A game of two halves: where football meets education

A game of two halves: where football meets education

Bambos Eracleous, Partner for Sports, Media & Entertainment, and Sarah Shaw, Partner for Education, explore interesting partnerships between universities and the beautiful game.  

With Euro 2024 in full swing, the media is awash with football stories. When is it not, some might say! But away from the hullabaloo around the ongoing international tournament in Germany, there is another interesting football-related story to dissect. Partnerships between universities and football clubs.

Of course, there has always been a link between football and education at a grassroots level in terms of school and university sport. Some professional teams even emerged from the education sector. Scottish club Hamilton Academical, which this year celebrates its 150th anniversary, was founded by the rector of Hamilton Academy, James Blacklock, and is still going strong (well, strong enough to secure promotion back to Scottish football’s second tier following a play-off victory) long after the demise of the school from which it took its name.

Today, football is a business, entertainment and cultural juggernaut every bit as much as it is a sport. According to Deloitte’s Annual Review of Football Finance 2023, the European Football market grew 7% to 29.5 billion euros, with the ‘big five’ European Leagues generating the lion’s share of revenues at 17.2 billion euros.

Yet dig beneath headline figures as shiny as Jude Bellingham’s talent and a different picture emerges. In their report, ‘Still ill? Evaluating the Financial Sustainability of Football’, Dr Christina Philippou, from the University of Portsmouth and Kieran Maguire from the University of Liverpool, provide a grim analysis of the current financial state of football clubs. In their view, “The financial sustainability of English football remains at a precipice, with the majority of clubs in the top 5 tiers technically insolvent.”

So, football has far more to worry about than dubious VAR decisions. However, its status as a big business facing many opportunities and challenges allied to the passions it stirs and its huge cultural and social relevance means there is scope for partnerships with the education sector in various mutually beneficial guises.

These range from football clubs creating their own colleges or intending to do so, to clubs partnering with educational organisations to offer bespoke courses/degrees; and from universities sponsoring football clubs for commercial and responsible business objectives to the emergence of small, specialist institutions centred on football.

English Premier League club AFC Bournemouth has a longstanding partnership with Bournemouth University, which was signed in 2013 when ‘the Cherries’ were playing in League 1. Initially, the aims were around community partnership, student opportunities and supporting girls and women’s football. But since the Cherries’ promotion to the EPL in 2015, there has been a greater focus on the commercial and publicity aspects. First team players and club staff regularly come and speak with BU students, providing insight into the inner workings of a football club and specifically benefitting students' education in areas such as coaching sciences, marketing and PR, physiotherapy and nutrition. 

Elsewhere, the partnership between University of Portsmouth and Portsmouth Football Club stretches back to 2018 and includes an annual scholarship and collaborative research projects. At the heart of it lies a shared ambition to play a key role in the economic, educational and cultural life of Portsmouth and the surrounding region. That aspiration is commonly echoed in other such partnerships, notable examples of which include University of Bolton/Bolton Wanderers and Aston University/Aston Villa.

Professor George E Holmes, President and Vice Chancellor of the University of Bolton, has described the University and BWFC as “two of the oldest organisations in Bolton and both are central to the future prosperity of the town and more importantly to the health and wellbeing of local people.” The university took on BWFC’s stadium naming rights from 2018- 2023 and is currently a pitch sponsor.

The emergence of small specialist institutions such as UA92 and UCFB (University Campus Football Business) is an interesting development. The former was co-founded by Lancaster University and the Class of 92 – that famous cohort of Manchester United players including Gary Neville, Paul Scholes, Ryan Giggs, Nicky Butt and Phil Neville – and it offers courses such as a degree in the Business of Football, styling itself as providing education that is “preparation for life”. UCFB meanwhile has campuses in Wembley and Manchester, and “global hubs” including the Inter Miami and New York Red Bulls stadiums in the US.

Continuing the international theme, over 3,500 people have graduated from courses run by the UEFA Academy. Many of its 87 learning initiatives every year are delivered in close cooperation with leading professional and academic experts.

Where education and football meet, 2:1s intersect with 4-4-2s, goals are both strategic and of the back-of-the-net variety, and a team ethic can be about making a positive contribution to the community as much as it is about beating the opposition. Getting such partnerships off the ground and ensuring they are effective calls for expertise and stakeholder skills.

At Odgers Interim, spanning Education and Sports as we do, we have access to interim talent that understands and can capitalise on opportunities of this nature. Pass us the ball and we’ll show you.


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