Brittany Gropp: “At FutboLISTAS, we’re more focused on developing future leaders than future pro players.”

It’s been a while since we spoke to the brilliant Brittany Gropp [above centre] and we’re delighted to be remedying that now with the latest interview in our #WomenInSport series. Set up with the aim of teaching girls English and life skills alongside the beautiful game, her Seville-based non-profit FutboLISTAS has gone from strength to strength – despite the obstacles thrown up by the global pandemic and the cost-of-living crisis.

A lifelong football player and fan, Brittany caught up with Onuba Comms co-founder Nick Aitken to talk about how getting the right staff has been key to FutboLISTAS’ rapid expansion; offering girls’ football in Seville’s most disadvantaged area; a ‘pinch-me moment’ at the World Football Summit; and the importance of role models – on and off the pitch!

Onuba Comms (OC): So Brittany, how has the FutboLISTAS project progressed since we interviewed you for She Kicks Magazine back in May 2020?

BG: We actually ended up having to pause our on-the-field activities for 18 months due to Covid, which for a brand-new brand felt very uncertain, but when we did bounce back in fall of 2021 there was a bigger demand than ever for girls’ football here in Seville.

We started in my neighbourhood Triana and then a month later we opened a second site in Polígono Sur, which is not just the poorest neighbourhood in Seville, but among the poorest in Spain. That was a huge milestone for FutboLISTAS because if opportunities in general are lacking for girls to get involved and learn through football, there’s even less opportunity for girls there.

And then we opened a third site in February 2022 in Montequinto, a suburb here in Seville, meaning we’d tripled in size during 2021-22 alone, and in February 2023 we opened up a fourth site in another suburb, Mairena del Aljarafe.

One of the high points this school year just past was in September 2022, when our girls were invited to play a game in front of the entire World Football Summit Europe, which was a total “pinch me” moment for them and for me [see photo below]. They got to meet a couple of pro players, Arianna Criscione and Mariah Lee, plus Beatriz Álvarez, the President of Spain’s Liga F, so it was an amazing experience.

Another big feature added this year has been weekend events for all of our families that participate. This means we’re having an impact on the roughly 150 girls participating in our core programming and by extension, we’ve been able to impact a lot of families, parents and siblings who join us, whether they’re football-related events or just team bonding, family picnic type events.

And then the other big thing we started are school visits. This has been a massive opportunity for us; we’ve been visiting PE classes and had the chance to work with both boys and girls on gender equality, having important conversations and then, significantly, getting to play these out on the field as well. I think via the schools alone, we’ve connected with close to 2,000 kids.

OC: You have a full-time job alongside your work with FutboLISTAS, so how important has it been to bring in more staff to keep things moving forward?

BC: I work for a US sports-software company, Demosphere, selling sports technology, which means it’s super-aligned with FutboLISTAS. I spend a lot of time talking to clubs and leagues, mainly in the US, to see how our tech can make their lives a little bit easier. Youth sports have always been very big in the USA and they’re growing more and more every month, so there’s a lot of opportunity there.

FutboLISTAS has grown exponentially so our first employees were three head coaches and a communications manager brought in during 2021-22, who have been absolutely incredible. And then we brought in Antonietta Pagliaro as full-time Director of Programs in August 2022. Without her we would not have been able to accomplish even half of what we’ve done – she is amazing!

She was one of our head coaches the year before, so she already knew the program and the families and she’s super, super passionate about the mission. Her parents are Italian but she grew up in Canada and her brothers played football all the time growing up, but her parents, similar to a lot of the mindsets here in southern Spain, didn’t want her to play because she was a girl.

She eventually was able to start playing a little bit later in life and still plays today, so she feels a deep personal connection with those girls whose families aren’t keen for them to get involved. And on top of that she’s been an English teacher for almost 20 years, so she quite literally has the perfect profile for running our program!

Above: FutboLISTAS’ director of programs Antonietta Pagliaro showing her skills!

OC: FutboLISTAS regularly brings in female role models to speak to the children. Which have made the biggest impact on you and your students and why?

BG: This is my favourite part of the program – I love our mentors! I think one of the cool things about our mentors is how diverse they are. We’ve had some footballers, pro players from both Sevilla and Betis come to visit us, and for some of our girls those are their favourite mentors because they want to be professional footballers and see women who are earning a living from the game. And there was literally a girl who said, “Wait, you can earn money playing football?” which is truly mind-blowing for some of them.

I always say that at FutboLISTAS, we’re more focused on developing future leaders than future professional footballers, so the other mentors we bring from non-football careers are equally impactful. We’ve had engineers, neurologists, authors, journalists, biologists – we’ve just had such a wide range at this point, over 50 mentors so far.

It’s been a really awesome opportunity to give the girls role models and show them different career paths. And to help show the girls that everything they’re learning on the field with us – the teamwork, the communication, the perseverance – can all be applied to life off the field too.

Above: Chiropractor Beatriz Santamaría on duty as a FutboLISTAS mentor

OC: One of the stated long-term aims of FutboLISTAS is to expand to include girls & young women from 12-18. What do you think are the key obstacles to girls that age either not starting or not continuing with sport?

BG: Even in the US, where girls’ football is extremely popular, we’re still seeing a lot of drop off in participation in that age group and it’s such a serious issue globally. I love and I follow the Women’s Sports Foundation really closely and they have six main reasons they list in terms of why girls stop playing at that age. Even though FutboLISTAS are not yet working with that age group, we definitely take into account these six points in our programming.

