From L to R: Melbourne Victory's Joshua Brillante, Adelaide United's Isabel Hodgson, Pride Cup CEO James Lolicato, and Melbourne Victory's Kayla Morrison. Photo Credit: Pride Cup/Twitter

TW: Mental Health, Suicide

In order for the A-Leagues to be ready for the Pride Celebration, there was a lot of work that needed to be done behind the scenes which most of us will not have seen or understand the impact of.

In an exclusive interview with The Inner Sanctum, Pride Cup CEO James Lolicato sat down and talked about all the work that has gone on behind the scenes, what we might see across the celebrations from the different teams, and just how important events like these are.

One of the things that have been done is education sessions with every single player across the competitions.

For Lolicato, the delivery of these sessions is difficult, but the importance of them can not be understated.

“Realistically on a personal level, like going and speaking to professional athletes, those who were the ones that used the language that I heard growing up is so frightening and scary to do,” Lolicato said.

“But realistically, with all of the A-League Men’s teams that we’ve run the sessions for, we haven’t had a negative response. It’s been very positive [and] some questions have been asked, and great questions around the celebration, around the reasons of this game, but we let our education programs talk for themselves.

“We speak to the mental health and wellbeing statistics, the deficits that we see within the LGBTI+ community and we talk to them not about changing their beliefs but about changing their behaviours.

“Because when we change behaviours, we know we can really facilitate more LGBTI+ engagement in sports, not just at an elite level, but also at a community level.”

For Lolicato, what stood out was the receptiveness of the players to the workshops.

“I honestly think that a lot of the players thought we were coming in to talk to them about why it’s important that they change their beliefs or that we’d go in and preach something, but what we really did was go in with an open-hearted manner but talking about the realism of LGBTI+ inclusion,” Lolicato said.

“Talking about the stats around suicides, around mental health and well-being deficits but more so talking about the barriers to engagement that LGBTI+ have, and then giving some practical real-life examples on what those players can do differently.

“They’re things like editing your own behaviour and language to ensure that people aren’t hearing negative connotations or rhetoric coming from the field, that they’re not hearing homophobic and transphobic language.

“Things like the way that they celebrate and the way that they talk to their fans, families, friends, cafe owners about the importance of this game and why it exists.

“It’s asking them to utilise the education statistics that we’ve delivered, to have those conversations further that just at that stadium or on that one day but throughout their entire playing careers and when they go meet community-level organisations and young kids.

“I can’t stress enough how receptive the players have been and it’s even things like seeing the nods and seeing the audible gasps when we mention the mental health and well-being statistics around LGBTI+ young people specifically.

“And also than those questions that we got afterwards and those statements we got from players.

“We’ve had players from every single club ask some challenging but great questions which just shows us that they listened in and that they understood what we were talking about and the fact that they want to be engaged and that this has been a process that they’ve been brought along the journey of for almost 18 months in some cases.

“The first conversations happened with the players and the playing group before we even went in there and started these conversation programs.”

The Red Army holding up banners with different flags on them reading ‘Together, Love Always Wins’. (Photo: Adelaide United/Twitter)

The process to get here is one that would not have been possible without the support from the APL in getting to this stage for the celebration, which has been crucial.

“We at Pride Cup wouldn’t have the opportunity to be able to educate and to develop if we weren’t given that permission and that guidance from the APL and from the A-Leagues and that started with our very first sessions almost 18 months ago with all the CEO’s of the clubs and with Danny Townsend as well,” Lolicato said.

“They invited us in to talk LGBTI+ inclusion and engagement, and yes it was just after Josh [Cavallo] had come out but more so it was around a lot of their female players and them wanting to grow participation in not just their playing group but also in their stadia and it was crucial.

“Those beginning steps and speaking to the CEO’s was crucial in them understanding why it was important and breaking down those barriers that we see to running these pride events with no authenticity.”

The amount of work that Pride Cup has put in is incredibly massive, but the work is now on the clubs to do the best they can, as well as help shift the narrative, which is why the A-Leagues are having a celebration as opposed to a round.

