Is football enjoyable anymore?
That was the question asked by 14-year-old Lucy Sinclair who, after spending yet another night of hard training with her club Glasgow City, found herself wondering when she’d get the time to go and have a fun kick about with her friends.
This was a concern, she felt, because her dedication to football meant she was in danger of losing touch with her friends, and that simply wasn’t an option for her.
And so, with some help from dad Michael Sinclair – who founded the sports social enterprise charity iTouches – they set out to bring the fun factor back to the beautiful game.
This was important to Michael. He’d seen across the years that the pressure to reach certain standards set by parents and coaches was putting children off football and was one of the main reasons that so many gave up the sport in their teens.
Father and daughter put their heads together and came up with iBaller: a one-of-a-kind football carnival featuring a variety of activities designed to provide fun for children, parents and anybody else that comes along – and it might even help reignite a passion for playing football.
Based in the Pollokshaws area of Glasgow, the facility includes games such as football golf, darts, bowls and the FIFA-inspired flip & chip, which has players trying to chip balls through holes in a board.
Each game is designed to help develop a skill – be it passing, shooting or controlling a ball- in an enjoyable, non-competitive environment that’s accessible to players of all abilities.
With so many kids committed to training nights and matches, Michael believes it’s important that iBaller be different, and that all children can learn in an environment that emphasises fun and social interaction; the perfect antidote to the robotic and competitive football club formula.
He said: “We’re getting kids in, we’re getting them laughing and joking and we’re creating these things purely because it’s not happening right now.
“Within football clubs you’ve got your training and you’ve got your games and all these things, but do they really just take time out and learn to just have fun?
That’s what the facility does and that’s what iBaller does.”
Since opening its doors for business mere months ago, iBaller has proven a big success, with the number of visitors rising from 100 in the first month to almost 400 in the second – and it’s not just children that have been getting involved:
“It’s already growing, and we know that it’ll keep on getting bigger,” said Michael.
“We’ve had football teams in; we’ve had large groups of 22, as well as smaller groups – we’ve actually had a mother and daughter come in. We get families and community clubs here, so we’ve had all types of people in to take part.”
But, Michael adds, the opportunities provided by iBaller go far beyond a fun kick-about with friends.
A system they operate, in which children can become Buddies to the younger kids taking part means that children are at the forefront of their experience. For Lucy, this meant a chance to offer part-time jobs to her teammates, but for her dad, Buddies are about giving kids a voice by getting them involved in leadership roles and helping them develop into confident young adults.
Similarly, the youngsters have been given the opportunity to help develop the next iBaller game, which it is hoped will help provide them with the tools to find employment when older:
“The next step of iBaller is to try and engage with kids and think: can we create the next entrepreneur?” said Michael.
“The idea is to put classes together and look at other games that can be created, that iBaller will then go and manufacture. The hope is that [kids will] come in and actually run the whole aspect of a commercial process in terms of designing and managing a product.”
Lucy and iBaller are preparing to launch a new initiative called “StreetBaller” - or iSports - that will see the team provide funding and kit for kids from all social backgrounds who are less fortunate, so that they are able to play football, other sports and even enjoy iBaller Days out.
People are certainly starting to take notice; Michael has been approached to take iBaller to festivals, whilst just recently they were appointed Partick Thistle’s pre-match entertainment. Videos on social media of mascot Kingsley trying his hand at some of the games has proven great exposure for the brand.
And it doesn’t end there.
“We’ve got a lot of other games lined up,” said Lucy. “Our next project is a thing called iBaller8, which is another 8 games that are designed for the more competitive and professional kids who think they could be the next Messi.
“It’s gone the way we thought it would because all these other football projects – no matter how good they are – they’re not proving the fun like we are.
“Build it and they will come.”