How football kits are being used to promote causes beyond the pitch

Soccer kits are a ubiquitous presence in today’s world – not only in stadiums, but also in popular culture and fashion.  Last summer’s transfers involving the game’s two biggest stars – Lionel Messi’s move to Paris Saint-Germain and Cristiano Ronaldo’s return to Manchester United – only served to reinforce the enduring demand. Less than 30 minutes after images surfaced […]

Soccer kits are a ubiquitous presence in today’s world – not only in stadiums, but also in popular culture and fashion. 

Last summer’s transfers involving the game’s two biggest stars – Lionel Messi’s move to Paris Saint-Germain and Cristiano Ronaldo’s return to Manchester United – only served to reinforce the enduring demand. Less than 30 minutes after images surfaced of Messi donning the navy blue of PSG at the Parc des Princes, the kit was completely sold out on the team’s online club shop. Similarly, after it was revealed that Ronaldo would retain his iconic number seven shirt at United, the Portuguese made history across Fanatics’ platforms by becoming the biggest merchandise-selling athlete ever in the 24-hour period following a move to a new team.

The appetite for a good kit – and a star name – is as insatiable as ever. But beyond the obvious financial benefits for clubs lies an opportunity for soccer kits to be leveraged to promote more purposeful causes.

Indeed, given their widespread exposure on TV screens and social media feeds across the globe, kits can serve as the perfect poster for myriad social causes which run deeper than the shirt’s fabric and transcend the soccer pitch. With that in mind, an increasing number of clubs and charities have been utilising kits and their designs to draw attention to issues ranging from climate change to human rights.

In this roundup, SportsPro takes a closer look at some of the causes that soccer kits have been used to highlight, and speaks to some of the clubs and campaigners behind the initiatives.

Arsenal’s No More Red campaign seeks to raise awareness of knife crime in London (Photo credit: Arsenal)

Knife crime

The most recent high-profile example saw Premier League club Arsenal remove all traces of red from their home kit, revealing an all-white look for the team’s third round FA Cup clash with Nottingham Forest as part of the newly launched No More Red campaign.

The initiative, which is backed by the club’s kit supplier Adidas, aims to raise awareness of knife crime in communities across London and support local charities working to tackle youth violence in the city.

Over the last year, knife crime has surged in London. In announcing No More Red, Arsenal highlighted the fact that over 10,000 knife crime offences took place in the city from June 2020 to July 2021, while the UK capital also recorded its highest ever number of teenage deaths last year, with the majority being the result of knife attacks. 

In an effort to raise greater awareness of the issue, Arsenal are working on the campaign with actor Idris Elba and club legend Ian Wright.

“Every young person deserves the opportunity to express themselves. The opportunity to exist within a safe environment. The opportunity to live free from fear of violence,” Wright said in an official statement.

“We can never accept loss of life through youth violence as ‘normal’ in our city and it’s so important that we all work together to create a better environment for young people.”

Arsenal added that the all-white shirt would become a ‘symbol of positivity’ within the club’s local community, with the ten match-worn shirts donated to charitable organisations after the FA Cup game. The North Londoners also stressed that the kit will never be made commercially available, and will only be given to individuals tackling knife crime in the community. 


Human rights

In the buildup to the 2022 Fifa World Cup in Qatar, few clubs – if any – have been more critical of the tournament than Norwegian side Tromsø. The world’s northernmost club, situated above the Arctic circle, has been blunt with its criticism of the decision to award the most esteemed event in global soccer to a country whose human rights record is far from clean. 

Having previously called for Norway to boycott the World Cup completely in February last year, Tromsø adopted a different approach after the country failed to qualify.

In December, the Eliteserien side made headlines across the globe when it unveiled the first ever kit to feature a QR code. That code, which will be printed on the club’s third kits for the upcoming 2022 season, directs users to a page detailing Qatar’s human rights controversies. 

