As is the case with the vast majority of sports in England, be that team or individual, the global game of football is watched, played and enjoyed on a multitude of levels, from the stratospheric heights of the Premier League, and down through the Championship and the rest of the league ladder. It doesn’t end with the professional league system though; we also have the non-league structure, and below that the place where it really all begins – the grassroots game.
As we descend through the levels of this football pyramid, not only does the profile of the teams decrease, but so too does the money involved – and dramatically so. At the top end of the game, with its billionaire owners, millionaire players and astronomical broadcasting deals, football appears to be in rude financial health – at least on the surface. However, at the other end of the spectrum we have small community and youth clubs struggling just to survive, a plight obviously made so much worse by the events of 2020.
And, in truth, that tends to be the way in the business world, where the big get bigger, the rich get richer and the smaller operators struggle, and in the worst-case scenarios ultimately go out of business. That type of dog-eat-dog environment may work on the high street but, as we shall see, is a model which doesn’t really translate to the footballing sphere. For in football, rather than being allowed to be put out of business, the clubs at the lower levels must be protected.
Why Is the Grassroots Game So Important?
Football differs significantly from many other businesses (and, of course, at grassroots level it is not really a business at all), in that it relies on a steady stream of new talent coming into the game – talent which is honed in, and emerges from, the grassroots game. Without small community and youth clubs there would be no base to hold up the pyramid or, as the name suggests, no roots from which the game could grow. Given this relationship between the top and bottom of the sport, it can be seen that those at the summit of the footballing mountain have an obligation to those below, in order to ensure the future health of the sport on which their whole status and success has been built.
Providing a breeding ground for the future Harry Kanes, Raheem Sterlings and Phil Fodens is a fine reason to look after the grassroots game, however, it is not the only one. These clubs also act as essential parts of local communities, providing players of all sexes, races, ages and abilities with the opportunity to take part, bringing a multitude of social and health benefits – benefits which according to a recent FA report are worth a whopping £10.16 billion to the economy per year. Plenty of reasons to look after the grassroots game then, but are those in charge of running the sport, and the clubs in the fortunate position of being at the top of the pile doing enough?
There can be no doubt that some of the money from football’s summit does flow down to the lower levels through a range of FA and government led initiatives. However, there are those who argue that much more could and should be done. Here we take a look at the current funding situation, and two alternative/additional proposals which seem to be gaining increasing support.
How Is Grassroots Football Funded?
Currently grassroots clubs do benefit from some support from both government bodies and the FA, with the latest initiative launched in 2021 being the FA’s “Survive, Revive, Thrive” project. Committing to providing a total of £180million to the grassroots game over the next four years, the FA has set out specific target areas for investment, ranging from female participation to improvements in digital products and services.
Welcome as this investment is, the question is will it be enough? For some time now, a huge number of grassroots clubs have been forced to rely heavily on volunteers, links to local businesses, or fundraising efforts such as raffles or packing bags at local supermarkets – a far cry from the billion-pound transfer windows at the top of the game in recent years. And, now, hot on the heels of the global sporting shutdown of 2020/21, and at a time when even the larger clubs are bemoaning their finances – one of the products of which being the thankfully ill-fated European Super League – what chance do the smaller clubs in the game have?
With the financial climate being as it is in 2021, there is a growing concern amongst those involved in the grassroots game that the current levels of investment are only serving to paper over the cracks, and that at its foundations, English football has in fact been in decline – or at best struggling by – for some time now. One of the most commonly cited examples of this is the fact that, despite housing the biggest and most lucrative domestic league in the world, the English national team rarely seriously threatens on the world stage – not winning a major title since that World Cup success back in 1966. Evidence perhaps that not enough investment and resources are being directed towards building the game from the bottom up, and as a result not enough home-grown talent is coming through.
Potential Additional Sources of Investment
If the current investment levels are not sufficient, how can more funds be raised? In recent years, there has been a significant groundswell of support for two separate proposals as to where these additional funds could feasibly be sourced. The first of these targets the Premier League itself, and specifically the huge amount of income gained through the sale of its broadcasting rights.
The second option suggests that it is the bookmakers who should contribute additional funds via a gambling levy or tax. Let’s take a closer look at each of these in turn, and the amount of additional funding which could potentially be generated.
TV Rights Levy
First touted back in 2015, this broadcasting rights levy was more seriously discussed in 2018 and targeted the £8.3billion (£5.14bn domestic and £3.16bn international) 2016-19 Premier League TV rights deal. Coming at a time when government cuts saw many local councils struggling to continue to support the game, whilst Premier League clubs spent a whopping £1.4billion in the previous summer’s transfer window, this initiative unsurprisingly gained significant backing.
The specifics of this request outlined the potential benefits – in terms of improved facilities, player development and participation and more – should only 5% of this sum be earmarked for investment in the grassroots game. Whilst there were no firm outcomes following this petition in 2018, the current situation – which is seeing even clubs higher up the footballing ladder begin to struggle – has resulted in the idea gaining traction once more.
