Skip to content

Rainbow Laces: How first campaign in 2013 got Premier League talking about gay footballers

Creative genius and guerrilla tactics helped Rainbow Laces take football by storm when it launched in September 2013; a decade on, the anti-homophobia campaign is recognised globally as a symbol of LGBTQ inclusion in sports. Here's how it all began…

LONDON, ENGLAND - SEPTEMBER 22: Mikel Arteta and Thomas Vermaelen of Arsenal pose with their rainbow laces during the Arsenal 1st team squad photoshoot at Arsenal Training Ground on September 20, 2013 in London, England. Photo by David Price/Arsenal FC via Getty Images)
Image: Arsenal vice-captain Mikel Arteta and captain Thomas Vermaelen were among the Premier League players to support Rainbow Laces in September 2013

Rainbow Laces has an even more colourful origin story than you might think.

Men's football is currently celebrating 10 years of the campaign, but back in 2013, the very first activation had more of a rebellious streak as it looked to tackle the issue of homophobia in the game.

It was almost a non-starter. The concept had spent months stuck in marketing limbo, and when the time finally came to get the laces off the ground, there were several knotty problems to solve.

Yet the LGBTQ+ inclusion initiative has shown impressive staying power, threading its way through a variety of British sports and going on to earn global recognition thanks to the broadcast reach of the Premier League.

Rainbow Laces was introduced to the public on a Sunday night in September via social posts from a maverick midfielder, a boisterous bookmaker, and a charity that had never attempted a campaign quite like this before.

By the end of that initial activation, it had generated over 400 stories in the media, the hashtag had trended worldwide on Twitter (twice), and there was reportedly a national shortage of rainbow yarn as a result.

Among the various twists and turns was the serious thought given to targeting Italian football instead. We'll never know how Serie A might have handled it all.

Also See:

So why did it cause so much controversy in the UK? Who were the key players? And what helped it stick around?

A report released recently by the charity Stonewall charts the campaign's impact over time and considers its future.

But for now, let's go back to the beginning…

'Hacking the system'

A decade ago, at agency Crispin Porter + Bogusky in London, two of the best young creative minds in British advertising would scrawl ideas on the wall of their 'war room'.

Christen Brestrup and Bertie Scrase - known professionally in their industry as Christen + Bertie - were brainstorming for one of their big clients, Paddy Power.

Often inspired by comments from sports fans on social media, the duo were full of energy and eager to impress both their directors and the bookmaker. It was, according to Scrase, a "dream job".

Through a series of stunts and envelope-pushing adverts, some of which had fallen foul of the regulator, Paddy Power had already built a reputation for naughtiness.

The work was fast-paced, but even though Christen + Bertie were enjoying every moment, they had a desire to go deeper.

"There was this idea of 'mischief for good' and it was something we were really keen on," says Scrase.

"We had loads of different subject matters written up on this wall and homophobia in sport, especially football, was one of them. We came up with a swathe of ideas as to how to tackle it and to be honest, Rainbow Laces was just one of many.

"But it definitely stood out. I remember coming up with it with Christen and we said instantly, 'that could be cool'. Because what else can you affect on a footballer? Nothing really, if you think about it.

"We knew we needed to hack the system, and find something that wasn't controlled by official governing bodies, kit manufacturers or had other strict rules on it.

"The laces were the one thing that we thought, you know what, it's the footballer himself that's got control over that."

They pitched the suggestion at a meeting with Paddy Power who "loved it straight away". But there was hesitation.

"We all agreed it would be a difficult thing to pull off, in terms of tone," adds Scrase.

"The feeling was very much, 'if we do this wrong, it could massively backfire'. So it got sat on for quite a long time."

Please use Chrome browser for a more accessible video player

Robbie Rogers quit English football and came out publicly as gay in February 2013, before then joining LA Galaxy. A decade later, he's been talking to Sky Sports' Mark McAdam about his journey

A ballsy approach

Paul Mallon was then the editorial manager at Paddy Power, responsible for finding the right words to explain the bookie's bold stunts.

"I remember us falling in love with the big idea behind Rainbow Laces immediately," he says. "There was this thought of it going on to develop as a movement.

"There were slogans ready to go, like, 'it only takes two minutes to change the game' and 'we don't care which team you play for'.

"Paddy Power's mission to help tackle homophobia in football was genuine, and this would end up coinciding with the rise of the brand on Twitter."

The bookmaker was launching in Italy at the time and some executives were pushing for a Serie A rollout of Rainbow Laces first.

