Five Ways the FA Can Increase Participation in Grassroots Football


By Malcolm Cox

Grassroots football in England and throughout the UK is in crisis. Recent figures showed that the number of people playing the game at local level has fallen from 2.04 million in 2005 to 1.84 million in 2014 – a decline that has prompted Sport England to cut its funding to the FA by £1.6 million. Such is the scale of the problem, only the Football Association has the influence and resources required to make an impact throughout England, but it will need to tackle five distinctive issues without delay if the national team is to enjoy a future in the top tier of the game.

Invest Significantly in Local Facilities

Pitches, training facilities and club premises have been starved of cash for decades, and they are decaying rapidly as a result. Despite escalating pitch fees imposed by cash-strapped local authorities, consecutive years of bad weather have taken a heavy toll on playing surfaces up and down the country. The Save Grassroots Football Campaign estimates that as many as 12 weekends of local football are lost every year as a direct result of waterlogged pitches – a situation that is resulting in a loss of interest from players at critical times of the season.

The conditions in some club changing and training facilities is nothing short of a national disgrace, and a growing number of teams simply don’t have access to any form of sheltered facility at all. The FA needs to ensure that the money it has trickles down to the people and clubs that need it. A prolonged period of heavy investment in local facilities is required – otherwise the next generation will not see grassroots football as a viable activity to occupy their leisure time.

Peter Hart of The Soccer Store has been involved in grassroots football in England for over a decade, and he believes that the FA needs to take the lead in any national scheme designed to increase participation at local level.

“I see it every day. Local associations, schools, leagues and clubs simply don’t have the resources to purchase the most basic of equipment. Once pitch fees have been paid to local authorities, there isn’t much money left for anything else. The FA needs to spend more, but it also needs to make sure that the money is spent wisely.”

Appoint a Sub-Committee to Oversee Local Schemes

A one-size-fits-all approach to grassroots football will leave certain regions short-changed when it comes to funding and local initiatives. Only people with an in-depth knowledge of their local area, its footballing needs and its identity will know how best to tackle falling participation levels.

The FA needs a sub-committee comprised of carefully selected representatives from all of the major regions in England. According to the FA, it is spending £1 million per day on the grassroots game. This is either not enough, or it is not being spent effectively. Local people with a long history in grassroots football should be playing a major role in how and where funds are used.

Restructure the Antiquated System of County FAs

The way people play football at a local level is changing rapidly. Increasingly hectic lifestyles, more erratic incomes and an ever-growing list of distractions mean people don’t necessarily want to be tied to the outdated system of local FA-affiliated leagues. Although progress has been made on this front – notably through schemes such as the Mars ‘Just Play’ programme and the Tesco Skills programme – the FA needs to adopt a far more flexible approach to participation at the local level.

Commitment to the Construction of 4G Pitches

One way to arrest the decline of England’s local pitches is to begin a nationwide programme of 4G pitch construction. Durable, weather resistant and relatively gentle on the skin, these exceptional playing surfaces can almost wipe out postponements of local league matches overnight. While there have been some pitches installed on a sporadic basis, a national approach is required to ensure that every area of the country enjoys the benefits these technologically advanced surfaces can deliver. Put simply, fewer lost weekends in local leagues should mean more people being attracted to the game. There is also the added benefit of players not being forced to play in a quagmire – which could boost technical skills all over the country.

Put Pressure on the Premier League to Pay Its Fair Share

English football is awash with cash; it has never had it so good. At a time when TV revenues are rising at unprecedented levels, the Premier League has a responsibility to ensure that a significant proportion of that cash finds its way to the grassroots game. The future prosperity of the Premier League, its quality and its image throughout the world relies on a steady stream of domestic talent rising to the top of the professional game.

The Premier League committed to investing at least 5 percent of its TV revenue into local football way back in 1999 – an agreement that secured the support of the Labour government in the Premier League’s fight to retain the right to sell TV rights collectively. However, that level of funding has now dropped below 1%, which is nothing short of a national disgrace.

There is no quick fix to find here – grassroots football needs significant increases in funding over the next decade, otherwise it faces an uncertain future at best. The FA has the resources and the influence to make things happen, but it may need a shove in the right direction.

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