From 2016 the teams of the Premier League will receive a combined £5.136bn pounds for the rights to televise their games by SKY and BT Sports. It will be the largest sum they have received since the Premier League’s inception and a significant increase on the £3bn they currently earn.
With such staggering resources, resources which dwarf every other major league on the planet, it would be easy to think that there would be sufficient funds to cater for every level of the game. And, yet, despite this wealth, there has never been such a profound a lack of funding at the grassroots of English football. Even Greg Dyke, chairman of the FA, conceded last year that the grassroots of the game was in crisis.
But how big is the problem and what can be done about it? The figures make for grim reading. England has fewer than 700 3G pitches, meaning that the majority of matches take place on poorly maintained council facilities. In fact in 2013, nearly a quarter of matches were cancelled due to the weather, and the costs are so high that the number of people playing football regularly has dropped from 2 million in 2006 to just 1.84 million in 2014.
So what is being done? Although the FA and the Premier League both have strategies for improving coaching and access to facilities, the truth is that only approximately 5% of TV revenue actually finds its way back into grassroots football, something that seems unlikely to change without concerted effort, even when the new deal comes into effect. But what strategy would improve this figure?
Preston based MP David Crausby has been a vocal advocate for the Premier League making a bigger contribution to the national sport. He has twice launched petitions to have the issue discussed in the House of Commons and would like to see the league guarantee 7.5% of its TV revenue would go to grassroots. However, despite some early publicity, he fell short of his target of 100,000 signatures. And, while such a discussion in parliament could bring some much needed attention to the problem, it is difficult to see how any legislation would potentially function.
Perhaps the most potent strategy would be to demonstrate to the clubs and the Premier League themselves the benefits of investing in local facilities. At present, quality homegrown players are very difficult to come by. Raheem Sterling- widely expected to leave Liverpool this summer- has been valued by his club at £50m, and has already been subject to a bid of £40m. While Sterling is undoubtedly a gifted young man, the league’s homegrown players quota has swollen his value to almost twice that of a player of similar age and quality from abroad.
Put simply, it must be emphasised to clubs that investment in communities and their facilities would mean saving far more in the long term. While big club’s own academies are typically state-of-the-art affairs, they cannot be expected to train every talented young player in their locale, and that young footballers and coaches need the opportunity to thrive independently. If they do this, then they could easily have their own Raheem Sterling, scouted from their own community, nurtured by the facilities they helped build and, potentially, at a fraction of the cost.
And players themselves must be inspired to keep playing the game, even if they aren’t signed to a league club by their late teens, or are later released. Far too many are lost to the game altogether when faced with the prospect of a playing a season or more without the millions to which they had once seemed so close. But the history of the game is filled with players who refused to give up and fought their way back to the top, not least the recent cases of Paul Lambert, Charlie Austin, or Wales captain Ashley Williams. Now websites like UK Football Finder are giving young players another opportunity to showcase their abilities to clubs throughout the football pyramid, these young men need to be encouraged to keep chasing their dreams, as opportunities have never been greater to relaunch careers. The only thing the game lacks is the funding to exploit this valuable resource.