The Football Association has had its public funding for the grass-roots game cut by £1.6m as a “warning” shot fired by Sport England for failing to halt a near decade-long decline in the number of adults playing football.
The money will still be made available to the game with Sport England appealing for clubs to become more directly involved in supporting the grass-roots. It may be the equivalent of five-and-a-half weeks’ work for Wayne Rooney under his new contract, but the decision to divert the funds away from the FA is a significant embarrassment for the governing body.
An irked FA responded with a barrage of information via social media outlining its grass-roots work, pointing out it invests around £50m a year, a figure that dwarfs its funding cut.
Sport England, the quango which funnels public money to sport and is charged with raising participation, awarded the FA £30m for a three-year period and in August agreed to the FA’s plan for raising numbers. In October, the latest results of the six-monthly survey revealed another decline for the sport. Since Sport England’s active people survey began in 2005 the number of those aged 16 and over playing football once a week has fallen from 2.02m to 1.84m.
Part of the reason for the FA’s “disappointment” with the cut is the lack of time, it claims, for its current plans to have an impact. It is set to launch a new campaign aimed to keep 16-year-olds in the game – football’s participation among children remains high – but a further funding cut of 20 per cent remains a strong possibility as the participation figures are likely to fall again when the next results are announced in June following another dire winter.
Rugby union and cricket also suffered falls but have not had a cut – instead they have been put “on notice” – because Sport England is convinced by the plans those sports presented for raising participation.
“To be fair to the FA in the last three or four years they have focused much harder on the grass-roots,” said Jennie Price, chief executive of Sport England. “They are more engaged than they have been for some time. They do want to get it right but they need to accelerate their efforts. We want the FA to succeed but this should act as a warning to them that they’ve got to improve.
“I have a direct relationship with Alex Horne and that hasn’t always been the case with previous FA chief executives. I think [chairman] Greg Dyke really cares about every part of the game. But they need to change some of what they are doing and if this focuses even more attention on it then that can only be a good thing.”
Sport England will leave the £1.6m available to football via a new “Cities of Football” project – it wants local authorities, clubs or even private companies who run five-a-side venues to bid for funds, whether that be for extra coaches or improving facilities to act as an “example” to the FA.
Horne, the FA’s general secretary, claimed its efforts had been hindered by a lack of time and pressure on facilities. Four out of five grass-roots facilities are run by local authorities, many of whom are having to carry out large scale cuts. “It’s naturally disappointing to learn that Sport England is cutting its funding, especially at a time when the challenges faced by the grass-roots are so acute,” he said. “It is especially disappointing as Sport England agreed and began funding our joint plan only in August and today’s decision is based on measurement undertaken just two months later in October.
“The government need to be careful because this money is being spent on sports participation on one hand, while on the other local authorities are cutting the local provision of sports facilities.
“Grass-roots football is played on facilities almost exclusively owned and maintained by local authorities. A combination of severe weather, increased pitch-hire costs and reduced maintenance spend has made this a very difficult time for clubs. This challenge – to ensure a much better provision of quality, affordable grass-roots facilities – is one we are determined to address.”
Price accepts that the provision of facilities is an issue but points out it is one that equally affects other outdoor team sports, such as cricket and rugby union – and football receives more funding.
Five other sports also had their funding cut. Between them golf, netball, mountaineering, rowing and hockey had a total of £1.2m removed.
Sport England: Funding cuts
Football Association £1.6m
England Golf Partnership £496,000
England Netball £275,000
British Rowing £236,000
England Hockey £137,000
British Mountaineering Council £97,000
*Badminton England, the England and Wales Cricket Board and the Rugby Football Union have all been placed “on notice”. Their participation levels have fallen but Sport England have been convinced by their plans to halt their declines. They have to improve participation levels by December or face a funding cut.