Grassroots football feeling the pinch

Club Website editor Dan Pope takes a look at the effect of the current financial climate on grassroots football for the latest issue of FC Business.

From the outside looking in, English football’s garden must appear particularly rosy right now.

The Premier League is the world’s most watched and most lucrative football league, with seven of its clubs among the Delloitte Football Money League’s top 20.

An English team has appeared in the Champions League final for the seventh time in as many years and, as Manchester United took on Barcelona, the eyes of the football world turned to Wembley Stadium for probably the most expensive game in the history of club football.

Some 88,000 people packed into a £750 million stadium, paying up to £300 each for a standard ticket - hospitality packages cost up to £3,500 - to watch a match that was, in more ways than one, the jewel in UEFA’s crown.

As the Wembley arch sparkled in the night sky, a global TV audience of hundreds of millions could have been forgiven for thinking that the global recession hasn’t reached English football.

But they would be wrong.

Whilst the professional game continues to flourish, grassroots football is feeling the pinch.

A 3,000-strong poll of the grassroots community carried out by Club Website found that three out of four amateur football teams are finding the current financial climate tough.

When asked how hard it was for their club to raise enough money to break even at the moment, 48% of respondents said it was either “hard” or “very difficult”, while a further 27% said it was “not easy, but we get by.”

Only a quarter of those polled suggested that club finances were not a big issue, with 14% finding it “easy” to break even, while 11% said it was “not a problem” finding enough money.

Other Club Website polls found that 29% of clubs made a financial loss in the 2010/11 season, while 37% of clubs are "worse off" compared to this time last year.

The figures will come as little surprise to those people at the sharp end who know the many outgoings that need to be met to run a grassroots football club today.

The list of costs is substantial: pitch hire, changing rooms, training facilities, kits and equipment, registration fees, referee fees, coaching courses, CRB checks, transport costs and fines. When added together these can cost a small fortune - an average of around £2,000 per team.

Most clubs meet their costs through a combination of player subs, fundraising and sponsorship but, for some clubs, this is still not enough.

Senrab FC is one of them. The East London club, a prolific source of England internationals over the years, was on the brink of folding last month due to a combination of increased costs and a reduction in council funding.

The club was saved from the brink by its most famous old boy, England captain John Terry, whose undisclosed donation helped to secure the club’s immediate future.

If one of the most successful grassroots football clubs in the country is unable to make ends meet, then questions must be asked about the amount of money filtering down through the game.

As the world will see at Wembley this month, the professional game is as wealthy as ever, but the gulf between the top of the game and its grassroots appears wider than ever before.

One organisation helping to bridge that gap is the Football Foundation, the UK’s largest sports charity, which was formed in July 2000 to help redistribute the riches of professional football to the grassroots game.

A 1999 report by the government’s Football Task Force required the Premier League to invest up to 5% of its income “primarily in grassroots facilities and projects”, which it did with an annual £20m to the Football Foundation - funding matched by both the Football Association and government.

A decade on and the Foundation has overseen over £1 billion worth of investment into grassroots football, regenerating facilities and funding football projects across the country.

Grassroots clubs celebrate new Foundation-funded changing rooms or 3G pitches opening every week, but they still represent the vast minority of clubs out there.

Last year Club Website found that half of the grassroots community put up with sub-standard facilities on a regular basis, while 39% don’t even have any changing rooms for home matches.

The Foundation’s billion pound investment has changed the fortunes of thousands of grassroots teams but, with decades of under-investment to overturn, the cost of improving the country’s facilities is closer to an estimated £7bn.

Despite this need and despite the fact that the Football Foundation delivers a £5 return on every £1 invested by their funding partners - last month a government report named them their most efficient grant giver - the organisation’s core funding has been steadily reduced over the last decade.

The initial £20m annual investment by each of the three funding partners dropped to £15m per year in 2004 and has since been cut to £12m, while the government’s contribution has dropped further still, to £10m - half of their original investment.

It seems absurd that an organisation who are identified as an example of efficiency and best practice by sports charities around the world are not receiving more funding, let alone less, but sadly the outlook is not promising.

Austerity measures seem likely to limit the government’s investment in the Football Foundation for the foreseeable future and, with further spending cuts inevitable across government, direct investment in public sports facilities - some of the worst out there - is unlikely to feature high on a council’s list of priorities.

The FA’s investment into the Foundation has been hit by the collapse of Setanta and, with Wembley Stadium still being paid for, their £12m is unlikely to increase any time soon.

Whilst the Premier League’s own £12m is supplemented by an additional £31m invested annually into social intervention schemes and community work, their total investment represents less than 5% of their current TV deal - now worth £1bn per year - contrary to the commitment made in 1999.

The Premier League argues that their investment exceeds this 5% as revenue from the overseas element of their TV deal was not part of the original agreement. With domestic rights worth around half of the overall £1bn per year deal, it is an expensive technicality for the grassroots game.

The Football Foundation will no doubt continue to do great things with the money that they receive but, with two of their three funding partners feeling the pinch and a third unlikely to volunteer extra contributions on their own, the prospects of their funding increasing any time soon appear remote.

Such is the nature of the current financial climate. Far away from the bright lights of the Champions League final, grassroots football is starting to feel the pinch.

With no immediate upturn in sight, many clubs up and down the country will have to dig in, rally round and think up new and inventive ways of finding funding.

Let’s just hope that the number of clubs going the way of Senrab FC is kept to a minimum. They won’t all have a millionaire ex-player to come to their rescue.

Dan Pope, Club Website editor

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This article appeared in issue 53 of FC Business, the trade magazine of the football industry. To find out more visit www.fcbusiness.co.uk.

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