Can the Football Association repair damage felt at grassroots?

 

Rob Fleming is a worried man. The chairman of Bournville Warriors FC  finds himself in a situation sadly familiar to thousands of volunteers up and down the country who work in grassroots youth football.

Poor weather means that, once again, this weekend's matches for the Birmingham club's 10 teams may have to be cancelled.

Facilities are horrendous, worse than they were when I was playing as a boy 40 years ago

Woolton FC coach Kenny Saunders

"We've already had more than a quarter of our matches called off this season," he tells me.

"Like most junior clubs, we play on council-run pitches, but they're not well-maintained, they don't have any money spent on drainage, so we often fall victim to the weather and the kids don't play.

"On a Saturday, you'll sometimes see more than 150 children playing for our teams from under-five all the way up to under-16.

"Hundreds of parents will be standing on the touchline and yet we don't have any working toilets. A lot of people are put off because of it. We've even had injuries because of the boggy, muddy pitches."

It is clubs like Bournville Warriors that the Football Association's new National Facilities Strategy  is designed to help.

Research conducted by the governing body has found that 84% of those involved in grassroots football cited "poor facilities" as their main concern.

Targets within the new three-year plan include a pledge to improve 3,000 run-down pitches across England and to build 150 new artificial pitches, essential for a country with such long winters.

The FA hopes £150m will be spent by the biggest sports charity in Britain, the Football Foundation, on facilities over the next three years.

This will, it hopes, result in increased participation, which, in turn, will help tackle child obesity and even boost the economy by generating jobs for small businesses.

At a time when local councils are having to cut spending on sport and leisure facilities, many involved in the game will be relieved that the governing body is finally prioritising this issue.

Premier League Chief Executive Richard Scudamore described the £3bn deal as a "decent commercial increase" - Pictures courtesy of the Premier League

But Kenny Saunders is unimpressed. The coach at thriving boys club Woolton FC  in Liverpool has become so disillusioned with the state of dilapidated run-down facilities across Merseyside, he has decided to set up a Save Grassroots Football campaign. 

"It's a disgrace what the FA have announced," he says.

"We need so much more investment from them and the Premier League. Facilities are horrendous, worse than they were when I was playing as a boy 40 years ago.

"We've had to call off matches in 11 of the last 13 weekends and we don't have any toilets. We're going to cut off the lifeblood of the game, our young players, if we're not careful."

Saunders has begun an e-petition  calling for the Premier League to contribute 7.5% of its TV revenue towards grassroots facilities, rather than the less than 1% it currently donates to the Football Foundation.

The e-petition, which needs 100,000 signatures to be debated in Parliament, is also being backed by Bolton North East MP David Crausby,  who last year backed an Early Day Motion calling for the Premier League's TV deals to be subjected to a 50% windfall tax.

So should the Premier League give more? Here comes the maths.

The Football Foundation  was established in 2001, when the Premier League, under pressure from Government to "give something back" in return for being allowed to proceed with its highly-lucrative TV deal, agreed to give 5% of its total income towards the provision of facilities in grassroots football.

Latest Premier League TV deal

Robin van Persie challenged by Steven Gerrard
  • Signed in June 2012
  • Cost £3.018bn, an increase of £1.25bn on the current package
  • Secured rights to 38 matches a season from 2013-14 to 2015-16
  • Amount spent was a rise of 70% on the present deal, worth £1.773bn

The Premier League now says that commitment only applied to one TV deal and now gives a lot less.

How much less?

Well, the Premier League used to give £20m to the Football Foundation each year, a sum matched by the FA and Government. Now, despite ever-increasing TV revenues, the Premier League gives £12m.

The FA also gives £12m, while the Government puts in £10m, which means annual Football Foundation funding has fallen from £60m to £34m in recent years.

In fact, of the £12m the Premier League donates to the Foundation each year, only £6m actually goes to grassroots facilities, with the rest diverted to a Stadium Improvement Fund for non-league clubs.

The Premier League is making more money than ever. Domestic broadcasting rights for seasons 2013-14 to 2015-16 have been sold by the Premier League for £3bn. Combined with international rights, the league is expected to bring in as much as £5bn over the next three years.

However, it also claims to have "the most sustained investment programme in grassroots sports by any football league in the world".

The Premier League gives away around £189m each year, 15% of its overall revenue, although most of that is in the form of solidarity payments to the Football League and Conference leagues.

A more relevant figure perhaps is the £45m (3.7%) of its revenue which goes to "good causes", like the 843 Creating Chances community-based projects  it funds, the Kickz campaign, and Premier League 4 Sport.

The league argues that the 3.7% of revenue it gives away to good causes is a lot better than the 1% it claims most blue-chip companies tend to give away in the form of corporate social-responsibility.

Declining funds

Hugh Robertson

The Premier League used to give £20m each year to grassroots, a sum matched by the FA and Government.

Now the Premier League gives £12m, the FA also gives £12m, while the Government (represented by sports minister Hugh Robertson, pictured) puts in £10m.

It also makes the point that, apart from grassroots facilities, there are a whole host of other ways people suggest it should spend its money.

There are calls for it to prioritise youth development and stadium facilities as well as lower ticket prices for games.

At a more fundamental level, it is worth remembering that, unlike in Europe, local councils in the United Kingdom face no statutory obligation to provide sports and leisure facilities in the same way they have to for schools and hospitals, for instance.

Central government allows councils to channel sports and leisure funding through their discretionary funds, often the first part of their budget to be cut, especially in times of austerity.

Is it the responsibility of the richest league in the world to make up for that? A league that already pays £1.2bn in taxes each year?

Some argue that, at a time when some players can earn £200,000 a week and a massive £70m a season is spent on agents, those at the top of the game should do more to help young footballers in the communities in which they operate.

Others insist that the Premier League clubs, at a time of Financial Fair Play regulations, deserve credit for giving anything away at all and do enough already when compared to their European rivals.

Wherever you stand on this highly emotive debate, there seems little doubt that, despite so much investment by the Football Foundation in recent years, the spending so far has merely "skimmed the surface", as FA Head of Development, Sir Trevor Brooking, admits.

With the total amount generated by the Premier League's next bumper TV deal to be announced soon, expect the debate to resurface.