Unpaid Internships – the good, the bad & the ugly

Unpaid internships have been a controversial topic within football analysis for years. Since very recently, it was common for Premier League & Championship clubs to have 2-3 unpaid interns working within the first team and the academy at any given time. 

Many current club employees occupying the ‘Head of Analysis’ or equivalent position at such clubs have worked their way up via an unpaid internship some time from 2010-2018. 

The APFA recently launched a jobs board, taking over duties from TheVideoAnalyst.com which has been the facilitator for many of these positions over the years. On ‘launch day’ itself there were two unpaid positions listed and so internally, the APFA had a decision to make. We knew this day was coming, but perhaps not quite this quickly. 

Should we continue to list unpaid roles?

It’s almost impossible to take a stance on, or even write about internships, especially unpaid ones without upsetting at least one group of people based on their opinion. A recent Twitter poll proved from a following of people very much analysis-oriented, opinions were split. 

On the one hand, unpaid internships can offer a foot in the door for people wanting to pursue or even just experience the analysis industry. A valid argument, and no doubt you could be on course to learn a lot of important lessons, techniques etc. throughout your first few weeks or months of employment. 

But isn’t this the same in most other industries where on day one of your first job you have zero experience unless you’ve also taken an unpaid internship?

On the other hand, they can be exploitative, and make the first steps in the world of analysis accessible only to people who have other sources of income or are financially secure enough to work without pay. 

Some of the more interesting comments we found on the subject:

  1. Why does a club spending conservatively £200,000 per week on player wages (20 players x £10,000 p/w) not compensate somebody involved in the first team setup even minimum wage £6.83 (18-20 yrs) or £9.50 (living wage)? At 40 hours this equals £273-£380 or 0.13% of the £200,000 figure mentioned earlier. 
  2. If you have set deliverables and expectations ie x project has to be delivered at y time, or you have to be at work from x to y, then this commitment needs to be replicated from the other side with compensation. 
  3. Even if an intern’s work contributes to one tenth of one goal all season, this is likely more valuable than what you’d pay them. Surely clubs would want the best candidates and therefore pay?
  4. Would you expect there to be year-long, unpaid internships for cleaning, dish washing or administrative roles in a club?
  5. Why are unpaid internships even legal? How is it different to hiring a first-time employee with no job experience?

We openly asked some people to speak with us about their experience as either an intern or as an ‘employer’ of one. 

To be transparent, we had over 25 people offering their experiences. There was a clear pattern of feelings of exploitation from this group. The majority of them weren’t comfortable with their stories being made public.

James Mitchell, Performance Analyst for Washington Spirit“I think internships are important – I just think they have to be paid”

“Once I graduated, I knew I wanted to work in football. I was lucky enough at the time that there was an advert that went out for performance analysts with [Aberdeen’s] men’s professional team, as an [unpaid] internship. And I just thought, why not?

The only thing that was mandatory with the internship was that I was available to film the U15 squad and then provide a breakdown of the match. But because they were such a small team, with only two full-time analysts, I was given a lot of opportunities to work my way up.

I think I was doing 30-35 hours a week, fully unpaid, to try and take it all in, and give myself the best opportunity.

I became in charge of [the same] internship programme, during my four years at Aberdeen. I was working closely with the local university, taking students and then teaching them the way I was taught.

I felt like I needed to tread lightly [in terms of the interns]. It’s unpaid, they’re doing it off their own backs, they could leave at any moment, which would screw me over. So we had to treat them really nicely and try and make things exciting for them. Because the filming the game on the Saturday and then doing the same breakdown on a Monday morning will get pretty boring after a couple of months.

I think internships are important – I don’t think university really prepares you for working in an elite sports environment – I just think they have to be paid.

I certainly found year after year [at Aberdeen] the amount of applications we were getting was being lowered. Because I think that the expectation was, if you’re doing work experience or internships in any field, you’re getting some payment for it.”

Jacob Newman, Recruitment Analyst for QPR“Throw yourself into everything”

“I did four different placements across all four years of my undergraduate degree which was in 2018.

