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

When it was announced that the Pride matches would be returning to the A-Leagues this upcoming season, which will see Melbourne Victory host Adelaide United in a double header involving the A-League Men and Women sides, it was met with applause, but also some concerns. 

The Inner Sanctum sat down with Pride Cup CEO James Lolicato and Pride Cup Marketing and Media Coordinator Cass Willcocks to talk about the matches in great detail, both from an on-pitch and off-pitch perspective. 

A lot of those concerns were centred around one key factor of the matches. Melbourne Victory would be involved, and would be hosting them, after some homophobic incidents involving sections of the fan base at games last season.

But what a lot of people do not know is that Pride Cup have been heavily involved with Melbourne Victory over the last two years across multiple facets of the club.

“Realistically, what a lot of people don’t know is that we’ve been on about an 18-month journey with Melbourne Victory,” Lolicato said.

“It was actually before even [Adelaide United player] Josh [Cavallo] had come out was the starting of the conversations.

“We knew that there was a problem and that football fans unfortunately reflect a lot of society, and in society what we see is that homophobia and transphobia is still rife within sporting communities.

“Although it’s not just a Victory problem, it definitely was evident within the Victory community, but this is a societal problem at large that we have to work on.

“So, we’ve been working with Melbourne and Olympic Parks [who run AAMI Park, Melbourne Victory’s home ground] to start security intervention training, so how can security step up and be engaged.

“If you were at the [A-League Men] finals series, all around the grounds at AAMI Park we actually put up new signage that integrated homophobic and transphobic language into being directly called out by security staff, giving people the opportunity to report homophobic and transphobic abuse where and when they heard it so it could be instantly pulled up on.

“[We did this] as a guide to replicate going forward for when we put this game on.”

One of those facets was making sure the Melbourne Victory players are directly involved in driving this.

“[The 18-month process] started off as engaging their key corporates and players. We want this to be a player led initiative. We don’t want it to be a CEO-led initiative or a managing director led initiative. We want players to have a voice in this.”

One of the key purposes for all of this was answering one simple question. Do you actually want to do this and why?

“[We took] those beliefs back to what we were doing at Pride Cup to build on this to go forward for next season,” Lolicato continued.

“We saw the Victory women’s team compete in the pride game last year against Adelaide United and the Victory women’s team were incredibly good to work with.

“That’s when I think a lot of people on our team [saw] the mentality was ‘this isn’t a Melbourne Victory problem. This is a societal problem’ like I’ve said. 

“Melbourne Victory are actively working with us across their business – from their football department to their administration staff – to gain a better understanding on all the steps involved in making their club a welcoming environment for everyone.

“It’s not an overnight process, so we’re looking to get to the point where everyone feels comfortable coming to a game, participating in community events and working in a football environment at Victory.”

The Eastern stand of Coopers Stadium with seat covers to make up the rainbow pride flag. (Photo: Jarrod Walsh/Twitter)

One area that needs to be improved on is in relation to venues and security having a zero-tolerance policy on abuse that targets the LGBTQIA+ community. 

There is already existing policy frameworks in place across the major sporting venues in Australia that spell out, as part of the conditions of entry, things like racist and sexist abuse will not be tolerated.

This is not extended to forms of abuse targeting the LGBTQIA+ community, such as homophobia and transphobia, but that is in the process of being changed at venues nationwide.

“We started a trial of this at the finals series [at AAMI Park] with the signage with a stadium wide call-out number as well, so people could call out homophobic, transphobic, biphobic, but even racist and sexist langauge as well,” Lolicato said.

“We think it all belongs [together as things] that shouldn’t be said at sporting events.

“We are building on that now, so before we get to that stage in February where this game is held, we want to ensure that all these procedures have been done and we can mitigate against all the damages that may happen, or will not happen, in February and ensure that the stadia is ready.

“We’re not just looking at doing it in Melbourne as well. We’re looking rolling it out nationally.”

“This is one of the core reasons we exist as an organisation is to make these sporting events safer and more welcoming for LGBTI people,” Willcocks continued on.

“Because it’s not just people feeling like they can’t participate in sport, it’s people feeling like it’s not safe for them to be at the games.

“We saw that with the Adelaide United Pride Cup. A lot of people who had never been down to Coopers Stadium before came down because it was an event that felt like it was a chance to interact with sport for the first time.”

That day in Adelaide helped pave the way for what Pride Cup to do what it did for the A-League Men finals series, what it will be doing in February, and going forward into the future. 

“Coopers Stadium were extremely good to work with,” Lolicato said.

“In terms of bathroom facilities, they actually for the first time implemented gender-neutral bathroom facilities to allow TGD [Trans and Gender-Diverse] people or those who just wanted to feel more comfortable be able to use the bathroom that they wanted to.

“They also put up signage as well for that game so we learnt from that experience at Adelaide, and we’re just building on that to Melbourne, and then we’ll build on that nationally.” 

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With undertakings like this, the money to fund these projects has to come from somewhere. For the Pride matches in the A-Leagues, there is a vested interest in the success of this for the league.

“All that work is being funded by the A-Leagues,” Lolicato said.

