Sport England cuts funding to the Football Association

Announced this week was Sport England’s plans to cut funding to the Football Association

…”in a continuing tough approach to sport delivery,due to the sharp decline in people playing amateur football.”

At the same time, the BBC highlighted the concerns of grassroots campaigners, who lay the blame for the decline in participation rates on local authorities. The campaigners
say the cost of playing and poor facilities are the main factors behind the sharp decline in people playing amateur football.

Poor facilities and rising cost don’t help, but these targets are easy to line up and an easy focus for sound bites and column inches; other factors are at play here and require wider thinking to reach.

When I started work at Sheffield City Council, twelve years ago, I was initially tasked with completing a Playing Pitch Strategy, which was one of the first – pilot – in the country. At this time the council had a number of Sports Development Officers, covering a range of sports, including girls’ and women’s football (soccer).

It was coming to the end of the football season, and I was pleased to be asked to help out on a junior girls’ football tournament, which had been organised to showcase the culmination of a year’s work. It was going to be big as most of the schools in the region were taking part.

I knew this was a significant event, but I wasn’t prepared for the site which greeted me. The large expanse of playing fields were dotted with hundreds of junior girls. The atmosphere was alive and electric; there was an air of excitement and a wall of sound – it was brilliant!  This was a significant achievement.

It was a promising time for girls’ and women’s football development, with figures showing it was the biggest female participation sport in the country (UK), if not the world.

image of the winning team from the junior girls' football tournament

winners of the junior girls’ football tournament

Fast forward to March 27 2014. Circulating my colleagues is the news that Sport England is cutting funding to the FA, and other National Governing Bodies of Sport (NGBs). Also going around is the BBC’s article, which puts this bag firmly on the back of local authorities. It’s a hot topic, and Sports Minister Helen Grant gets on this and pledges to: …”look into the spiralling costs of grassroots football.”

But what’s different; why all the fuss now? We have always had poor pitches. Even when council budgets weren’t paper-thin, as they are now. And, when it rains, particularly when it pours down for months without end, playing fields get muddy. Is it reasonable to expect openly accessible, public playing fields to be able to cope with such conditions at a time when professional clubs were struggling to hold one game a fortnight?

Participation rates where falling long before price increases were introduced. And, it is often reported that the nation is becoming more sedentary, bringing with it the worries of rising obesity figures – as a nation there are other things that attract us more than sport.

So, if the recent Olympic Games, and the shed load of Olympic Legacy money that came with it, didn’t fill up the halls and fields, what will?

Perhaps it is time to think of a more rounded approach to promoting sport and physical activity: a way to encourage participation through enjoyment. Let’s also have a look at creative ways of ensuring sustainability. Can we develop a model where players feel useful – have other roles – and stay involved when they grow up, or, in the case of elite performers, when their peak is over? How do we keep these skills and experience?

Rather than wield the big stick, it would be preferable if Sport England took a more reasoned and proactive approach and worked with NGBs, local authorities and clubs; pooling resources and intelligence.

The current thinking for the delivery of sport is to pass it all on to clubs and voluntary organisations, in an effort to fill the imminent demise of local authority provision.  Some are capable of fulfilling this role, but they are in the minority. It is unrealistic, if not unfair, to expect all of this work to be done by volunteers. And it is even more unrealistic to expect these groups to serve the greater good above their own agendas. Leasing it all off and withdrawing statutory provision in the hope community management will achieve more, or the same, for less, is a high risk game to play – and picking up the pieces is a costly exercise!

So what are the solutions?

Sport England, the FA, NGBs, local authorities and clubs all need support. The time is right to bring back, and invest in, sports development workers to pull all it all together. But this time give them more rounded targets than just increasing medals and high level performance.

It is important to recognise the importance of these roles and establish them as establish core, statutory, provision. We need to get away from the typical scenario of chasing funding to continue, rather than focusing on development and sustainability. This common distraction undermines credibility and results in short-term planning and a sense of futility from the workers.

It is time to get creative and explore other ideas, such as, introducing and making popular street variations of sport; paint over the no ball games signs. Make getting out of the house and walking down to the park to interact with others a cool, safe and enjoyable thing to do. Link this up with GP (general practitioner) referrals and prescribe activity, not pills.

Image of 3 young boys posing with a football in an urban setting

Promote popular variations of sport, such as street football.

Enlist, what the Americans call, “Evangelists”; preaching not just sport, but the fun and personal satisfaction gained from movement – getting off your arse and active is fun. I can see the t-shirt now!

All this is achievable, but a few necks to be wound in first; It is a time for team work not point scoring in the media. Altogether now!.