I knew I wanted to get into analysis so it was a case of just doing as many analysis placements as possible.

[The work] was pretty consistent and it always fitted within a routine. The only thing they ever cost me was time. And the experience that came from it led to getting my job now, before I had even graduated.

I had practical experience working in the EFL (English Football League) so my current boss said “Well you’ve done it, you know the professional club set up, you know what’s going on.”

When it came to applying for jobs I was already a step ahead. What set me apart was my experiences across different levels and in senior football. I showed I could do it, not just as a piece of paper, but with practical experience too.

I would always recommend [an internship] but I’m conscious of people’s personal circumstances. Not everyone has the luxury that I have where it was never a financial burden to me.

My advice would be ‘Don’t say no’. You end up opening so many more doors up and building relationships. Throw yourself into everything. Everyone is willing to teach you. Not everyone expects perfection every time, but you will be so much better if you become as rounded as possible in as many different things.”

It’s important to differentiate between an internship and a work placement, and you can read more about them here

Work Placements are extremely common while working towards a degree at university in the UK, especially so in the Performance Analysis field. A key section from this article:

‘Whereas internships are more focused on learning new skills. Work placements usually last around a year and are sometimes referred to as a “year in industry.

Work placements often pay a living or entry-level wage. This is because the students undertaking them are less likely to live at home.”

While many clubs in recent years have begun to fund work placements via a salary, stipend or paying university tuition, there was a period of time in the UK where clubs may have 3-4 interns throughout the academy and first team, mostly unpaid. 

For now, the APFA has decided to continue to list unpaid internships, but with some caveats, and commitments from us moving forward:

  • Listed internships can be unpaid, but we reserve the right to remove any listing we believe to be disingenuous and in place of paid work. 
  • We encourage clubs hiring unpaid interns to describe specifically what they will be getting in exchange for payment in a quid pro quo relationship. ‘Invaluable experience’ without specifics is unlikely to be enough. 
  • We encourage those hiring unpaid interns to be open about your previous interns, where they work now, and how the club helped them find paid work during or post-internship (references, introductions etc)
  • We encourage interns who feel exploited by a club, and that they were simply performing menial tasks in place of a paid employee to report this to the APFA.

The APFA reached out to a number of clubs in the USA and UK regarding their internship programs. Here’s some recommended questions and discussions you may want to have with the club if you’re thinking of applying for or accepting an internship/studentship position:

  • Ask for names and contact details of all previous interns (not just the ones a club wants to give you!) and to do your research on success stories and employment rates from clubs you’re applying to.
  • Ask if previous interns were allowed into team meetings pre/post-game (not expecting to be a central figure!) to observe.
  • Ask what projects or tasks you’ll be expected to work on that add real tangible value to players or staff. Or are you expected to film training and make basic/menial clips requiring little skill?
  • What feedback on your work can you expect, how often and can the club give examples of this being carried out in previous years.

Don’t be afraid to politely and respectfully make sure you’re getting something from your commitment. If anything, a club fielding these questions will feel they are getting a mature, forward-thinking analyst vs someone who’s just desperate to be involved no matter what. If this is done in the right way, a club becoming frustrated or upset with these questions is a red flag. 

The obvious question many will ask is “why don’t you simply ban advertising unpaid internships?” and the answer is the same as why we don’t make salaries mandatory in job postings. 

There are other sites who list job postings in sport. Although as far as we know we’re the only analysis-specific one, many of these websites charge a fee to access their job postings as part of a membership program.

Unfortunately, some clubs who hire unpaid interns are likely to list on these sites, and accept a lower number of candidates, or expect prospective candidates to pay to view the listing. 

This in turn, only harms the industry, and candidates who can’t afford to pay membership fees to access job postings on multiple job sites each month.

The APFA has four core pillars you can read about here. Unpaid internships, on some level, fall under our belief in education, community and career progression. 

We continue to work towards our goal of making the analysis industry bigger and better for everybody, and welcome feedback from all industry stakeholders. 

Unpaid internships will remain under review by the APFA indefinitely.

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