When announcements of things like this come, the positive of them is unfortunately met with negativity, which dampens what should be a positive and great thing.

“At Pride Cup, we see it so often and it’s absolutely horrendous to see every single time.

“What it shows us is that there is so much work that needs to be done in this space. There is so much work that still needs to happen to ensure that the community sees this is not a political issue, it’s a human rights issue.

“At the end of the day, this is about helping young kids feel safe, included, welcomed and keeping them alive in part of sporting communities so they feel more included every single day.

“We hate seeing this negative commentary.

“What I did love seeing is Kayla Morrison [captain of Melbourne Victory’s women’s team] take an open stance and say ‘this is why we’re running this game’ and actually calling out the haters for what they said on those comments.

“I think that shows huge commitment from the playing group, which will then in turn go to the rest of the club.”

The harshness and disgusting nature of some of those comments is always a huge issue as well. Having a person, or group of people monitoring social media for those comments is a good step, but it’s also a difficult task.

The implementation of technology in assisting with the monitoring of social media posts is something that will help with that through the use of GoBubble. 

GoBubble is automated software that is described by the company on its website as ‘next-generation content moderation and detection technology helping organisations around the globe to create kinder, more supportive online communities and protect their brand reputation’.

It is software that is used by the A-Leagues, which implemented it league wide last season after a trial during the weekend of the pride games. The Twitter channels of the three clubs participating were monitored using the technology. 

A-Leagues CEO Danny Townsend speaking at a Pride Cup event on the importance of LGBTI+ inclusion and on the A-Leagues commitment to this work. (Photo: Pride Cup/Twitter)

Another concern that has been expressed by fans and media alike is what happens around the fixture itself should things like homophobic abuse continue from sections of the Melbourne Victory fanbase across the upcoming season.

Whether this continues to happen in the weeks and months leading up to the game, and whether the hosting of the game might be taken away from the club.

It is an issue that Pride Cup is aware of.

“That’s definitely something we will talk about when and if it happens,” Lolicato said.

“There are always safeguards in place when working with Pride Cup. The start of our agreements with any clubs is that a club and these games need to work for the best interests of the LGBTI community, and that’s the entire LGBTI community.

“If any club does not do that or we see anything happening [that’s] untoward or something that we don’t agree with, look, we’re very strict in a lot of things that we do, [and] we have those safeguards in place.”

In engaging with clubs to help ensure the best run events possible, Lolicato and Pride Cup recognise that part of working together with the clubs to best help the LGBTQIA+ community is also working with the fans.

Fan participation and engagement is a key factor to ensuring events like these run successfully, but it also helps ensure that the events work as educational tools to help create change for the better going forward.

“Our research shows that a lot of fans don’t understand when using homophobic language that it has a negative impact,” Lolicato explained.

“They just think it’s part of sport. They think it’s ingrained or they’ve used those words for dozens of years while they’ve been playing sport.

“They’re not doing it to actively offend somebody, but that’s what happens. It’s ensuring that they know that it’s wrong. That they shouldn’t use it, and then hopefully changing the dynamics around it.”

“It’s important to recognise that Victory is coming on board as one of the first teams in the A-Leagues to be championing LGBTI inclusion in the game,” Willcocks said.

“There is a very strong culture around football in Australia and worldwide, and that to be a leader in changing culture like this isn’t always going to be easy, [and] you’re going to get a lot of pushback.

“The fact that they are on board, they are really keen to work with us, are taking on board our advice and our education and implementing those things in the face of a certain amount of backlash from people who don’t want to see things changing, it has to be commended… [they’re] bold enough to be one of the first clubs to make that leadership decision.”

Going forward, a number of fans want to see this become a league wide initiative with the A-Leagues, and have a pride round involving every team going forward as opposed to just an individual fixture or double header. 

While there is no set timeline on when this might take place, the APL knows that LGBTQIA inclusion is an important thing, and it is built into the frameworks of the strategy for the APL going forward.

“The A-Leagues has implemented LGBTI inclusion into their strategy and into the portfolio of work,” Lolicato said.

“We have been extremely lucky, and not just us, a myriad of LGBTI organisations, to now have spoken to every single CEO of the A-Leagues clubs to talk to them about the meaning behind LGBTI inclusion and diversity, the statistics, and what they can be doing different.

“The reception to the conversations that we’ve had and to the education programs that we’ve run have been extremely good, and a lot better than what as a young gay man being involved in football, but also in sport, than I could have ever imagined.

“We have been extremely lucky that the A-Leagues has taken LGBTI inclusion seriously and in the right way. We know it’s a long process to where we can celebrate LGBTI inclusion, that they’re definitely on track to doing that.

“The clubs are working tirelessly in helping us, listening and working alongside us, and we are running education programs and consultations constantly with these clubs to ensure they are getting to the right place.

“Although we are seeing some negativity, I know there is some really good work that’s happening that will be showcased over the next few months before we get to that event and know that the clubs are doing that work because they know it’s the right thing to do.”

“Danny Townsend spoke at our panel [that announced the pride game between Melbourne Victory and Adelaide United], and he is very enthusiastic about the pride game and about what we can do in the near future to further the conversation and activities around LGBTI inclusion in the game,” Willcocks added.

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