The Numbers Game - FA facing participation challenge
The FA has a number of things on its mind at the moment.
Managing its relationship with Fifa; a government inquiry into the way football is run; qualifying for Euro 2012 after England missed out on the last European Championship in 2008; finding a replacement for Fabio Capello next summer; improving standards of player discipline and behaviour; youth development and coaching education; paying for Wembley, and retaining its senior management for longer than six months.
But arguably its biggest headache is the most fundamental of all: actually getting people to play football.
The harsh reality is that the numbers participating in the national game is declining. Sport England reports those playing regular football fell from 2,144,700 in 2007 to 2,090,000 by last year. While the number of small-sided teams has gone up by a thousand in the last five years, the FA admits the number of traditional, adult, male, 11-a-side teams has fallen from 33,568 in 2005-06 to 30,355 in 2010-11, driven by a rapid fall in the numbers of 16-19-year-olds playing the sport.
It is with this in mind that the FA has launched its Just Play initiative. The aim is to arrest this decline by providing a new kick-about format at specialist centres throughout the country as well as an online tool to help adults find a place to play football near them. The target is to get 150,000 more playing for at least 30 minutes a week by 2013.
The truth is the FA is worried.
It has already been warned by Sport England, the body responsible for investing £480m into grassroots sport through the Whole Sport Plan, that its current four-year, £25m funding stream could be cut if it cannot urgently reverse the downward trend in participation numbers.
With both basketball and rugby docked millions of pounds worth of much needed funding recently for dwindling participation figures, the FA knows the threat is a real one.
There are a number of theories as to why participation levels are falling.
Busier lifestyles and less leisure time, working at weekends, more transient communities with less volunteering, the loss of referees due to poor player behaviour, and the distractions of TV and computer games are all of course factors. There are also high costs involved in running amateur clubs. A Grassroots Football Show survey recently found that it costs clubs £2000 a season to run each team. But the state of our grassroots facilities is arguably the most critical of all.
Theo Walcott and Peter Crouch were drafted in to help launch the Mars Just Play scheme at Burgess Park in Camberwell. Funded by the Football Foundation, the facility's excellent, all-weather pitches and modern changing facilities just off the run-down Old Kent Road are sadly the exception to the rule in inner-city Southwark. Like most of London, the borough suffers from a chronic shortage of decent, well-maintained, public football facilities.
With a significant shortfall in the supply of such provision compared to demand, the city's artificial pitches are over-subscribed by as much as 40%. London has 16% of England's population but just 3% of the football facilities. Nationally, the FA estimates as many as 1.5m youngsters and adults want to play the sport but have nowhere to do so.
At a time when the sport is desperately trying to encourage more females to take up the sport (with £6m recently invested into the Women's Superleague), tens of thousands are alienated because of a lack of civilised changing facilities.
It is estimated that around £6bn is required to upgrade the national footballing infrastructure of pitches and changing rooms to bring it up to the levels of continental countries where local authorities regard sports provision as a priority on a par with health and education services.
Ironically, at a time when the onus on boosting the numbers playing the sport has never been greater, the amount of money being put into grassroots facilities is being reduced. Along with the FA and Premier League, Sport England puts money into the Football Foundation on behalf of the Government. The UK's biggest sports charity proudly reports that average participation rates increase by an astonishing 10% in areas where they upgrade or build new facilities.
But despite the vast wealth in the sport, the obvious need to reverse falling participation rates and rising inflation, the foundation's funding has almost halved from an initial £60m a year in 2001-2004 to £34m now. From its original commitment of £20m per annum, the FA currently gives £12m; a mere fraction of its income. Later this month, its board will meet and discuss cutting it yet further.
The cost of equipping clubs with goals for age-specific formats (a positive step), finally building the 'coaching university' of St George's Park and the desire to extend the Tesco Skills Programme mean that savings will be made, and I understand that the amount given to the foundation is almost certain to be cut once again to £10m, and possibly even less. Placed in the context of Fabio Capello's £6m annual salary, the governing body's contribution to the entire country's grassroots facilities appears far from generous.
Nor indeed does it at the Premier League - earning £3.1bn from its 2010-13 television broadcasting rights deal - but also investing just £12m into the Foundation each year. Some may argue the professional clubs have no obligation to pay a penny. Others would point to the money generated for a Sunderland from a home-grown player like Jordan Henderson and argue it makes complete sense to invest in the pipeline of talent.
The Premier League also gives £20.3m to the clubs' community and social inclusion schemes, £3m internationally and £8.1m to the Football League for community work and youth development, but it still represents a fraction of the vast broadcasting income it generates.
Meanwhile, the government has already cut its contribution to the Foundation to £10m, with cuts in funding to local authorities already resulting in the inevitable closure of leisure centres and pitches up and down the country. No wonder the key legacy target of the 2012 Olympics - the pledge to get one million more adults to simply be more active - has been dropped.
The Sport and Recreation Alliance says local councils put £36 per capita into sports facilities, but that still puts the UK way behind other countries we consider to be our peers - the Netherlands, Sweden, Belgium, Germany, Denmark, Finland, France and Ireland - all of whom spend at least £15 per head more. Furthermore, the UK is the 3rd lowest investor across the EU in sport from central government too.
Next month the Department for Culture, Media and Sport's inquiry into football governance is due to recommend how the sport could be run better. Increased supporter representation in clubs, greater independence at the FA, and a winter break will all no doubt be dealt with.
But the most fundamental issue of all, simply ensuring the sport is played on pitches up and down the country, must not be neglected.