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With the elite game in the UK bringing in astronomical amounts of money, is the grassroots game being left behind? Is a multi-million pound pledge enough to save the multi-billion pound grassroots game? Pranav Shahaney investigates grassroots football funding.

The Covid-19 pandemic affected businesses all over the world, big or small, but few have felt the financial grunt of the “new normal” as much as grassroots football clubs in the United Kingdom. Due to numerous lockdowns, lack of attendances at grounds and local businesses unable to support these clubs, the game is in dire straits as things stand.

However, football is the sport that unites the working class and the business elites, and no matter how good or bad the last eighteen months have been for you, few things bring as big a smile to your face as watching or playing for your local team on the weekend.

According to data provided by the FA, 14.5m people play grassroots football in England across all forms and frequencies, including 13.5m regular participants.

An FA report details that the social and economic value of grassroots football in England equates to £10.16bn every year

Not only is grassroots a feel-good story in a fast-paced world, but it also does wonders for the UK economy. An FA report details that the social and economic value of grassroots football in England equates to £10.16bn every year. This includes £7.74bn worth of direct economic value, £1.62bn in total healthcare savings and £780m in social value.

To support the game at the amateur level, in March 2021 the Football Association (FA), the government and the Premier League launched a grassroots strategy campaign named “Survive, Revive, Thrive” and pledged to fund north of £16m.

The objective of this programme was to increase the participation of males and females. They believe that a number of males have lost interest in grassroots football and with this multi-million pound cash influx, things may change. On the other hand, they plan to make a world-class model for women and offer modern facilities for them to train and play on.

MANCHESTER, ENGLAND – MARCH 29: Goal posts are seen as grassroots football starts again as the roadmap out of lockdown in England continues with a friendly match between West Didsbury AFC and Cheadle FC on March 29, 2021 in Manchester, England. (Photo by James Gill – Danehouse/Getty Images)

Of the facilities mentioned, there is a plan to build 5000 new astro, 3G and natural grass pitches by 2024. They proposed setting aside £14m in order to achieve this goal and named it the Grass Pitch Maintenance Fund.

Explaining the purpose and long-term goals of such an initiative, James Kendall, the FA’s Director of Football Development, said: “I’m confident that we’ll seize on the remarkable togetherness and resilience our national game has shown in the face of Covid-19 and use it as a force for good.

“This new strategy aims to ensure the grassroots game in England will survive, revive and thrive over the next four years.”

The FA also created a fund to help clubs pay for essential equipment and machinery they need to start playing again. Clubs can apply for up to £25k to refurbish their changing rooms, pay for grass pitch drainage, new goalposts, pitch maintenance equipment and portable floodlights. 

They have promised £180m worth of investment over the next four years to help the grassroots game get back on its feet after what’s been a torrid year and a half.

While that figure may be staggering, the losses were predicted to be in the region of £300m. When asked to explain the £120m disparity, an FA spokesperson said: “The £300m was overall projected losses as an organisation due to Covid. Grassroots strategy is over the next four years and was a separate announcement. It is important to differentiate losses from investments.

There is a plan to build 5000 new astro, 3G and natural grass pitches by 2024

“We know that grassroots clubs and volunteers require financial support and that’s why we have committed £1.5m towards either free or reduced affiliation costs for grassroots football clubs during the 2020/21 season and have similarly supported reduced costs this season. For 2021/22 this was £1m, which is equivalent to £10 per team.”

Given the fact that the Premier League and the FA rake in incomes to the tune of billions, this seems to be a paltry sum for something that has served as the backbone of the English game for decades and is touted to have an economic and social value of £10.16bn. Something doesn’t quite add up.

In 1999, then Sports Minister Tony Banks said, at the launch of a Football Task Force report: “Football is a sport which happens to be a business, not a business that happens to be a sport. If the court was to find against the football authorities and broadcasters, that would have profound implications, damaging implications, for the whole structure of football in this country.”

That task force called for clubs in the Premier League to give five percent of all revenue they earn from television deals to the development of grassroots football. At that point, the current broadcasting deal which was with Sky and BBC was £743m. In comparison, the three-year deal which was renewed in May 2021 with Sky Sports, BT Sport, BBC and Amazon Prime Video is worth £5.1bn. Think what five percent of the earnings could bring to the development of grassroots, especially in this post-pandemic world.

