Earlier this month, Adidas extended and evolved its partnership with Stonewall FC, a non-league team currently sitting mid-table in the Middlesex County Football League Premier Division, the game’s 11th tier.
Stonewall is made up of members of the LGBTQI+ community and is the oldest club of its kind in the world, having first launched in 1991 with the aim of providing a safe space for members of the gay community to play football.
It’s also the most successful, with 20 international trophies in its cabinet.
Like every club at non-league level, funding promo and marketing, never mind the logistics of putting a competitive team together, is always a challenge.
As a rallying point for inclusion and equality within sport and wider society, Stonewall has a growing profile, and potentially a global one.
That might not be immediately apparent when the team is playing against Cricklewood Wanderers on a rain-sodden pitch in front of a couple of hundred people. However, with its strong identity, vibrant social presence and now the deeper relationship with Adidas, the club has a strong platform as it looks to combat homophobia and drive real change within the game from the grassroots up.
Adidas, which first hooked up with Stonewall as kit supplier in 2017, will assist the club as it looks to move into a new home in time for its 30th anniversary next year. For the club, having such a celebrated brand align with its values and ambitions is a hugely significant show of support.
The sportswear company gets to show its commitment to LGBTQ issues in action, as well as make use of some great narrative opportunities, from the playing staff to the supporters.
The players have already been rather sheepishly striking poses in the new Adidas Originals range, while club captain Jay Lemonius is one of the athletes currently featured in the high profile ‘Change is a team sport’ Adidas Superstar campaign.
Football’s top tier is great spectacle, but sadly these days it is rarely great storytelling. With the game’s elite seemingly intent on ring-fencing their product and finding a niche position alongside luxury brands – rumours about LVMH buying Italian side AC Milan continue to do the rounds – non-league looks increasingly attractive for any organisation wanting to pick up on an engaging narrative.
It’s in the game’s lower depths where the irrational emotion of sport and fandom still thrives. There’s romance and – that great north star for brands – authenticity. Lots of it.
So why aren’t more companies looking further down the league ladder? Barclays and Visa have both enjoyed success with sponsorship campaigns based around women’s football at grassroots levels, presenting human interest stories that chime with consumers and meaning to brand purpose.
Adidas has found a real connection with a team that stands for something and is looking to make a difference. Just within Stonewall’s Middlesex League alone there’s a club with roots in London’s Japanese community and another with a devoted ultrà-style fan base that boasts supporter groups in Spain and Italy.
There are plenty of stories to tell, plenty of unsung heroes and good causes. Social has given non-league football clubs the chance to cultivate personalities and find new audiences, an opportunity that plenty have grabbed with an energy and spirit.
Now it’s time for more brands to join in.