Putting some figures to this proposal, it quickly becomes clear just how advantageous to the grassroots game it could be. At the time of writing in 2021, the exact value of the international broadcasting rights has yet to be released, but it has been confirmed that the Premier League has agreed a £4.8billion deal with its domestic TV partners, covering the three seasons between 2022 and 2025. Applying the 5% figure to just this domestic amount equates to a total of £240million spread over the three seasons for an average of £80million per season – significantly more than the £60million per campaign of the £180million “Survive, Revive, Thrive” initiative.
It should be noted that the Premier League has not ignored the grassroots game in striking the terms of this latest TV rights deal, with an extra £100million in “trickle down” funding set to be provided over its duration. As a percentage of the £4.8billion deal, that comes in at only a shade over 2% – significantly less than the 5% touted by those in favour of a grassroots levy on broadcasting money.
And crucially, as the name suggests, this pool of cash does trickle down through the league system, being available to League One and League Two clubs, the National League system, and women’s and girls’ football. Welcome as this no doubt is to the smaller professional and semi-professional clubs, coming against the backdrop of the struggles of the likes of Bolton Wanderers, Wigan Athletic and particularly Bury – who were expelled from the league and forced to sell their Gigg Lane ground in 2020 – it does pose the question as to exactly how much of the money will make it down to the real grassroots of the game. That said, any extra funding must be counted as a plus, and a judgement on how much difference the money has made will only really be able to be made at the end of this four-year period.
Football Betting Levy
The second funding proposal takes its lead from horseracing, in suggesting that, just as in the sport of kings, a tax should be applied to the profits bookmakers make from football betting, with those funds then being returned to the game and invested at the grassroots level. Again, this sounds a pretty sound idea from both a moral and business standpoint, as given the significant profits they make from the game year upon year, the continued future success of football is very much to the advantage of the betting industry.
Whereas the horseracing betting profits are levied at 10%, those calling upon the government to introduce legislation relating to a football betting levy are – in common with the broadcasting rights proposal – suggesting a figure of only 5%. Why this lower amount compared to horseracing? There could be two factors at play here.
Firstly, football doesn’t have quite the same kind of link with betting as racing does, where the two activities have been intertwined almost since their inception. Secondly, and related to the first point, is the fact that there seems to be some opposition to football being seen to rely too heavily on betting-generated income. Groups such as the Senet Group – which is involved in the management of responsible gambling – are suggesting football’s relationship with gambling should be scaled back, rather than enhanced, or indeed written into legislation as this proposal would necessitate.
Putting all of that to one side, just how much could be generated from a 5% football betting levy in practice? Taking the figures for 2019/20, football betting turnover in Great Britain came in at a whopping £1.2billion, equating to a total profit of close to £285million – figures which tend to be fairly steady year upon year. 5% of this amount comes in at £14.25m per season – so not quite so much as could be generated from the TV proposal, but nevertheless a potentially significant boost to the grassroots game.
This targeting of the gambling industry initially sounds hard to fault on paper – the betting firms do after all make significant annual profits on the back of the intellectual property of the FA and Premier League, so shouldn’t they give something back? There are two sides to every story though, and it should be remembered that betting companies do already pump significant sums into the game, through shirt sponsorships, stadium advertising and official betting partner initiatives.
Then we have the fact that the betting companies are charged a higher-than-average rate for TV advertising during live sporting events. Money which of course goes to the broadcasters, helping to fund the purchase of the broadcasting rights and ultimately ending up back with the sport. Should the betting firms be forced into paying an additional tax on profits, this may have a negative knock-on effect on the money flowing into the game, both through advertising, and potentially lowering the amount of money available to be spent on broadcasting rights.
A Mixed Approach?
So far neither of these proposals have been acted upon, at least not to the satisfaction of those within the grassroots game. And whether the new measures such as the “Survive, Revive, Thrive” initiative, and the trickle down aspect of the latest TV deal prove to be enough to save the lower level organisations will only be known in the fullness of time.
However, it would be a shame were those with the game’s best interests at heart not to at least explore the potential of the initiatives highlighted. Perhaps, given the close interrelationships between the FA, Premier League, broadcasters and betting companies, a middle ground could be reached, seeing partially increased contributions from both sides?
There are also other avenues to be explored besides the betting and broadcasting money. Some analysts suggest that a levy should be raised on the football agents who take millions away from the game each year, whilst a move to a salary cap type model as used in US sports may aid teams to work within their means.
With clubs of the size of Real Madrid and Barcelona bemoaning their financial situation, French sides allegedly readying themselves for a flash sale in order to balance the books, and smaller clubs going bust entirely, the pattern would suggest that the current model isn’t working as it needs to. Acting later rather than sooner to fix this model may prove to be too late for many, and it should be remembered that when the base of a pyramid becomes unstable, in time, so too do the levels above.