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Published in Sports Management 2018 issue 4
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Selling Wembley – was it the only way to save grassroots football?
The sale of the national stadium could have provided much-needed funds shutterstock/PixHound
Jamie Foale, CEO, MyLocalPitch

Since the news of the potential sale of Wembley Stadium broke, it drew a passionate response from all those involved in the beautiful game. At one point, a sale price of up to £900m was kicked around, with US billionaire Shahid Khan looking certain to add the venue to his roster of Fulham FC and the Jacksonville Jaguars.

The news came at a time when investment in grassroots football has been lacking far behind the growth in the professional game. A recent FA-commissioned survey revealed startling facts: only one in three community pitches is of an "adequate" standard; 150,000 matches were cancelled in the 2017-18 season due to poor facilities, and one in six matches was abandoned due to poor pitch quality.

The survey also highlighted that 33 of 50 county FAs are without their own 3G pitch and that England has half the number of 3G pitches that Germany does. These artificial pitches handle adverse weather conditions and provide better surface for teams development.

The FA argued that selling Wembley was the best way to help ensure that the future of the sport remains in good health. Sport England, which partially funded the building of the stadium agreed with the decision to sell, but only if the money was reinvested back into the sport.

Current issues
A solution is needed, but was selling Wembley the only way? If the money didn't come from selling a national asset, then where?

Only 5 per cent of football venues take their bookings through an online calendar, and 45 per cent of venues manage bookings through a paper diary or a computer spreadsheet. Much remains unknown about people's playing habits and there are gaps in our understanding of how the game can be improved. The Football Foundation, the largest sports charity in the UK, produced an extensive report, which found that 43 per cent of organisers are frustrated with not being able to see which pitches are available when trying to book. The demand for modern technology is there, but the speed at which it is catching up means we're missing out on valuable data that could help us to understand how to improve participation.

"The equivalent of one school playing field has been sold off every two weeks since London 2012"

Since the London Olympics, the equivalent of one school playing field has been sold off every two weeks, leaving many schools with no facilities at all. Schools would often use facilities at times when other players would not, yet they receive little or no resource to subsidise their usage of public facilities. When I see a school give up their booking at a football pitch due to financial reasons I'm heartbroken, and it's hard not to worry for kids who are being turfed off the pitch and into the living room.

Small format football
The FA can more actively promote smaller formats as a way to maximise participation. Eleven-a-side games are usually played on weekends between 10am and 2pm, leading to bottlenecks and periods of intensive use.

Association football also involves fewer players on the same pitches over longer periods. By splitting an 11-a-side pitch into three 7-a-side pitches you can get 42 people playing at the same time, and rather than the standard two hours, the time could be reduced to one hour, giving more people access to these facilities.

The small-sided game is more flexible and this matters when people are turning to more flexible activities. For instance, lunchtime five-a-side games would mean that pitches are fuller during off-peak hours, and would provide a way for offices to enable their workforces to be active.

Saving grassroots football would need more than just diverting funds from the now mothballed sale of Wembley into new facilities, as there are other areas in the landscape that are desperately lagging behind and need support.

"Improving the stock of facilities would be a huge step forward and help realign us with countries like Germany"

Some of these are on a wider government level and are about assisting the future generations as we plough through years of austerity and local government budget deficits. However, improving the stock of facilities would be a huge step forward and help realign us with countries like Germany.

Promoting small format football is a way of maximising participation
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