CEO Diversity Equality LDN UTD Rio Ferdinand Foundation

“When We Talk To Brands We Need To Understand What They Want To Achieve And Tailor A Solution”

May 26, 2021

iSportConnect’s Ben Page talks to Gary Stannett, CEO of the Rio Ferdinand Foundation, and Olly Weingarten, Founder and CEO of LDN UTD, about the work they are doing together ahead of their #UTDAgainstRacism event taking place on May 30th at 3pm BST.

Firstly Gary, can you tell us about the work the Rio Ferdinand Foundation has been doing since its inception?

Gary – The Rio Ferdinand Foundation was founded by Rio 10 years ago so he could get closer to his philanthropic activity and how he involves himself in charity work. The major thing for Rio back then, and I think it still stands now, is that often society looks at young people, especially those in more disadvantaged communities, through the lens of crime and violence, as a victim or an offender. A lot of the narrative is about gangs or anti-social behaviour. It can be a very negative starting point as to why we work with young people.

What the Rio Ferdinand Foundation does is to change that narrative and to offer support and opportunities. There’s a lot of talent in those communities, and young people have got the same aspirations, talent, drive and ambition as everybody else. What they don’t have is access to opportunities, networks or mentoring in order to succeed. We have tried to deliver that structure to help young people achieve their potential.

“There’s a lot of talent in those communities, and young people have got the same aspirations, talent, drive and ambition as everybody else.” – Gary Stannett

As we come into our 10 year anniversary we have updated revised how we deliver against that mission for 2021 and the post-Covid-19 environment.

We now have four themes of work that we deliver against:

1 – Safe spaces for young people.

That’s creating safe spaces for young people physically, safe spaces for young people online, but it’s also safe spaces for young people to be able to talk and be themselves with appropriate adults which is key.

2 – Physical and Emotional health and well-being.

This is all about positive activities for young people, getting them involved in physical activity but also music, arts and media, we’re not just a sports organisation, we look at youth culture generally and do a lot around personal and social development and well-being. 

3 – Creating stronger, safer, more inclusive communities.

We put young people in the lead, supporting them to develop the skills and the networks to deliver social action projects that will make a change where they live and create supportive and inclusive environments. 

4 – Pathways to achievement.

Supporting young people into education training employment pathways, supporting them to have a clear direction to where they want to be in life, which is more about meaningful careers rather than just getting a job in order to be off the unemployment figures. 

As you mentioned with opportunities, it can sometimes be extremely difficult for young people in the UK who don’t live in London, or can’t afford to work for free, to get a foot in the door with something like internships, lots of which are unpaid.

Gary – A lot of young people we work with, if they’re not in college they need to be earning. As we’re coming out of the Covid pandemic we’re seeing quite a bleak picture in terms of youth unemployment and opportunities for the future. There’s a lot of anxiety around the predicted impacts on social mobility, and the impact on entry level jobs where young people normally start being most adversely hit. The pressure on young people to be able to find opportunities and careers to enable them to be able to earn and grow is going to be huge.

So why have you started working with LDN UTD and why was it an enticing prospect for the foundation to be involved with an Esports organisation?

Gary – “We’ve seen that gaming and Esports has become more and more important and prevalent in young people’s social lives. Increasingly it’s also a large part of the sports industry and I think Covid brought that to the fore with broadcasters covering events and more young people using it as their social outlet. Now young people are looking at the gaming industry as a potential career path, similarly to how they might think about a football club or a record label. 

So we’ve been looking at ways that we can incorporate Esports into our work as it’s a great opportunity to share positive messaging and build relationships with young people. There’s teamwork, personal development, but also opportunities to develop transferable skills in digital and tech. 

“We are evaluating how we can bring Esports into our work alongside music, media and sport.” – Gary Stannett

When we were put in touch with Olly and LDN UTD, who were and are doing work with the Mayor of London through their inter-borough education and esports tournament, they were having conversations with people in the sports world who were in our sphere. For us, it was about joining forces with a like-minded organisation. LDN UTD are built around doing good, putting back into the community and pride themselves on having a social conscience. Going into our 10-year anniversary, we’re saying ‘how do we create more positive partnerships with organisations with business that adds more than just financial sponsorship?’

