The Beautiful Game – but not for everyone

The ecstasy of a live sporting event is perhaps one of life’s most thrilling experiences. In the UK, 3PM on a Saturday afternoon is an escape for many – a chance to forget everything for 90 minutes and watch the game they love.  Football is widely considered relatively simple in terms of accessibility, opportunity to play and acquiring the resources to do so. The latest data collection clarifies that football in the UK is the most popular sport to both participate in and spectate with the Premier League alone reaching 15Million spectators in the 2021/22 season (statista, 2022). An outstanding figure and a testament to both the national and global appeal of the league.

However, for a number of UK citizens, contributing to these statistics is not as easy as most would assume. Disabled supporters, require a certain level of accessibility to support their team in person. Regardless of their desire to be in that stadium, long-standing barriers exist in society that mean this is not always possible. When supporters think of football in England, a large proportion would point towards Manchester United as top club in terms of history, success and global reach. Their home at Old Trafford seats 77,140 people, of which only 0.22% are wheelchair accessible (Age UK, 2021). If the club most synonymous with the premier league cannot lead by example when it comes to accessibility, then it is perhaps no surprise that only 7 teams offer the minimum threshold of wheelchair accessible seating in their stadium.

Of course, it is not only wheelchair users that need to be considered when it comes to accessibility. Audio commentary service, guide dog friendly facilities, and accessible entrances, walkways and toilets all contribute to how a stadium ranks as accessible for all. Additionally, there are disabilities to be considered that are not visible at first glance. Autism, ADHD, FASD and others benefit from use of a sensory room where individuals can experience live football in an environment where they can regulate their senses and emotions effectively. Different countries and sports appear to have a clearer direction when it comes to supporting these hidden disabilities. The U.S.A has been a leading force in this area both in terms of quantity and the technology level used in the facilities. Most recently, the NFL’s LA Raiders and Baseball’s New York Mets partnered with design company Nook to provide a sensory regulation escape from the overstimulation of a live sporting event. The Mets even host a ‘quiet zone’ where over 800 accessible tickets are made available for fans to experience the action with soundproofing for reduced noise, limited flashing lights and no large crowds. Citi Field to add sensory Nook

The Mets provide off-field escape experiences as well as a pitch side ‘quiet zone’ to benefit Autistic fans. 

A handful of stadiums in the Premier League have installed a sensory room in recent years, supported in many cases by the Shippey Campaign. The charitable organization was founded by two parents with an ambition to revolutionize sensory rooms to incorporate sports stadia viewing. The inspiration behind the cause came from their three children, all of whom have been diagnosed with Autism. Funding provided by the Shippey Campaign has formed a platform for clubs to ensure they have the financial ability to provide a meaningful matchday experience for all fans – most notably, Autism. When such financial support is available, it remains a question as to why governing bodies do not make these essential facilities mandatory to ensure stadiums are as accessible as is possible for all. Where Premier League clubs have made progress in installing a sensory room within their stadium, there are few that provide access to viewing of the game from the environment – an element that is essential in addressing the sensory issues that come with live sport. With their alternate viewing experience, clubs such as Arsenal demonstrate the untapped potential in accessibility for the Premier With several examples across a range of regions and sports displaying the benefits fans reap from this experience, installation of such facilities should be a necessity.

The sensory room at Arsenal providing full pitch viewing from a sensory environment.