“We tried to be a little bit creative and came up with this third kit that got attention from all over the world,” Øyvind Alapnes, Tromsø’s chief executive, tells SportsPro.

“We see that football brings a lot of attention, so when we express what we feel, we get a lot of attention. And actually, we are able to change things,” he adds. “That’s why I really feel that we have a huge responsibility to actually speak our mind in these kinds of cases. And human rights, I feel, it’s not politics, it’s basic rights for humans.

“The other thing is that we also want to put pressure on Fifa and these organisations that follow the money.”

The shirt was designed in collaboration with Amnesty International shortly after the human rights group published its most recent report on the state of migrant workers’ rights in Qatar. Alapnes says that the shirt design aims to draw attention to the latest report, titled Reality Check 2021, which claims that recent reforms in Qatar, including the supposed abolition of the kafala sponsorship system, have not been properly implemented.

“The most important [thing] with this third kit is that it was meant to support Amnesty International and their work,” Alapnes states.

“They need attention on what they do. So when they come out with their reports, they need someone to help them so people read them and listen to them. That was kind of the idea with the third kit to actually help Amnesty get attention to what they are publishing.”

Reiterating the club’s stance, Alapnes also talks of the impact he hopes Tromsø’s third kit can have.

“What I really hope is that clubs will take bigger social responsibility and use the power we have in football to make great changes in the world. That’s what I hope for,” he affirms.

Tromsø’s stance on the Qatar World Cup was later mirrored by the governing Norwegian Football Federation (NFF), which actively supported human rights during the country’s qualifying campaign. From March last year, Norway’s men’s national team engaged in on-pitch protests, wearing T-shirts with the message ‘human rights, on and off the pitch’ during pre-match activities.

What I really hope is that clubs will take bigger social responsibility and use the power we have in football to make great changes in the world.

Øyvind Alapnes, Chief Executive, Tromsø IL

Reflecting on the overwhelming global response to Tromsø’s activism over the last year, Alapnes insists that the club’s stance was not taken “to get this kind of publicity”, but rather to lobby for wider change.

“The last year was really, really interesting, because all over the world, people started talking about Tromsø and our small club,” he adds.

“We really felt that – even though there are people disagreeing with us – most people are agreeing with us.”

Homelessness

While clubs themselves endeavour to promote social causes through their own shirt campaigns, charities are also aiming to use soccer kits as a “blank canvas” to creatively convey their messages.

That is according to Mark Lloyd, the strategy director at creative agency Dark Horses, which launched the No Home Kit initiative in December 2021, asking clubs to wear away or alternate kits during home matches on Boxing Day in order to raise awareness of homelessness. 

The campaign, which was launched alongside housing and homelessness charity Shelter, received backing from a number of prominent figures across the UK soccer community, including the likes of Sky Sports presenters Jeff Stelling and Chris Kamara, and brands such as Puma and Mitre.

“We have a problem, and that problem is that this country is heading towards a national housing emergency,” Lloyd tells SportsPro. “Homelessness has been on the rise for about a decade, and the pandemic was just adding fuel to the fire. Shelter were pretty overwhelmed by the demand there was for their services, which is still unfortunately increasing almost by the day.”

Outlining the thought process behind the No Home Kit campaign, Lloyd highlights the simplicity of repurposing an aspect of the game which was already there.

“We took something that already existed within the game and tried to change its meaning,” Lloyd explains. “The actual effect of that was massive because it meant that fans could get involved.”


So far, over 100 clubs have taken part in wearing away shirts during home fixtures, although the Premier League controversially blocked clubs from participating. Despite this, Lloyd was encouraged by the willingness of some teams to still get involved in some capacity. Tottenham Hotspur, for example, persisted by warming up in their away kits ahead of their Boxing Day match against Crystal Palace. The club also encouraged fans to wear their away kits to the game.

Lloyd says it was important to create something which fans could be actively involved with.

