Eleven’s CEO Matt Cairns talks about the important role academies play in clubs’ community strategies, and why Eleven aims to support those who don’t make it as professional footballers

There are few things football fans love more than seeing a young, local player make an impact in their side’s first-team.

Across the leagues, “He’s one of our own” is sung with more passion than most football chants due to that sense of connection fans have with a player born locally.

This puts academies right at the heart of a club’s community. With Eleven leading the way in community-driven sports partnerships, supporting academies has become an increasingly key objective for us – and should be for any business looking to make a meaningful impact in football.

A deeper connection

Our model has always been about connecting rights-holders to their local business communities. Around three years ago, we wanted to go deeper than onboarding and activating regional brands with their local clubs. We explored ways to strengthen our connections, and we felt academies were under-utilised by other suppliers in the football industry.

In 2020, we launched an Associate Partner Programme with Reading FC. As part of that, we were proud to become Reading’s official academy training wear partner, with Eleven branding on their training kits at every age level.

It was our first venture into academy sponsorship. We provide revenue to an area at football clubs that is often under-resourced in return for displaying our branding across training wear. Since then we have developed really strong ties with a dozen academies across the UK and US, and have more to announce on the horizon.

Our investment in a club’s academy has a dual benefit. It strengthens Eleven’s name across the local business areas we work in, and it makes a real difference to the club’s mission in the community.

From New York to Glasgow

We know that no matter the size of a club, the majority of its fanbase and core audience will be within the club’s geographical area. This provides unique opportunities for clubs to simultaneously develop homegrown talent and support its local community.

This is particularly true of New York City Football Club, the current MLS champions and the first club we have partnered with Stateside. Investing in NYCFC’s academy was massive for us, allowing us to support their objective of developing top local talent.

Like with all MLS clubs, bringing players through their academy into the first-team is absolutely fundamental to NYCFC’s success, both on and off the pitch. The club won its first MLS title last season, with a core of locally-born players in their squad. If any of those homegrown players are sold to European clubs, it nets huge revenue for MLS sides.

The academy is central to everything New York City does, and we’re absolutely delighted to play a part in helping to improve that talent pathway.

We are also proud to have our name on the Celtic FC B Team shirts. The club is synonymous with producing outstanding homegrown talent. The Lisbon Lions – the famous Celtic side that won the European Cup in Lisbon in 1967 – featured 13 players born within 10 miles of Celtic Park. That legacy lasts, with their academy playing a key role in developing the next generation of Scottish talent, and we’re proud to support that.

A helping hand

The revenue we bring in for academies is really powerful, but we find ourselves uniquely placed to have an even more meaningful impact.

Academies can make dreams come true for many aspiring footballers, but unfortunately the majority won’t make it as a professional. In England, there are between 10,000 and 12,000 youngsters in the youth set-ups at professional clubs, but only 0.5% of the kids who enter academies at the age of nine will end up making a living as a footballer or a coach. That’s the sad reality.

Myself and a number of staff at Eleven have been through football academies ourselves and have not made the grade. It is devastating. You feel your dreams are shattered and everything you imagined about how your life is going to turn out is taken away.

That rejection can have a real impact on a young person’s mental health. Clubs are taking this more and more seriously, and we’re exploring ways to support those who haven’t made it professionally. We’re putting resource behind it, and will very shortly be bringing someone into Eleven at a senior level to own our academy activations.

Our goal is to make youngsters at academies aware that opportunities exist in football outside of playing and coaching. We’re also passionate about providing kids who don’t make it with those opportunities ourselves.

It’s no good just talking the talk – you also have to walk the walk if you want to make a difference. We’ve already employed six graduates from football-focussed courses, and we’re delighted to have been able to give these kids a chance to have a career in football. But it doesn’t stop there. More needs to be done across football to support and educate the kids who don’t make it, and we’re determined to be at the forefront of that.