WINGRAVE, ENGLAND – APRIL 03: General view of play during the Division One Aylesbury and District League match between Wingrave First and Stoke Mandeville First FC on April 03, 2021 in Wingrave, England. (Photo by Catherine Ivill/Getty Images)

Relying on the big organisations is not an option, so grassroots clubs have always relied on volunteers and many have become more and more enterprising. Individually too, clubs are looking for further grants of their own and have found out various ways of achieving their short-term goals.

Since the pandemic, Football Foundation, the UK’s largest sports charity, made grants that benefited around 35,000 grassroots stakeholders, according to their annual reports and data that we requested from them. They channelled funding from the Premier League, the FA and the government via Sport England, for transforming the landscape of grassroots sport in England.

Discussing the purpose of handing out these grants to grassroots organisations, Robert Sullivan, Chief Executive Officer of the Football Foundation, said: “It will support people’s ability to play our national game locally and therefore help unlock football’s many benefits to physical and mental wellbeing. That’s why we’re committed to transforming the face of grassroots football facilities in this country.”

Chesterfield High School, a school in Crosby, was awarded funding to build a new 3G football pitch on its playing field in September 2021. Kevin Sexton, the school’s headteacher, said: “This is an amazing success for the school and the local football clubs involved in the bid and receiving a grant from the Football Foundation.

“We are so excited to be able to offer enhanced sporting facilities to our students, local primary schools and local football clubs providing activities for boys and girls across the area, as well as excellent training facilities for our local football teams, both men and women.”

Paulton Rovers FC were also beneficiaries of the grants provided over the course of the summer. In June, they were awarded £6300 to improve the quality of their junior grass football pitch.

When quizzed about the benefits of the funding, Robert Filer, Director & Joint Groundsman at Paulton Rovers FC, said: “We are very grateful to the Premier League, Football Foundation, Somerset Football Association and the FA for making this money available to enable us to improve the quality and provide a better sustainable 9×9 pitch for grassroots football in the area.”

Football Foundation’s Sullivan said, referring to the Paulton grant: “This grant award to Paulton Rovers towards improving the 9×9 junior pitch is vital for the local community in Banes as they get back to playing football. Our Grass Pitch Maintenance Fund is supporting clubs across the country, helping them enhance and sustain their pitches to improve access to good quality facilities for grassroots players.”

Over 2000 clubs were also given separate grants in terms of a Pitch Preparation Fund to ensure that the facilities are regularly maintained as per the normal standards.

The FA and Football Foundation are not the only ones who are doing their best to save grassroots football. On GrantFinder, a funding database in the UK covering local, national and international sources of funding, a national fund provided support to grassroots clubs, disability leagues, FA Women’s National League clubs (Tiers 3-4 of the women’s football pyramid), professional club community trusts, charter standard clubs and community organisations.

Think what five percent of the earnings (£5.1bn) could bring to the development of grassroots

The disability leagues were entitled to grants of up to £2,500 while the upper limit for charter standard community clubs and development clubs was £2,000 and £1,000 respectively. Youth clubs could apply for £750 in grants while adult clubs were handed just £500.

In September, Stony Stratford Town FC, a Milton Keynes-based grassroots club, received a £25,000 donation to help aid them with their post-pandemic recovery. The source of this funding was a rather unconventional one, with pizza brand Papa John’s donating part of its “Get on the Pitch” campaign. Local football clubs all over the UK had the chance to apply for access to a £100k fund, and it was Stony Stratford’s entry video that helped them stand out from the rest in securing much-needed funding for the future.

Speaking about this unprecedented turn of events, Damon Brown, Chairman of Stony Stratford Town FC, said: “We can’t believe it. We were absolutely gobsmacked when we discovered that we’d won, it really was unexpected.

“The money will go a long way to making clubhouse repairs, allowing us to fix the roof, the floors, the ceiling, everything. Thank you to Papa John’s for this unbelievable gesture that will help to improve our beloved local football club.”

When quizzed about their intentions behind it, Giles Codd, Marketing Director at Papa John’s, said: “After an undoubtedly tough eighteen months for grassroots, we hope that all clubs receiving a slice of our community fund will find it beneficial, however they choose to use it.”

These times have been tough, but it’s encouraging to see clubs looking at the brighter side of life. The pandemic certainly has set back progress by at least a couple of years, but the plans to build back better with modern technology could prove to be beneficial.

In a summer that saw the England team reach only its second-ever major international final, it would surely have encouraged kids and adults who have been relying on Zoom and a socially-distanced lifestyle to go out and have a kickabout.

However, it remains to be seen if the desire to support the game at the grassroots level matches the country’s desire to play the beautiful game, whatever obstacles are in their way.

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