Lace relations

Football and fashion don’t often go together, but when they do, it usually causes something of a stir. The latest trend to set the sports world alight is no exception. Rainbow Laces might appear to be mere decoration for the average football boot, but if that weren’t enough, they’re all for a good cause too.

Launched last year by Irish bookmakers Paddy Power, in partnership with gay rights charity Stonewall, Rainbow Laces are exactly what they say on the tin – shoelaces woven in the colours of the rainbow in an imitation of the iconic LGBT pride flag. Their aim? To kick homophobia out of football.

Stonewall laid the foundations of the campaign when it asked Is football anti-gay? in a survey in 2009. The results found that seven in ten fans had experienced or witnessed homophobic attitudes at a football match in the previous five years. And three in five fans believed this was the reason for the lack of openly gay players in the football league.

‘We’re a small charity, it’s all about reaching out and changing attitudes,’ says Richard Lane, media manager at Stonewall. ‘People have come out in other sports, like tennis, rugby, but we’ve not seen this breakthrough in football.’

Stonewall’s research caught Paddy Power’s attention, and recognising their influence with sports fans, the bookmakers approached Stonewall to suggest a partnership campaign for change. The bookmakers also calculated that the chances of there not being a single gay football player out of the 5,000 that play professionally in the UK were one quadragintillion to one – that’s a whopping 123 zeroes.

Rainbow Laces are just one part of a wider campaign to Change the Game. A new advertisement, broadcast on television and in cinemas across the UK, shows Arsenal captain Mikel Arteta in the changing room with teammates Olivier Giroud, Santi Cazorla, Theo Walcott and Alex Oxlade-Chamberlain, poking fun at what they can’t change about themselves as opposed to the things they can. ‘I can’t help that I’m gorgeous,’ winks striker Giroud. Perhaps not, but he can help change the game.

This isn’t the only advert attempting to change attitudes either. More than 60 brands advertised in a special edition of London’s free newspaper Metro on 8 September, which displayed a rainbow-laced masthead on each page. For example, Premier Inn rebranded as ‘Premier Out’ for the day. And each brand sported rainbow colours and added the tagline We support Rainbow Laces to their slogans, though some integrated the campaign more creatively than others. Mobile phone network 3 changed only their colouring while online travel company Icelolly playfully advertised Holidays, whichever way you swing.

The advertising coup, masterminded by media company M2M and agency Lucky Generals, was the first of its kind. And it was all part of the plan to reach a wider audience, according to Lane. ‘It amplifies the message and gets to places we’ve never reached before,’ he explains.

Indeed, it appears to have worked. Demand for the laces exceeded 100,000 this year, exhausting Stonewall and Paddy Power’s stocks. Stonewall reported that their lace manufacturer actually ran out of rainbow-coloured yarn, such was the interest in the campaign.

But scarcity of yarn is not the only challenge the campaign has had to face. Last year, Rainbow Laces failed to take off in the Premier League, despite support from football favourites like Gary Lineker and Joey Barton. The issue related to both timing and the fact the campaign was new. Laces were sent out too close to the launch of the football season, while some clubs feared that Rainbow Laces would prove to be ‘ambush marketing’ by the famously tongue-in-cheek Paddy Power.

‘It’s typically Paddy Power,’ admits its public relations manager Rory Scott. ‘We thought it better to ask for forgiveness rather than permission.’

This characteristically outspoken approach was criticised again when they decided to promote the laces with the slogan Right Behind Gay Footballers, using the hashtag #RBGF on Twitter. It was dropped this year after commentators called the message ‘crass’ and ‘incongruous’, but neither Lane nor Scott are sorry about the controversy caused by their cheekiness.

‘We don’t regret Right Behind Gay Footballers,’ says Scott. ‘We needed that cut through, that controversy to get us known.’

Lane agrees: ‘I think we needed to get people’s attention. What we didn’t want was a campaign full of equality jargon – that’s not going to appeal to the majority of football fans. We wanted to be a bit cheeky.’

It certainly paid off in the end. About 40 per cent (52) of Premier League clubs signed up and the campaign had more than 320 million impressions on Twitter last year, and was seen by one quarter of the UK population.

The loss of the #RBGF hashtag does not seem to have been detrimental to the campaign’s success this year. Twitter mentions have increased 89 per cent, as Rainbow Laces trended worldwide. One in three UK adults is aware of the campaign, whilst nearly two thirds of sports gamblers said they had a more favourable impression of Paddy Power as a result of Rainbow Laces.

But Paddy Power is a company that appears to relish controversy. Earlier this year, it received more than 5,000 complaints for encouraging customers to bet on Oscar Pistorius’ murder trial, saying It’s Oscar time. Money back if he walks, while two years ago Paddy Power’s Cheltenham Ladies Day advert was banned for being offensive to transgender women after it told racing fans that it was sending some transgender ladies to the event, and encouraging them to Spot the stallions from the mares.

‘We’ve certainly made mistakes in this area. People look at us and think Oh these are the people who did the Ladies Day and the Oscar Pistorius thing,’ Scott admits. ‘But in year two, it’s easier. Building on a legacy, we’re showing that we’re credible, serious, long-term. We’re back. We’re bigger. We’re hopefully better.’