Through the conversations we’ve had, there’s the ‘UTD Against Racism’ campaign we’re doing right now which is obviously a key societal issue, and alongside we are evaluating how we can bring Esports into our work alongside music, media and sport. That includes having ongoing conversations around mentoring, motivational speaking and careers workshops where young people get the opportunity to come and talk to those working in the industry to understand what career pathways can look like. Potentially that could go even further into work placements or even jobs. So it’s still evolving, but we have shared values and commitments to support young people that maybe wouldn’t normally have access to these opportunities.

For you Olly, aside from the shared goals, was the appeal for you that the foundation has this 10-year base of experience behind it while LDN UTD is still a new, ever-growing organisation?

Olly – The work that the foundation has done speaks for itself. It has great pedigree and credibility. After ten incredible years, they have pivoted and in some respects are like a new business, turning the business on its head, not too dissimilar to what we’ve had to do (without the ten year history!). 

“You can’t just say you want to address an issue because it’s the trend at the moment; you actually have to have some credibility around what you do and why you do it.” – Olly Weingarten

From our first conversation, it was very clear that Gary’s vision and our values aligned and our ways of working collaboratively are quite similar. There are a lot of learnings LDN UTD can take from the foundation, and we’re both open to working on campaigns where it makes sense for each other.

I think that’s important; it has to make sense for each party. The inter-borough championships were great, and we both had some learnings that came out of Covid, particularly about how difficult it is to reach participants in a pandemic. Then through UTD Against Racism, it’s key for us to continue to demonstrate when we say we are “Esports For Good” it is not tokenistic. We actually have a track record.  You can’t just say you want to address an issue because it’s the trend at the moment; you actually have to have some credibility around what you do and why you do it. So it was a very easy conversation around where there are synergies and hopefully each organisation will benefit mutually going forward.

Do you think that’s a real positive that there are multiple opportunities to have that flexibility to be able to do multiple things and be able to come together when it’s beneficial for both sides?

Olly –  If I put a sports marketing hat on, you may not engage with the Rio Ferdinand Foundation as a brand on every campaign. In fact, within LDN UTD, we have a lot of inventory, campaigns, content creators, rosters, so when we talk to brands we need to understand what they want to achieve and tailor a solution. They may not necessarily want to engage with all our assets.

Working with the foundation is no different, and it’s the social issues and the campaigns that are right for the foundation. With a brand, you always want to have some sort of longevity because it’s all about raising awareness and you’re engaging the community going forward, if they just dip in and then they disappear, there’s no long term value.

Gary – I would just reiterate what you just said there Olly. As the Rio Ferdinand foundation we haven’t necessarily gotten involved with the private sector very much, up until very recently. We haven’t engaged with business as well as we could have done for a number of reasons and it’s something that since I’ve taken over as CEO in 2019 and we’ve done this reset, it was something that we want to focus on more.

“With a brand, you always want to have some sort of longevity because it’s all about raising awareness… if they just dip in and then they disappear, there’s no long term value.” – Olly Weingarten

We could put our brand and logo on a football kit, but for us we want a much deeper relationship with any business that we work with. That goes back to the shared values, it’s about how do we not just not just deliver a message but deliver opportunities, how do we look at creating work placements, how do we deliver social impact? 

So we’re moving forward with businesses on a case-by-case basis and looking at bespoke partnerships that meet the needs of the organisations involved. That doesn’t mean that anyone who gets involved with the Foundation will engage with everything we do, we have some businesses that particularly want to work with us around the digital skills agenda, obviously we’re working with Esports with Olly. There are other people who want to work with us further around the equality, diversity inclusion and challenging racism piece of work. So all of our all of our business relationships are bespoke to the companies involved, but contribute to our overall mission.

What do you think the lure and importance of Esports is to young people nowadays, knowing that there are these potential career avenues?

Gary – I think games, and the industry, have obviously come on leaps and bounds in the last decade. It’s become a community in and of itself and the way that we use the digital space has created those communities. These days you can go online and you can play in teams against people from all over the world. So it’s a much bigger space than it’s ever been before and as technology improves that’s only going to get bigger.

