The fact that Sport England withdrew grassroots funding from the English Football Association was always destined to make headlines. The sad fact is the responses they attracted from supporters highlighted the public’s general misconception when it comes to understanding the wheels of football finance. It meant the F.A. were given both barrels when it could and should have been so different.
Sport England’s decision to re-direct £1.6 million elsewhere, was taken because the F.A’s grassroots programme had failed to hit targets on adult participation levels. The subsequent reporting drew message board responses from fans who clearly thought a game so awash with money shouldn’t have been given anything in the first place. For them football is one, unified sport. It receives billions from partnership and sponsorship agreements and pays huge wages to its players, so it should look after itself. One sport, one pot. If only it were that simple, but fans remain blissfully unaware because they rarely get told.
The F.A.’s media response from General Secretary, Alex Horne was suitably measured and dignified, but perhaps it’s now time to educate the audience a little more? Of course it won’t make any difference to Sport England’s current position, but I fear the the recent reaction shows that the F.A. remains as misunderstood as ever.
Without doubt, the Premier League is a wonderful product that is expertly guided and richly funded. Sponsors and partners clearly value their association with such a global ‘brand’. The Premier League represents the sexy, exciting side of the English game and it does so incredibly well. On the other hand, the not-for-profit Football Association, is an organisation with a rather more mundane remit. Its regular diet is drab administration, heavily scrutinised disciplinary procedures and a grassroots strategy that is clearly misconstrued by the public because they think everything is – or should be – paid for from a single pot. In the case of Grassroots, it isn’t.
These days, just about the only occasions when the F.A. is able to publicly preen itself are the F.A. Cup and England internationals but even then, when either interjects midway through a much vaunted league campaign, they’re indirectly criticised for putting a temporary stop to everyone’s fun.
In general terms, the grassroots work the FA does reflects its responsibilities as a governing body and the structural reasons for Sport England’s provision of funds to a football project is a message that clearly isn’t getting through. So the reality of what the F.A. actually does at grassroots level is being skewed by the size of Wayne Rooney’s wage packet, billionaire owners and mega broadcast contracts. Surely it needs addressing?
Last December, the F.A. staged the national finals of the F.A. Fives. This was a year-long competition which began with over 2,000 amateur teams competing at local and regional level across the country. The prize was the chance to earn the right to play at Wembley and ultimately become national champions in one of four categories. Final’s day brought 300 lucky men and women players to the National Stadium and Wembley’s famous pitch was filled by eight, self-contained five-a-side pitches. These were used simultaneously for the group matches and an extremely well managed and administered event created a spectacle of energy, enthusiasm and excitement.
And this is where, in my view, the F.A. isn’t doing itself justice in highlighting its role within the game’s structure because here was obvious evidence of a deep grassroots strategy, presided over by skilled administrators that gets right to the heart of the community in promoting participation in football. It should have been seen as a wonderfully visible example of the work the F.A. does but publicity seemed a bit of an afterthought.
In fairness, it’s certainly not always straightforward to tell the story. One example of how the F.A. is up against it when the rest of the world thinks it is constantly in bed with its sexier Premier League partner, was evident in the event’s build up.
Apparently, the BBC Match Of The Day’s community feature, which airs on the Sunday morning re-run, is a platform that’s not available to the F.A. to utilise. When an approach was made to discuss the possibility of spending a day at the F.A. Fives and report on the culmination of this nationwide community tournament, the response was that it wasn’t possible because the slot was reserved exclusively for Premier League initiatives and those of its member clubs. I’m not saying that’s necessarily wrong, I’m merely highlighting an example of the different levels that operate within what the public sees as one industry.
It’s possible of course, that Sport England may have used football as a vehicle for headlines and profile raising with their announcement because other sports, such as rugby union and cricket were down on participation numbers too but they didn’t receive a financial penalty.
So, has football been viewed as the easiest and most efficient ‘Aunt Sally’ for a public relations’ point scoring exercise? If so – and not for the first time – when it comes to looking at the two ends of football’s stick, the F.A. appear to have got the dirty end.