And every time speak on a panel or in an interview, I try to talk about these six points, to help raise awareness of how we can make sport more inclusive for girls past 12. Among these points are a general lack of access to girls’ programming, whether or not there is even a team for girls in a given area.

Then there’s safety and transportation. How are they getting to training? Is it close by? Is it easy enough for their families to get them there? This is one of the reasons why it’s been very important for us to expand our program to different locations, knowing that where we train is potentially a barrier for some families.

Another really obvious one is social stigma, all of these stereotypes around the game… Part of the point of our program is to show the community here that football’s way more than just a sport. That’s really helping to change people’s ideas about what football is and what the girls are going to be learning.

Instead of thinking their daughter’s going to be learning bad habits associated with football, like being aggressive or talking back to referees, they’re realizing that girls can learn life skills, practise English and meet amazing role models.

Then I’d say the next biggest obstacle, which might be quite tied to social stigmas, is around the lack of role models. I am very fortunate to have grown up watching the US Women’s National Team play on TV for literally as long as I can remember. I have a poster of the 1999 US women’s team I’ve had since I was a kid in my bedroom – which is still in my office today! – and to actually have met two of those players and talked to them about FutboLISTAS has been really special.

But that’s not the case necessarily here in Spain, so I think us being able to give more visibility to women’s league players, refs and coaches is really important to show that yes, there is a spot for women and girls on the field. And in fact, we’ll be doing some exciting events this summer to help promote the Women’s World Cup and make sure that the girls are aware of the Spanish national team and all of the other amazing national teams competing in the tournament.

Above: Real Betis keeper Gaëlle Thalmann, currently starring for Switzerland at the Women’s World Cup, as a visiting mentor at FutboLISTAS.

OC: Yes, it goes back to “if you can see it, you can be it”, right?

BG: Absolutely! That’s absolutely a core belief of FutboLISTAS and that’s one reason why women’s football is lagging a little bit more behind here in Spain, so the more we see these top women players, whether playing for the national team or in the Liga F, getting media coverage the better. That visibility is important because it really does naturally extend to more girls wanting to play.

OC: I’m sure it’s making a difference here in the UK, that Women’s Super League games are being televised free-to-air on the BBC and the FA Player.

BG: Definitely, I was able to attend the Women’s EURO over there last summer and it was so cool. Going round Piccadilly Circus in London, seeing all of those huge billboards with the women players on and I’m like “this is absolutely amazing!” I’ll be very excited for the day the professional women’s teams here in Seville are promoted like that.

OC: Staying on promoting the game and you’re a very active member of the Leadership Woman Football organisation. What has being involved brought you, what have you enjoyed giving back and why has it been such a positive experience?

BG: Leadership Woman Football has had an enormous impact on my life, on FutboLISTAS, on everything really – right from the start. I got involved during COVID, during their 2020 mentorship program, and I don’t think we’d have accomplished even half of what we have at FutboLISTAS without the mentorship and the network that LWF has brought me.

Whether it’s personal help with FutboLISTAS’ growth and strategy or opportunities that LWF have recommended me for, like speaking at events that helps us to amplify our mission, but particularly Reyes Bellver and Mônica Esperidião and the team have been just incredible. Quite literally any time that I need to call on them for help or advice, they’re there and they’re always looking for new opportunities for women’s football as well, so for me, giving back to LWF whenever they need anything is a no-brainer.

Above: LWF Chief Marketing Officer and Academy Director Mônica Esperidião Hasenclever, LWF President Reyes Bellver and LWF Mentor Javier Marco Verdejo. Photo © Leadership Woman Football 

OC: You’ve won several awards in recent years, including Andalusian Businesswoman 2020 and the Seville Territory of Equity award 2023. How important is recognition like this for generating awareness and visibility for what you’re trying to achieve?

BG: Awards will never compare to the impact we know our program is generating, but it feels pretty great when we are recognized for what we’re doing – especially for our staff, volunteers and donors and everything they do to help us bring all of this to fruition. And winning awards is huge when it comes to finding potential sponsors, grant-funding and general marketing and PR opportunities to spread our mission.

Only part of what we do is on the field, the rest of it is really advocating for these inclusive spaces for not only competitive football but also recreational football and these awards are a huge platform for that. And as someone who does football as a passion project on a volunteer basis, which can be a lot to manage alongside a full-time job, it feels nice to know that not only are we achieving impacts directly on the families and girls we work with, but that the wider community sees value in what we’re doing too.

Above: Brittany [3rd from left] receiving FutboLISTAS’ “Sevilla Territory of Equity 2023” award

OC: Last but not least, as translation specialists we can’t let you go without asking about the importance of languages in your life! Could you have made this kind of impact without learning Spanish?

BG: Absolutely not! One of the most important parts of grassroots programming is making sure to integrate yourself into the community, learn the language, the culture. There’s no real way to affect change in a community unless you’re a part of it. I’m happy to say that in my now seven years in Seville, I’ve made myself a true member of the community. I’m often told I have an Andalusian accent when speaking Spanish, and I always tell folks that I may have American blood, but I’ve got a Sevillana soul.

DISCLAIMER: All views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the interviewee in question only.

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