Meanwhile, within the 'Mad Men' world of advertising, there was wrangling too. Christen + Bertie were being supported by their bosses, Ben Walker and Matt Gooden, but then another agency - Lucky Generals, led by Danny Brooke-Taylor - was asked to assist in getting the campaign launch over the line.

"Fortunately, we were friendly with their guys," says Scrase, "and we ended up making it a joint effort.

"In fact, the more power we got behind it, the better it went. Maybe that was part of the reason it landed so well."

The campaign still needed a football figurehead to help it cut through. Mallon put in a call to then QPR midfielder Joey Barton, who had appeared in a TV documentary about homophobia in football earlier that year and was being thought of as "the king of Twitter". Suddenly, the strategy seemed even stronger.

"Joey had skin in the game too, because an uncle of his, who was gay, had been a massive influence on him becoming a footballer," explains Mallon.

"He brought a few things to the table, as an unorthodox ambassador with a point of view, and somebody who could speak both on Twitter and in broadcast media to spread the word in an authentic way."

Rainbow Laces 2013, Paddy Power, Stonewall
Image: Advertising slogans and wordplay - plus the then rising power of social media - would help to get Rainbow Laces noticed

The Gay Football Supporters' Network (GFSN) were part of the early alliance as well but it was considered essential to find a cause or charity partner that the "mischief for good" would ultimately benefit.

A delicate balance had to be struck between the playful and the provocative. A deliberately cheeky tagline was chosen as the main campaign message - 'Right Behind Gay Footballers', with the hashtag #RBGF.

But would a gay rights organisation get behind that?

Approaching kick-off

"There was some pretty intense debate about whether it was the right partnership for Stonewall," says Richard Lane, reflecting on the discussions within the equality charity, which is still the largest organisation of its kind in Europe.

Lane was not long into his role as Media Manager when the pitch for Rainbow Laces landed in his in-tray. Paddy Power's track record of disruption and, at times, inappropriate advertising made the prospect of working with them unappealing for some.

Conversations in-house centred around the tone of that subversive slogan. "As a gay man myself, I found it funny in a tongue-in-cheek way and it didn't bother me - but I would no way speak for all gay men out there in terms of their view.

"We discussed it with staff and with many gay men and there was a consensus that it wasn't designed to mock or belittle anyone. It was just fun language designed to get the attention of a straight football fan who might have never thought about LGBT equality in their lives before.

"It did its job - it got people talking. We did receive a few letters and emails complaining about Rainbow Laces but that was not one of the top ones."

Stephen Fry, who like Barton was influential on Twitter at the time, lent his support to the slogan as the pendulum of public opinion swung favourably.

The partnership with Paddy Power was seen as more contentious but Lane and Stonewall chose to proceed with "a number of caveats". They wanted the bookmaker to demonstrate a level of allyship beyond having its name on the campaign.

From there, it was "a mission for everybody" to get Rainbow Laces onto football's radar, according to Mallon. "We had to make it become that movement we'd spoken about, rather than a one-off stunt.

"Looking back now, we absolutely did that - and it's something that the people involved should be very proud of."

'Mindblowing' moments

Barton's tweet began the online buzz but behind the scenes, there was a real-world mobilisation too as pairs of laces began to be mailed out across the country.

Scrase picks up the story. "They were sent to literally every single player at every club, saying 'please wear these to show support to any teammate who might be gay'. We didn't go through the Premier League or any official channels.

"Joey Barton was the first to wear them the following midweek. For lads who maybe didn't know any better, to see his face behind it was really interesting and the power of that got it noticed."

Rainbow Laces campaign 2013, Paddy Power and Stonewall
Image: The 2013 campaign promos used an impish turn of phrase to get the attention of football players and fans

Lane describes the strategy as "guerrilla tactics" and the sudden success surprised Stonewall, which was a smaller charity back then. "The phones went off the hook. It was literally non-stop for 14 hours a day, like nothing I'd ever experienced before.

"Some calls were from people working in football saying, 'we had no notice about this'. The answer we had to that was, 'well, people have been banging on about homophobia in football for decades and you've done nothing'."

Others suggested it was too big an ask for players to swap over their bootlaces. "Seriously, how long does it take to put in a pair of laces?

"That kind of controversy just fed the narrative and as a brand-new campaign, you couldn't really ask for more.

"Also, we were very clear that for any club or any individual who didn't want to participate, that was their free choice and was in no way a reflection of their lack of commitment to this cause."