“Properly unifying football around this cause was really important and empowering fans as well,” he notes. “A lot of research that we found was pointing towards people understanding that homelessness was probably a problem, but it wasn’t their issue to fix. So we wanted something [to] allow fans to adopt the cause a little bit, and see it as something that they could actually have an impact on and be part of the solution for.”

When asked about the challenges of implementing charitable kit initiatives, Lloyd points to the difficulty of circumventing teams’ commercial commitments and obligations to sponsors.

“It’s harder than ever to make an impact in a way that doesn’t infringe on existing rights or take attention away from paying, quite vigilant sponsors,” he continues. “So to get yourself noticed in that arena is incredibly difficult, because everyone has cottoned on to the fact that it’s a highly valuable arena to be seen in.

“So for a charity you’re relying on a really novel idea, a way to get around all those rights without putting anyone’s nose out of joint, because it’s important those rights and deals are held up.”

We wanted something [to] allow fans to adopt the cause a little bit, and see it as something that they could actually have an impact on and be part of the solution for.

Mark Lloyd, Strategy Director, Dark Horses

He adds: “As long as clubs can show value to their sponsor, I think they want to be supportive of a good cause. If the cause is right for them, it matches their values as a club, and your idea in some way can demonstrate value for the sponsor, they will be up to having a conversation.”

As for the No Home Kit initiative going forward, Lloyd insists that any future iterations will have the same core message at heart.

“What won’t change, what we’re militant about is the No Home Kit central mechanic, because that worked so well for us and it can be activated in lots of different ways. So what won’t change is that we want the football community to come together, ditch their home shirt, wear an away or third one instead, all in aid of those with no safe place to call home.”

Sustainability

Known for doing things their own way, German club FC St Pauli took matters into their own hands in 2020 in their quest to champion sustainability and represent the interests of their fans.

Operating under the banner, ‘if you want something doing, do it yourself’, St Pauli decided to produce their own kits using their in-house DIIY manufacturing company from the start of the 2021/22 season. The Bundesliga 2 club had been seeking a new kit manufacturer after ending its previous agreement with US performance brand Under Armour.

In the wake of the decision, president Oke Göttlich hailed the Hamburg-based club’s “independence” and search for new creative innovations as “a hallmark of FC St Pauli”.

He added: “In launching our own teamsport collection, we remain steadfastly on our path of independence. The strength of a member-run club is reflected in the implementation of our members’ ideas. In this way, we can face any crisis together. DIIY, incidentally, is derived from the term DIY, or do it yourself. That’s exactly what FC St Pauli is all about – not just moaning, but doing it better yourself.”

In keeping with St Pauli’s reputation as one of the world’s most progressive clubs, their current third kit also features a rainbow-coloured version of the team’s logo, with the inscription ‘no football for fascists’ inside the shirt’s neckband.

Premier League side Brentford will wear the same home kit again next season

More recently, Premier League newcomers Brentford made a sustainable commitment of their own when they revealed that the club would be extending the cycle of its current home kit to the end of the 2022/23 season.

In a simple yet powerful gesture, Brentford bucked the trend of releasing a new kit each season, illustrating the club’s fan-friendly ethos and support of sustainability. Jon Varney, Brentford’s chief executive, said in a statement at the time that the move illustrates the club’s core values.

“Respectful, progressive and togetherness are our three core values at Brentford FC, as many of our fans know.

“We also believe in football being affordable for our fans and are aware of the need for the game to become more focused on sustainability. As such, when we discussed the idea, everyone at the club was fully behind it.”

Varney also cited the club’s aim to make soccer as “affordable” as possible, and to contribute to supporting environmental causes.

“We also think this is a step in the right direction to help the environment a little,” he said. “It can only be a good to reduce kit cycles where circumstances allow, and we will continue to work with Umbro to make sure the production of our kit is as sustainable as possible. It is only a little thing, but we believe it will help.”

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