In this exclusive feature for Sport Industry Group, AXA XL Global Head of Sport & Leisure Paul Thomas considers the sometimes overlooked impact of the British weather on the grassroots game…
On any given weekend during the football season, it is a familiar sight to see pitches across the UK filled with amateur players of all abilities united by their love for the beautiful game.
Football is one of the biggest participation sports in the UK, with about 8.2 million adults and 3.4 million children taking part in some form of the game, according to the Football Association’s most recent “State of the Game” report.
Grassroots football is the lifeblood of the game and a vital network for budding players hoping to become the next Fara Williams or Harry Kane.
But the facilities are, oftentimes, woefully under-maintained because of a shortage of resources.
As well as football, the British weather is one of our favourite topics of discussion. And the unpredictable nature of the British weather can mean that, for sometimes lengthy periods, pitches can be rendered unplayable by waterlogging or frozen surfaces, for example.
The knock-on effect is far reaching.
Cancelled matches result in a dip in revenues for the Local Authorities that rent those facilities out. And that means less money for ongoing maintenance.
The picture seems a little bleak.
The collapse of the proposed deal to sell Wembley Stadium to Fulham FC and Jacksonville Jaguars-owner Shahid Khan last October was a big blow for grassroots football. An important element of the terms of the proposed deal was the pledge to pump money into community football.
The money is needed, experts say, because drastic underfunding means many facilities are not of an acceptable standard. Recent statistics from the FA show that one in three grassroots pitches is considered “not adequate” and one in six grassroots matches was postponed last year because of poor facilities.
The Football Foundation, a charity funded by the Premier League, the Football Association and the Government, expressed its dismay that the proposed deal to sell Wembley had fallen through. The charity, which each year directs about £60 million of funding into community football, said the £600 million funding could have been doubled through working with Local Authorities, educational bodies and other organisations over the next 10 years.
“Football participation in this country is huge. Unfortunately, those who play the game as a sport, simply for the love of doing so, and for the health benefits, are having to put up with a stock of community football facilities that is in a shameful state,” the Football Foundation said in a statement. “This would have been a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to make considerable inroads into probably the most pressing issue facing football in this country,” it said.
For many of the Local Authorities whose facilities are used for grassroots games, the funding problem is acute, and is only magnified by poor weather conditions.
Many Local Authorities in the UK derive a substantial part of their revenues from hiring out sports pitches. They have a duty of care to ensure that pitches are well maintained, and many use professional groundspeople for this essential upkeep.
Of course, when Local Authorities miss out on money they would have earned from hiring out pitches, they have less in the coffers to spend on the maintenance of those pitches. It becomes something of a vicious circle.
One thing seems sure – we cannot rely on the weather to fix this.
Last winter was described as “unsettled” by the Meteorological Office. While there were periods of mild weather, the so-called “Beast from the East” storm brought a prolonged period of snow, ice and frost in many parts of the UK.
The weather caused many professional games to be postponed, and for the amateur game there were several weeks during which pitches across the country were unplayable.
It is sadly, not uncommon for weather to disrupt grassroots football fixture lists for weeks or even months.
The use of artificial pitches could be one solution to the problem of weather-related match cancellations. Third generation – or 3G – artificial pitches are officially accredited and can provide more even playing surfaces and reduced risk of water-logging than many traditional grass pitches.
Fourth generation – 4G – pitches also have been given the thumbs up by FIFA and, while they are yet to be officially accredited by the FA, manufacturers claim that they are low maintenance, remain soft during freezing conditions, are more ecologically friendly and feel more natural.
But, of course, it all comes back to investment.
Estimates suggest that installing a 3G pitch costs between £300,000 and £500,000.
Of course, over the longer term Local Authorities would benefit from the potential for fewer cancellations and more assured regular income from renting out artificial pitches. These surfaces also can be used for a variety of sports and events – increasing the revenue potential still further. But the initial outlay may be prohibitive for many.
An injection of cash could really make a difference. It remains to be seen if a new deal can be struck to sell Wembley and raise some much-needed funds for grassroots football.
In the meantime, the state of many pitches continues to deteriorate and player injuries continue to rise. Insurance can help to ease some of the financial costs if injury occurs. Certain coverages are compulsory as part of an 11-a-side team’s FA affiliation, and insurance is available to protect players’ income and for health, critical illness and life risks.
But managing these risks upfront in order to prevent injuries would clearly be preferable for all involved. To paraphrase one of the most famous sports movies of all time, it seems to be a case of “show me the money.”