not surprising that football, a highly competitive business, should also see similar disparities of wealth between its players.

As the FIFPro report notes, income disparity between players is a function to a large extent of the differences between wage levels in individual countries.  It should be remembered that $1000.00 a month in many parts of the world is a huge salary compared to the meagre wages that many people earn. The World Bank estimates that in sub-Saharan Africa alone, there are 389 million people living on less than $1.90 per day. So while there may be inequality within football, for the lucky few with the skills, talent and determination, football still seems to offer a better way to make a living than most. It is not surprising that young people in every part of the world still dream of making it in the big time.

However, earning a reasonable salary only means something if it is actually paid up and paid on time. One of the more startling results of the survey is that for professional footballers this is by no means certain with 41% of players reporting a delay in their salary during the previous two seasons. Some delays in salary payments lasted for over a year. These problems are exacerbated by the fact that professional footballers, unlike employees in other sectors, cannot simply take their skills elsewhere – they are subject to football’s transfer system that regulates how and when players can move to another club. At present a player can only break his contract of employment for just cause if he has not been paid for 90 days. If he tries to leave before that time he is liable to pay compensation to the club that holds his registration. This is a situation that is unique to football, and although there are good reasons for regulating the labour market to ensure stability for clubs and fair competition, it can also lead to the abuses that the FIFPro survey has revealed.

Late payment of wages is also a critical factor that threatens the integrity of football as it makes players vulnerable to the attentions of match-fixers. As I discovered in my own research into match-fixing in Europe, personal financial difficulties are a major contributing factor to corruption in sport. Large income disparities and late payment of wages, combined with the inability of players to move quickly to another club, is a perfect storm for corruption,and it is no surprise that the latest FIFPro research reveals that 1 in 11 players have been approached by a match-fixer. That is not to say that they have succumbed to temptation, but while late payment of wages persists in the game it will always be vulnerable to match-fixing.

The FIFPro survey shines a welcome light into the recesses of the world’s favourite sport that is so often insular and hard to penetrate. It shows that football is not immune from the global economic processes that have seen dramatic rises in precarious employment and temporary contracts even for professional employees. To this extent, those of us who work on the edges of the British academic system might say welcome to the modern world of short-term work and fixed-term contracts. But the FIFPro survey also highlights how the football sector has its unique systems of pressure that are exerted on its players, especially the journeymen who make up the vast bulk of the global playing staff. It is a highly competitive environment with a career-threatening injury never more than a moment away and where the pressures to perform and succeed are intense. Perhaps, most of all this report should make us all realise that a professional footballer is just another worker trying to make a living – just like the rest of us.


On FA Cup final day, homophobia is still a problem for English football

This post was written by Dr Andy Harvey – a Researcher at the Birkbeck Sport Business Centre. His PhD thesis was on the history of homophobia in sport. A monograph derived from his thesis, Boys will be boys? An interdisciplinary study of male sexuality and homophobia in football fiction, is due to be published by Fisher Imprints in 2015.

Dr Andy Harvey is a Researcher at the Birkbeck Sports Business Centre

Dr Andy Harvey is a Researcher at the Birkbeck Sports Business Centre

As millions of people across the globe switch on their televisions to watch the FA Cup final on Saturday 17 May, the match happens to coincide with the International Day Against Homophobia and Transphobia (IDAHOT) that is marked on 17 May every year. Celebrating its tenth anniversary this year, IDAHOT is a worldwide campaign that aims to bring attention to the problem of homophobia and transphobia that persists across the world.

No British sport has been associated with homophobic attitudes as much as football. A recent Channel 4 Dispatches programme, Undercover: Hate on the Terraces, broadcast on 3 March 2014, reinforced the idea that English football remains a potent site of discriminatory chanting by significant numbers of fans. The documentary showed how such chanting was often carried out in full view and earshot of stewards and police with little action taken by them or the football authorities. The programme confirmed a 2013 study by the Gay Football Supporters Network (GFSN) that showed how Brighton fans were the target of regular and persistent homophobic abuse from opposition supporters. The perpetrators of abuse have not been confined to fans: in April 2014 former Blackburn Rovers player, Colin Kazim-Richards, was found guilty of making an “utterly disgusting” homophobic gesture at Brighton and Hove Albion fans.

From the playing side of the professional game, it is now commonplace to mention that no professional footballer has ‘come out’ as gay while still playing in the English game. The fate of Justin Fashanu, who committed suicide after declaring his homosexuality in 1990 to a barrage of homophobia from the media, has acted as a warning to other gay professionals not to follow in his footsteps. In February 2013 the former Leeds United player, Robbie Rogers, ‘came out’ as gay in the same breath as announcing his retirement from professional football because he could not conceive of continuing to play due to the homophobic atmosphere of the dressing room and terraces. Earlier this year former German international and Premier League star, Thomas Hitzlsperger, announced he was gay after he had retired from the game, although the positive public reception he received stands in stark contrast to Fashanu’s experience.

A famous victim of football’s inability to accept sexual diversity was Chelsea and England defender, Graeme Le Saux, who, although known to be heterosexual, became the target of homophobic abuse during his playing career in the 1990s. Le Saux’s case graphically illustrates one of the little-mentioned aspects of homophobic behaviours: the vast bulk of homophobic abuse is aimed at straight men. No-one actually believes that Brighton fans are gay (although, as with any other club, some of them may be), or that a player who falls down rather easily is ‘a poof’. Opposing fans sing ‘does your boyfriend know you’re here?’ in order to call into question the gender credentials of the opposition supporters as a means of reinforcing their own ideas of a masculine heterosexuality. In other words, homophobic ‘banter’, whether perpetrated on the terraces or in the dressing room, acts as a mechanism for policing straight men’s sexuality.

In contrast to racist abuse where no-one would think of calling a white person by the ‘n’ word, homophobia relies on the assumption that being thought of as gay is a culturally demeaned identity that needs to be constantly repudiated at all times. The argument that homophobia is ‘like’ racism may be useful tactically to promote the importance of tackling homophobia. However, it is not the case that homophobia is ‘like’ racism since it works in very different ways.

The fact that straight men experience the negative consequences of homophobia should not in any way be taken to mean that gay men do not suffer from homophobia. The tragic consequence of the cultural regime that devalues gay lives is that homophobia is not confined to the football arena but is present in every city, town and community in the country. Homophobic attacks are a more violent means by which some men (it is usually, although not invariably, men who are the perpetrators) shore up their own narrow notions of their heterosexuality, or even attempt to deny their homosexuality. From personal testimony, I have had two acquaintances murdered in violent homophobic attacks and many LGB&T people still lead lives that are saturated in fear and anxiety due to their experience of persistent homophobia. This is what sets homophobic abuse apart from the other ‘banter’ of football: homophobia has disastrous impacts well beyond the football terraces.

Understanding that homophobia is steeped in the culturally demeaned status of sexual minorities is crucial if effective strategies to tackle it are to be developed. To do so successfully will mean challenging the notion that football is a ‘man’s game’ with all the gendered and cultural freight that is loaded on to that term. The work that the FA has commenced in opening up participation in the game will be crucial in this endeavour. Despite worrying levels of discrimination that still persist in Britain, there is evidence that, in some places, homophobic attitudes may be receding: after all we now live in a country where there are openly gay Conservative members of the government. Football has the potential to make a significant contribution to the shift against homophobia. The task is to work on the cultural regime of football in order to end forever the idea some forms of masculinity are superior to others or that football can only be played by a certain type of ‘man’.

A longer, and fully referenced, version of this article can be found on the Birkbeck Sports Business Centre web site.