However, Paddy Power hasn’t lost sight of its naughtiness altogether. Kansas-based Westboro Baptist Church, which is notorious for its homophobic picketing, received sent a box of laces, accompanied by a scathing letter addressed to ‘hate-filled vermin.’ The bookmakers tweeted a picture of its parcel and was rewarded with more than 900 retweets. ‘We couldn’t resist a bit of cheekiness,’ says Scott. He’s still waiting for a reply.

Other high-profile figures have been more forthcoming in speaking out in support of the campaign. MP Caroline Lucas and TV presenters Piers Morgan and Rylan Clark are amongst the non-footballing types to publicise their love of laces, whilst footballers such as Hull City’s David Meyler and Roy of the Rovers gave their boots a bright new makeover in the name of anti-homophobia. German player, Thomas Hitzlsperger, the only gay footballer to have come out since playing in the Premier League, has also pledged his support.

This overwhelming positivity from footballers and fans alike has been instrumental in the growing momentum for Rainbow Laces and is something both Lane and Scott are keen to continue.

‘We’re under no illusions. Rainbow Laces is not going to get rid of homophobia in football. It’s not the silver bullet,’ says Lane. ‘But it’s about co-operating with the Football Association and the Premier League and getting that kind of senior leadership involved and widening the public discussion.’

Scott also has high hopes for continuing their work. ‘It would be nice to be doing this until we don’t need to anymore,’ he says. ‘When things change, we will happily shut up. We believe we can really make an impact.’

Lane remains equally optimistic. His big tip for next year? ‘We need to order more laces.’

GAY GOONERS

Getting involved with Rainbow Laces is not Arsenal’s first foray into supporting campaigns against homophobia.

The Gunners have been reliably vocal in their support for lesbian, gay, bisexual and transgender (LGBT) rights and are in fact home to the first and largest LGBT fan club of any football team in England – the Gay Gooners.

Formed in early 2013, the Gay Gooners now boast around 250 members. The group aims to provide a safe, welcoming, social space for fellow Arsenal fans who identify as lesbian, gay, bisexual or transgender. They also want to play their part in kicking homophobia out of football.

‘Football has not always been a nice environment,’ says Dave Raval, founding member of the Gay Gooners. ‘But it’s up to us to lay the groundwork and come out publically as a group.’

If the Rainbow Laces campaign has gone down well with sports gamblers, then it has gone down even better with the Gay Gooners. Rory Scott, spokesman for Paddy Power, recalls showing the Change the Game advert to one of the group’s members and watching as he ‘literally broke down in tears’ with pride.

Raval is also full of praise for the campaign. ‘It’s fantastic, really positive,’ he says. ‘It must be the most high profile campaign against anti-homophobia in football in the UK, maybe even in the world.’

He believes that choosing Arsenal to spearhead the campaign was a clever decision by Stonewall and Paddy Power. ‘They could have picked lots of teams. Paddy Power chose Arsenal for a reason.’

The reason, Raval suggests, is Arsenal’s history of being pro-equality. The Gay Gooners have consistently received encouragement from the club as part of its Arsenal for Everyone initiative, which aims to promote equality within its ranks, including with the fans.

This year, the club invited celebrities including Formula One driver Lewis Hamilton and actor Samuel L. Jackson to pledge their support for Rainbow Laces at their match against Manchester City.

And in February last year, Arsenal held a series of community activities for LGBT History Month, culminating with an event held at the Emirates Stadium featuring speakers such as Shadow Home Secretary Yvette Cooper and Lou Englefield, chair of Pride Sports, the UK’s organisation for LGBT sports development and equity.

As the first dedicated and cohesive LGBT fan club in the Premier League, the Gay Gooners were also the first to represent their team during the London Pride parade last year. They returned this year with an even bigger group.

The Gay Gooners have their own banner, which can be seen hanging in the Emirates Stadium on match days, and have inspired other clubs, such as Norwich City and Liverpool to follow suit. Even fans of Tottenham Hotspur, Arsenal’s age-old nemesis, have embraced the movement and have formed their own LGBT group, called the Proud Lilywhites.

Laying the groundwork in changing attitudes in football is something that the Gay Gooners are clearly working hard at, with the view to making it more acceptable for players to come out in the future, and Raval’s message is clear. ‘Gay people are football fans too. It’s time to come out and be gay and Arsenal fans,’ he explains.

PADDY POWER’S CALCULATIONS

• There are 134 clubs across England, Scotland, and Wales in the Premier League, Championship, Football League 1, Football League 2, Scottish Premier League, Scottish Championship, Scottish League 1, and Scottish League 2.

• There are approximately 5,000 professional players across these leagues.

• We’ve done the maths and the odds on there being no gay person in a random sample of 5,000, assuming a six per cent likelihood, is 1 in 2.29 x 10^134.

• In technical terms, that is over a quadragintillion.

• As a comparison, this is similar odds to predicting the correct score in 150 consecutive football matches.