A close up of Queens Park Rangers' Joey Barton boots during the Sky Bet Championship match at Loftus Road, London. PRESS ASSOCIATION Photo. Picture date: Wednesday September 18, 2013. See PA story SOCCER QPR. Photo credit should read: John Walton/PA Wire. RESTRICTIONS: Editorial use only. Maximum 45 images during a match. No video emulation or promotion as 'live'. No use in games, competitions, merchandise, betting or single club/player services. No use with unofficial audio, video, data, fixtures or club/league logos.
Image: Joey Barton was the first player to wear rainbow laces, in QPR's Championship home game against Brighton on September 18, 2013

Several clubs started to trot out the excuse that agreements with their own betting partners prevented any involvement in a campaign that had an association with another bookie.

However, that didn't prevent individual players from lacing up. As the week wore on, it became clear that more and more would, all the way down the leagues, when Saturday came.

"That opening weekend was nuts when people started wearing them on the pitch," recalls Scrase. "Leighton Baines scored two free-kicks for Everton with laces in his boots in a win at West Ham.

"Norwich's Robert Snodgrass had them in when he had a penalty saved against my club, Aston Villa. We were crap at the time but I do also remember Darren Bent holding them up in a picture on the club's Twitter, so that was a highlight!

"Those are just a few examples. I've got folders of screenshots of every single club and player that was promoting the laces. It was mindblowing how it took off."

Back at Stonewall HQ, Lane and his colleagues were getting swamped by requests from the media as well as for Rainbow Laces themselves.

"There were segments on Sky Sports, BBC, newspaper articles, front pages… it took on a life of its own," he says.

"We simply couldn't keep up with the demand of trying to get laces out to people. There was a story about four days in that we'd caused a national shortage of rainbow yarn. You couldn't get them for love nor money."

Sky Sports News, Rainbow Laces 2013
Image: Sky Sports News reported on the first campaign activation a decade ago

Despite the frenetic nature of the work, Lane and his colleagues welcomed something that was out of the ordinary when compared to the charity's day-to-day business of lobbying politicians on human rights issues.

"We had just been through a bruising equal marriage campaign. It was won by a landslide in the end but there was a lot of backlash.

"Rainbow Laces was a real departure in terms of the type of campaigning that Stonewall was doing, so there was nervousness but also excitement around it.

"It certainly tapped into something. A week later, I was on the Tube and would frequently see people wearing the laces. There was a real desire out there to show visible support for the cause."

Paddy Power lived up to their promises too, signing up to Stonewall's workplace inclusion scheme, reviewing internal policies, and apologising for a previous advert that was transphobic.

"In terms of time, effort and pretty staggering amounts of cash, they really fronted up. They moved things at such a pace and with such energy. It was amazing to work with them.

"I appreciate this wasn't selfless philanthropy because they got great brand recognition but they didn't have to put in the amount of money they did."

Metro Newspaper, Stonewall Rainbow Laces, September 2013
Image: There was huge media interest, with newspapers like Metro giving front-page coverage to the campaign

The bookmaker's then marketing director Christian Woolfenden was a "driving force" and Lucky Generals also deserve much of the credit, adds Mallon, who spent nine years at Paddy Power which included a spell as 'Head of Mischief'.

In 2021, he moved on to Lucky Generals himself and last year, the creative agency reunited with Stonewall to work on the campaign once again.

"There's no doubt Rainbow Laces has changed the game but for all the progress we've made there are still those who bully and exclude LGBTQ+ people in sport," says Mallon.

"Research shows that the number of people who see homophobic remarks or banter as 'acceptable' has halved over the last five years, falling from 25 per cent in 2017 to 14 per cent in 2022.

"It's a must-win game, but it's not full-time yet."

A 'pub-talk' phenomenon

After each annual campaign activation, Stonewall uses surveys to track how the attitudes of sports fans have shifted as a result.

One positive indicator of the effectiveness of Rainbow Laces is that 74 per cent of fans who saw it in 2022 consider LGBTQ+ people to be part of the sports community (up from 68 per cent the previous year), compared to 58 per cent of fans who didn't see the campaign.

Other statistics reflect ongoing challenges. Almost a quarter (24 per cent) of those responding to the most recent Walnut ICM poll said they would not confront someone making homophobic comments at a sports event.

Eye-catching visibility that encourages meaningful conversations has proved to be Rainbow Laces' winning formula.