“[I’m] really proud of all the clubs engaging in the announcement [of the celebration] and now the onus is on the clubs to show what they can do for their events.

“But just being reminded that every club is at a different stage of this journey and each stage needs to be respected for where it is.

“Some are going to be much further along, and some are going to be learning from what others are doing, and we need to really encourage those who are doing the right thing and tell them that they’re doing the right thing, and not just look at those that aren’t at that stage yet, or aren’t heavily engaging because the narrative needs to shift.

“The narrative as well needs to be a celebratory narrative. We’re celebrating those who are feeling safe and comfortable enough to be open about who they are but also those who are happy to be their biggest allies on the field and run out in events like this and be proud of being part of this.

“I think a lot of the commentary that we’ve seen of recent events is that we look at those who aren’t doing the right thing instead of really praising those who are.”

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Across the celebrations, the focus of Pride Cup is going to be primarily on the Melbourne Victory vs Adelaide United doubleheader, but they are also offering support to any club that is choosing to do an activation across the weekend.

“We firstly ran all the education programs, and have run programs with their support staff as well as their marketing and social media staff as well,” Lolicato said.

“And then we provide an MVP process that we would like to see happen throughout these games, so looking at if they’re going to engage, in what ways can they engage and in what ways have we found the best community interaction and the best development.

“So we provided them with a handbook many months ago now to start on that development process and that handbook is built from 555 games across Australia and the experiences that we’ve seen and what has worked.

“We provide in that [handbook] quotes and case studies from real-life events that have happened in the past, including Adelaide United around how they undertook their game.

“Now it’s up to them. It’s on them to really see how they can bring that to life, the learnings of the last 18 months to life through their event, but more so how they can make sure they’re celebrating that 18 months that we’ve put in and that engagement in a good, sustainable way dependent on their resources.”

Every activation is going to look different and feel unique based on what the clubs choose to do, which is one of the advantages of having the handbook.

The handbook allows clubs to refer back to, and only implement what they feel comfortable in doing so, what best suits their club and community, and having the ability to add to that year on year as teams grow. 

It should also be noted that the APL and Pride Cup are not forcing any club to do anything if they do not want to. It is a process with a long-term approach, and forcing clubs to do anything before they are ready is not part of that approach.

There is also no pressure on the clubs to be the best or do the most and go all out with their celebrations or be perfect in them in this first year, understanding it will get bigger and better year on year. 

Some of the things you can expect to see across the celebrations include things like specialised guards of honour, local LGBTI+ organisations being involved in different ways, some community associations or some community stalls set up with different events, as well as attire for players, which may include things like different coloured socks or training gear.

The Pride Bay at the doubleheader in Melbourne is also going to make up a key part of the weekend’s festivities. It is a designated bay for LGBTI+ community members, volunteers, families and their friends.

This bay is designed with the intention of creating a discrimination-free area where fans and those coming to the game for the very first time can meet, cheer and celebrate.

“We’ve sent out 200 tickets to LGBTI+ community members, volunteers, and social health workers who will be attending the event in the Pride Bay and we will launch the Pride Bay tickets this week through Pride Cup,” Lolicato said.

“Pride Cup will be the only one who’s selling those tickets and that’s because we want them to go to LGBTI+ community members and rainbow families first and foremost.”

Sources confirmed to The Inner Sanctum the 200 tickets that Pride Cup has sent out located in the Pride Bay were donated to Pride Cup by Melbourne Victory to give out.

The engagement with fans for Pride celebrations during sporting events is a topic that has been difficult to deal with because while the celebrations on the field from the clubs are positive, it’s known in sports that the vast majority of the hatred comes from the spectators who just ‘don’t care’ or ‘want to keep politics out of sports’ or ‘don’t want to be preached to about changing their beliefs’.

All of that makes fan engagement a tricky situation, but one Pride Cup is prepared for.

“We are running sessions with Melbourne Victory and doing some community sessions alongside them as part of our agreement for them to run the Pride Cup,” Lolicato said.

