Football urged to fund grass roots

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The Independent Online
MILLIONS OF pounds were promised to the grass roots of football yesterday on the eve of a court case which could decide the Premier League's future.

In a report backed by the Premier League, the Government-appointed Football Task Force recommended that at least 5 per cent of television revenue should be set aside for community projects and the improvement of facilities at amateur and school level.

The apparently generous pledge comes as the Office of Fair Trading (OFT) argues that the Premier League's lucrative sale of television rights is not in the public interest. The OFT will contend in the High Court today that the Premier League has acted like a cartel in securing a pounds 743m deal with BSkyB and the BBC.

The Premier League won support yesterday from the chairman of the task force, David Mellor, who said a victory for the Office of Fair Trading would be "deplorable".

The task force's report said such a ruling: "Could spell the end of re- investment in sport and widen the gap between the divisions. It is demonstrably in the public interest that the current arrangements prevail."

Tony Banks, the sports minister, also expressed his support for the status quo yesterday: "If the OFT was to find against the football authorities and broadcasters it would have damaging implications for the structure of football in this country."

According to the task force, the Premier League will already be spending pounds 50m - or 5 per cent of its income - outside the top division between 1997 and 2001. The report urges that in future the same proportion of revenue be spent primarily on "grass-roots facilities and projects" rather than lower professional divisions.

Speaking as the proposals were unveiled yesterday at the Linford Christie Athletic Stadium in west London, Mr Mellor said: "By investing outside the professional game and through providing emergency support for football clubs they would be able to go some way in showing how commercial activities can be spread with community responsibilities, bringing benefits to the wider public interest."

Highlighting the plight of grass-roots football, the report gives an example of an unnamed city council in the North-west which had a maintenance backlog of pounds 2.8m at its 38 sports sites, and was using freight containers as changing facilities in many places.

The task force says that the Premier League should encourage greater supporter involvement. It calls for more community schemes which use football to tackle social exclusion. Mr Mellor said: "We are not just talking about youngsters who can become professional footballers, we are talking about youngsters being given an alternative to engaging in anti-social activities."

The game's stars are also criticised. The report says players' contractual obligations to the community were often "more honoured in the breach than the observance".