What’s come with that, as it’s grown, is more media coverage, and I think it’s just opened up more and more and become more visible in youth culture. As a result more young people get into it, more of them want to be involved in the industry, universities and colleges are starting to offer courses around Esports and game design and marketing.

Youth culture always evolves, what kids are into in 10 years time is probably going to be quite different to now, though I still fully expect sport, music, media to be in there in some way shape or form. What Esports hasn’t got at the moment is a very clear pathway for careers, but there’s a whole heap of entrepreneurship in the sector and I think that also appeals to young people looking to find their space in the world.

Olly – Technology has certainly accentuated the growth but it’s the fastest growing consumer industry.  You can’t miss it. I think the stigma that used to be attached to gaming has disappeared. You can’t ignore gaming and esports because they’re intertwined. There’s almost 3 billion gamers in the world. Esports provides the competitive angle.

And the social element to gaming is massive. The fact it can be an educational tool marries up so nicely, and the way the media has converged means that actually if they weren’t gaming and talking to friends playing Fortnite, they’d probably be doing something else digitally, but it’s unlikely they’d be watching a 90-minute football match on linear television. 

There’s the non-activity element that comes with Esports Olly, and Gary mentioned in the foundation’s four themes that they want to get people active, so how do you counter the perceptions some adults may have around gaming?

Olly – If you look at what we’ve done in the past we worked with Street League, and we brought their participants to FIFA tryouts. However before that, we held a physical five-a-side football tournament to link participation in sport with gaming. Just this week we’ve announced a partnership with Bloomsbury Football to continue the theme of grassroots gaming and sport.

I’ve always said I don’t want to be an organisation that endorses sitting on your backside 23 hours a day playing video games. However kids gaming is no different to an adult sitting watching Sky Sports back to back on a Sunday afternoon. I personally get up at 5:30 most mornings to go and train, and that’s now ingrained on all my gamers that they’ve got to exercise and look after themselves.

“From our experience, this perception that young people fall into one camp or the other, such as only being either into sports or the arts in the past, being active or inactive, isn’t right.” – Gary Stannett

That doesn’t just mean physically it means mentally, as well as nutrition. Mental health is a massive element for gamers. So yes of course we want to be successful, we are not yet a performance organisation per se, so while winning of course is important, we’re trying to provide a pathway and career for gamers, and we want to do it the right way and in everything we do, by endorsing the message that they’ve got to look after themselves.

Gary – I think from our experience, this perception that young people fall into one camp or the other, such as only being either into sports or the arts in the past, being active or inactive, isn’t right. I’m sure there are some that are there but, as a general rule, young people will jump between all of those activities and they’ll be just as easily engaged in each.

So as you look ahead, what are the most important aspects that you see in society now around getting young people opportunities in what’s going to be a very tough environment?

Gary – I think the big thing for us is how do we reconnect young people in communities. There are a lot of people who have been locked down for a long time now due to Covid, and a lot of them would have seen their social networks stripped away, and that includes schools as well as community networks. So rebuilding and reconnecting young people and communities is a big part of our work. Within that work we need to focus on rebuilding young people’s confidence and looking at the wellbeing issues that many are facing.

Trying to rebuild their aspirations and confidence for the future is also key without doubt, because I think that has taken a big knock from what participants in our projects are reporting back. This last point for me is around how do we give young people the skills and the pathways to be able to achieve, to achieve social mobility. How do we give young people confidence and then give them the skills and the networks to be able to learn that will take them into meaningful career pathways through education, training and employment. That’s where our work  ties in with Esports and the work we’re doing with Olly in creating social networks using gaming, linking young people with mentors and raising awareness of roles  and means we can start steering some young people into a career within the gaming industry.

Olly – I think for us it’s about continuing to grow our platform and provide opportunity and accessibility. We have to continue to find the right stream to engage the “demographic”, as well as working with the right brands, those that want to come on our journey, because we can then give our partners, like the Rio Ferdinand Foundation, a bigger springboard and access and visibility to that new demographic; and the brands can amplify their messaging. Taking the brands on a journey to deliver value and provide authenticity is key.

CEO Diversity Equality LDN UTD Rio Ferdinand Foundation