Sport England’s £1.6m cut in its grant to the Football Association is more of a slap in the face for the governing body than a blow to its finances, not least because the FA will still receive nearly £10m per year from the quango.
While it is humiliating for the FA to be so publicly rebuked, one has to ask whether Sport England’s alternative vision – a grass-roots “City of Football” – is any better, not least because the public relations bidding war required of aspirant cities will mean councils spending money that they continually point out they do not have.
Indeed, one of the main reasons for declining participation is the reduction in local authority provision for sports facilities, particularly football pitches.
Spending on such facilities is discretionary, not mandatory, so councils have for years squeezed the budget for sports facilities so they can meet demand elsewhere. Most councils used to have a dedicated parks department but when the cuts began to bite they were laid off and private contractors used.
Anecdotal evidence suggests they do the bare minimum, if that, to the extent that clubs have bought their own line-markers and paint for when the contractors have not done the job. As for proper maintenance, teams who went three months without playing this winter due to water-logged pitches know how seriously that is taken.
With a new wave of austerity taking effect many councils are now scrapping their subsidy for public pitches. In some cases the cost has quadrupled. Inevitably people are voting with their feet, turning away from playing the game in huge numbers.
Indeed, participation would be even lower were it not for the private companies that have leaped into the void to offer five-a-side football. Being profit-making enterprises, however, this is usually at a cost that is prohibitive for many, especially children.
The FA’s failure to spot the five-a-side boom (and its neglect of futsal) is further evidence of an organisation that has suffered from poor strategic planning for many years. Even now it distributes as much to a professional game awash with cash (mainly via the FA Cup and England team) as it does to the grass roots – deduct the £10m from Sport England and the FA favours the rich professional few at the expense of the impoverished amateur many. A total distribution of £100m from a £300m turnover suggests its cost-control needs examining.
The FA is not the only guilty party. The Premier League once put five per cent of its TV cash into grass roots via the Football Foundation. That was cut to £20m a year and now £12m. The current TV deal is worth £1.7bn a year. The League argues it would put more into the Foundation if the FA and the Government matched them (the FA also provides £12m, the Government £10m).
Given the Premier League consists of 20 private companies, who pay more than £1bn a year in tax, it is unrealistic to expect them to give more without Government coercion. But the latter has lost interest in sport now the photo opportunity of the Olympics is over. Their disinterest was underlined by downgrading the post of sports minister to a third-tier cabinet post – and Helen Grant’s brief also includes tourism, equalities and the Olympic legacy.
In the context of an obesity crisis that will make the current £140bn spent annually on health look a bargain, the level of Government spending on sport is pathetic. A fraction of that investment could carpet the land in floodlit 3G astroturf pitches with changing rooms and, long term, pay for itself several times over.
Six years ago Arsène Wenger said to me of British triumphs at the Beijing Olympics: “The British success is amazing because you have no structure here. In France every village has sports facilities provided for the public, here there is hardly anything.” Nothing has changed.