When the campaign returned for its second activation in September 2014, a TV commercial featuring Arsenal first-team stars sending themselves up went viral, while a special edition of the Metro newspaper with a bespoke masthead on the cover and ads inside won a major industry award for its innovation.

After a lull in 2015, the campaign was revamped for 2016 when the Premier League and Sky Sports were among the businesses and brands to sign up for 'Team Pride', helping Stonewall to amplify a more broadly inclusive slogan of 'make sport everyone's game'.

Since then, all sports from elite to grassroots are invited to take part every autumn and it's estimated that 12m adults in the UK see Rainbow Laces each year.

Factor in the remarkable reach of the Premier League, broadcast to billions of people around the world including those in over 60 countries which still have anti-LGBTQ+ laws, and the impact becomes impossible to quantify.

Other notable moments have included a prestigious Sport Industry Award for best campaign in 2018, the entire All Blacks rugby union team wearing the laces later that same year, and the creation of a Stonewall Sport Champions roster of 20 out LGBTQ+ athletes.

Scrase insists the scale of the campaign today goes far beyond what he and Brestrup could have imagined a decade ago.

"Whenever Christen and I try to come up with ideas, we always say, 'what would you talk to your mates about down the pub?'

"Rainbow Laces definitely did that. It was a fantastic project for us to work on back then but it's become a phenomenon now. Everyone involved in its creation from Crispin Porter + Bogusky and Lucky Generals should be really proud."

A few weeks after the first campaign, Christen + Bertie switched to work for US agency Wieden+Kennedy and ended up moving to America.

In December 2019, the two 'Mad Men' were back in London and were invited along to a match at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium.

"Christen is a big Spurs fan and it just happened to be their Rainbow Laces game, against Burnley," explains Scrase.

"It was the 5-0 when Heung-Min Son ran the length of the pitch and scored. The whole place was lit up with rainbows, it was on the match programme, everywhere.

"For us, it was completely wild. We just weren't expecting it, to come back to the UK and see all of that visibility."

Tottenham Hotspur's Son Heung-min (right) celebrates scoring his side's third goal of the game during the Premier League match at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium, London. PA Photo. Picture date: Saturday December 7, 2019. See PA story SOCCER Tottenham. Photo credit should read: Jonathan Brady/PA Wire. RESTRICTIONS: EDITORIAL USE ONLY No use with unauthorised audio, video, data, fixture lists, club/league logos or "live" services. Online in-match use limited to 120 images, no video emulation. No use in betting, games or single club/league/player publications.
Image: Harry Kane, wearing a rainbow captain's armband, congratulates Heung-Min Son after his wondergoal for Tottenham against Burnley in December 2019

Playing the long game

Lane would leave Stonewall in early 2015 but has stayed in the sector, and now works as a director of debt relief charity StepChange.

He looks back at his time on Rainbow Laces with great fondness. "Social media was a less toxic environment back then and it was so much easier to get people involved.

"It developed a life of its own and I'd certainly argue that it's moved on the discussion around being gay in men's football.

"We were always very clear that this was not about anyone having to come out. Now there are policies and support that the FA, leagues and clubs will have in place to make players feel safer if they wanted to do that."

The positive coming-out experience of Blackpool teenager Jake Daniels suggests football is on the right track, but it's still an unpredictable climate.

Please use Chrome browser for a more accessible video player

Jake Daniels isn't surprised that no Premier League players have yet come out publicly as gay or bi, but he hopes more will follow his lead so that it can 'become the norm'

"There's a level of prominence and commercial success that the first top-tier player is going to see from coming out," believes Lane.

"But we live in an era where there is also an increasing backlash to LGBTQ+ issues. These things are only going to matter more, not just for gay or bi male players but also fans in stadiums who are still hearing homophobic abuse."

The Stonewall slogan for the 2023 campaign stresses the need to fight on for equality and 'keep it up'. The days of mischief-making appear to be over and we're moving into the territory of marginal gains.

Yet Lane is in no doubt that putting a pair of Rainbow Laces in your shoes or boots sends out a powerful message, not least to any closeted player who worries how the locker room would react if they knew his secret.

"If that player sees a teammate out there wearing the laces, it's only going to make it a more inclusive space."

Sky Sports is a member of TeamPride which supports Stonewall's Rainbow Laces campaign, currently receiving its annual activation from November 25 to December 10.

Your story of being LGBTQ+ or an ally could help to make sport everyone's game - please contact us here to discuss further.


Around Sky