“[But we’re also] doing work alongside MOPT (Melbourne and Olympic Parks) and all the stadia around the country.

“That not only involves educating the security staff and also some of the vendors around why this is important, but what we are also doing there is creating new signage and new processes that these stadia can follow that call out homophobia and transphobia in much the same way that racism and sexism has been before.

“So putting them all into that same bucket of nothing that should be ever heard within our sporting environments again and starting with these stadia in directly calling it out.

“And then as part of that, we also have back-of-bathroom signage that we’ve developed which talks about a lot of the education that we present to the players and to the clubs, talks about the statistics and the barriers to LGBTI+ engagement and we’ve got direct resources as well of where people can follow to find out more information that will be on throughout all of the home stadia’s that week. 

“So that’s one initiative that we’re trying to get more fans engaged into that.”

As part of the celebrations, $1 from every ticket sold from the Australian-based games will be donated directly to Pride Cup’s community fund to support community clubs and their own pride events the clubs put on, while $1 from every ticket of Wellington’s doubleheader will be donated to a New Zealand based LGBTI+ not for profit.

This was an initiative that was done by the APL and the clubs as part of the celebrations, who volunteered to donate the $1 from ticket sales to Pride Cup.

But where will that money go and what will it be used for?

“Depending on the ticket sales that weekend, we could really encourage so many community associations to get involved and help fund their education programs and the work behind the scenes that they’re doing to allow them access to running their own similar events,” Lolicato said.

“But more importantly, their own engagement work that’s happening, similar to what the A-Leagues does but on a community level and that’s where we know the biggest barriers are and where the biggest change needs to happen is in these community clubs.”

Throughout the celebrations, you may hear or see different acronyms being used, such as LGBTI+ or LGBTQIA+, and both of those examples are accurate to use and could be used interchangeably.

Pride Cup uses LGBTI+ for a reason, with the reasons being quite thoughtful.

“We use LGBTI+ based on our consultation sessions with our community associations that are usually in regional or rural areas,” Lolicato said.

“What we heard a lot throughout those consultations is that although Queer is being used more and more in a lot of our younger populations, some of our most at-risk people that we work with in our regional and rural communities are older than that, and they’re still hearing that word used in a negative or a derogatory way.

“So what we do at Pride Cup is we are here to help our participants who are mostly from regional and rural areas, and if this is what they have told us to do, we will use the LGBTI+ acronym.

“During our education programs and throughout our resources as well that we share with clubs and their participants, we definitely do talk about Queer and the reclamation of that word and the growing prevalence of that and talk to them about the meaning behind that and why it’s so important and we also touch on why we don’t use it.

“When we are targeting a mass audience like this and we know that it has the potential to make people feel uneasy, we choose not to use it.”

One of the things that come along when activations like what we will see over the celebrations is the question of what comes next, not just for the organisations and clubs putting them on, but for those who will see this and become inspired to do their own.

The messaging for that from Pride Cup is simple.

“We suggest that all clubs and leagues who are putting in the time to run a Pride celebration or a Pride activation should put in that background work and that energy work and the A-Leagues should be an indicator of how that’s done,” Lolicato said.

“We will work with any organisation that will put in the time and energy needed to invest into LGBTI+ inclusive practices and into a long-term development plan that assists in changing culture.

“And that means at least 12-18 months of work before we even announce their event. We are not here to get people to wear a rainbow and run out onto a field. Actually, that’s the thing that we don’t want to see the most, and then next week they forget about it.

“What we want to see is a long-term cultural plan and execution of that plan that changes cultures for many years to come.

“So in 10-12 years down the track, we’re engaging those at the community level from the LGBTI+ community who haven’t felt safe or comfortable, who are seeing this as a sport where they can be involved, they can be engaged, and they can love to be who they are in playing [sport], in the stadium, or as members.

“We really do ask that sporting organisations think around the development process and not see this as a one-off exercise or a tick-box exercise that is completed because they’ve run out with a rainbow guernsey. What we want to see is a long-term approach that will shift culture.”

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