The Youth Lab


A Well Oiled Machine

This week we delve into the current state of affairs in football. Thinkhouse has a long standing experience in the world of football, between work with the Irish football team and one of our first clients Manchester United. Speaking of Manchester clubs — this week's 52INSIGHTS we’ll be diving into the scandal that their noisy neighbours have embroiled themselves in, unpicking the murky world of Petrostate football and ‘sportswashing’.


Petrostate football is fast becoming the most used term in the footballing world where we have seen the introduction of oil money to the top leagues around Europe from countries such as Russia, Qatar & Saudi Arabia. Since the turn of the millennium we have seen this influx of oil money into the world of football which has become the most alluring realm for mega rich oligarchs and oil states. It all started with the purchase of London club Chelsea by the infamous Russian businessman Roman Abramovich in 2003. His infinite amounts of cash flow coming into the Premier League would forever change the league…


Not yet coined back in the 1936 Olympics whereby sports was being used to generate money and viewership in countries where atrocious crimes were being committed, the term ‘Sportswashing’ is now well and truly on the lips of fans, pundits and lawyers in the footballing world. FIFA has seen major backlash for bringing the biggest sporting event on the planet the World Cup to countries such as Qatar. Its human rights issues and treatment of the LGBTQ community were largely masked by lavish and state of the art football stadiums & investment into marketing the event as “the best WC ever.” The protests, direct condemnation of FIFA by certain athletes & the boycotting of the competition failed in comparison to the viewership of the competition as it was the most watched World Cup Final of all time with 1.5 Billion viewers.

We’ve seen the likes of Manchester City, Newcastle PSG & Arsenal along with countless European clubs profit heavily from Sportswashing through shirt sponsors, stadium sponsors and club sponsors. Man City who are owned by the Abu Dhabi United Group which is a state owned company in the UAE are seen to be a successful sportswashing club due to their ability to normalise colossal investment into the sport which in turn cloaks the ethical violations of the country and paints the UAE in a more favourable light.


With the introduction of Financial Fair Play in 2011/12 season, UEFA promised equality among teams and leagues, unfortunately this couldn’t be further from the truth. Football fans in Europe believed they could get a good night's sleep knowing their team was on the same level playing field… But fast forward 12 years and we have descended into utter chaos when it comes to the money being spent and the state of the transfer market where eye watering investment is being made. There are a scandalous 115 charges now being brought against Man City. We can backdate these charges all the way back to 2009 and we are yet to see a hefty punishment for the club. What this punishment will be is still up in the air, but we can only speculate that it will be a legacy changing moment for the club, who recently were the first English team to win (the proper) treble since their neighbours Manchester United in 1999. Relegation? Points deduction? Stripped of all titles? We have already seen a points deduction for Everton this season who have been in breach of FFP and we can only imagine other clubs live in fear of the Financial Fair Play ‘Boogeyman’.

“The current infrastructure of P&S laws safeguards the elite top 6 clubs. We’ve seen investment in Newcastle, Villa and even Everton. The former seeing great success that will now see all good work stifled as they have to now have to sell all valuable assets, making it difficult to close the gap on the established without breaking the rule *cough 115 charges” Dave, 26, The Love Network


A watershed moment came in 2021 with the announcement of the European Super League. The leading figures of some of Europe’s largest teams announced that plans were in place to break away from the conventional national set-ups to form a closed-door European supergroup. The owners and chairmans of clubs like Real Madrid, Liverpool, Juventus, Arsenal and Manchester United had decided that the gargantuan profit margins that they had become accustomed to simply weren’t safe in the traditional football pyramid where relegation was always a possibility. In doing so, they totally ignored the working class roots on which the sport was founded in favour of protecting their prized assets. For most regular people this showed a lack of perspective from these Execs on what really makes the game of football so special. Having an identity, a sense of purpose and place at a local level has become more important in our globalised world.

Many football fans who support these mega-rich English teams couldn’t look away anymore, the sport no longer had an everyman feeling. The timing of this event in the aftermath of the COVID pandemic led to people seeking out live events that they could get involved in, and crucially that were based in the community. It represented a way to connect with those around them in a much more meaningful way than watching Super Sunday locally. For example in Ireland, the League of Ireland’s average attendances have risen 38% from 2,492 to 3,448 from 2017 to 2024. The 2023 FAI Cup final was the highest ever attended in the country and had a higher domestic cup final attendance than Belgium, Portugal and The Netherlands.

A huge difference in these football clubs is the ownership model. The fan ownership model in place at as many as 10 LOI clubs is a far cry from the billionaire autocrats at the top-end of Europe. Bohemian’s lead the way in this regard, since becoming fan-owned they’ve absolutely prioritised their role in the community running Direct Provision Christmas Toy Appeals, raising money for asylum seekers through their Refugees Welcome campaign and even being the first football club to add a Climate Justice Officer to their payroll. Their active citizenship model places much more significance on being positive to the entire locality as well as their fans.


Sports sponsorships & activations are politically charged - this can’t be ignored. Youth football fans are the ones leading the charge in terms of the support for local teams in their area. They have their finger on the pulse when it comes to being more socially, politically, culturally and climate aware. Youth have managed to intertwine their beliefs and morals with their passions which has led to that increased support in the League of Ireland. Bohemian’s Football Club Head of Climate Justice & Sustainability, Seán McCabe, couldn’t have put it any better: “Grassroots efforts and community efforts are a real opportunity for the League of Ireland to differentiate itself significantly from the Premier League. There is a real opportunity to grow our League and teams by doing things that matter to the people in our communities. These mightn't be related to football, but in the long term have a positive benefit for the club by bringing people in and popularising the league. This can be done without taking resources and funds away from the club. Everything Bohemian’s have done to date in terms of community and climate work are raised with grants which allows them to have an impact.”

These increasingly community-conscious fandoms provide a unique opportunity for brands to support positive engagement on and, importantly, off the pitch through participatory action.


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