Living on the Dreams of Legends: The Money Pit

Money has changed football forever. It swells from the pockets of everyone involved. Revenue of behemoth levels is generated from television broadcast deals, ticket and merchandise sales, and commercial sponsorship. Agents command huge fees for their part in transfers and have deeply vested personal interest in the outcome of negotiations. The players themselves earn huge financial reward for their services.

Whether or not we think footballers are overpaid, their wages are completely within proportion when considering the wider monetary value of the game. In England, a disproportionate sum of money is the amount spent on developing grassroots football.

The Premier League has pledged to invest £100 million per year at grassroots level. A drop in the financial ocean compared to the £1.38 billion spent on transfers in the 2016-17 season, or the £757 million spent on rebuilding Wembley Stadium. Why spend so much building a stadium when so little is spent on developing players who are capable of playing in it?

However, when the investment figure is deconstructed, the actual impact of the amount is disguised within a seemingly attractive looking total. The Premier League has generated around £8.2 billion of revenue in the last three years. The £100 million per year pledge equates to less than 4% of the revenue generated. £100 million would just about sign you Romelu Lukaku, plus add-ons.

Hardly enough to generate a golden generation.

This £100 million is divided up and spent across different areas of football ranging across the 52 county associations. It is ring-fenced to be spent on the “national game” – this is defined as football played below the professional ranks. Not exactly a small area as this constitutes amateur and disability football for men, women, boys and girls. It is supposed to be used to improve facilities for playing, coaching, spectating, funding referee training, and administration and professional development within local bodies.

Some of this money, reportedly £10 million, is to be used to develop 3G pitches across the country. The Conservative government pledged an additional £8 million over five years toward this initiative despite cutting £400 million during their administration on sports and leisure budgets.

A further breakdown of the total shows £4 million is to be spent on girls and women’s football, £1.2 million on disability football, £7 million on community initiatives, school football and training for teachers, and – keeping in mind the importance often attributed to it – just half a million on small sided children’s football. If we really want our young people to develop their talent early on then we must take action and invest much more sensibly in these prime areas.

The investment, or lack of it, in grassroots football also has repercussions for the amateur adult game. More and more amateur clubs are having to fold primarily for two reasons. Rising costs and player recruitment. It is all well and good for the FA, Premier League and clubs to invest money in academies – but without the support of local teams, young players will not receive important early experiences in football. Almost every youth player ever recruited by an academy played at some point for a local team.

For local amateur teams the cost of renting facilities proves a regular season on season problem. The cost of renting a local authority pitch has risen in recent years and costs most teams at least £1000 annually. Often, the clubs generate most of their money through player subscriptions. The team’s own players pay either weekly, monthly or yearly to play – and the money is put back into the team.

Professional teams offer some support, but it is hardly groundbreaking. MK Dons support local amateur side, Newport Pagnell Town, by arranging an annual pre-season friendly at Newport’s ground, Willen Road, and taking zero percent of the profits. The 2017 match ended 4-1 to the Dons and attracted 1,780 spectators – all profits are then put back into Newport Pagnell Town and effectively set them up financial for the start of the new season. Newport play in Step 5 of the National League and have an excellent infrastructure of youth teams.

The Newport Pagnell Town youth system produced Manchester United and MK Dons player, Luke Chadwick, as well as Steve Brooker, best known for playing for Port Vale and Bristol City. Even for a team who are regarded so well locally they still have to work hard to secure the club’s financial viability moving forward. A representative of the club said: “The funds [from the MK Dons game] are very vital to help improve the club and the club’s facilities”.

The money the FA have committed to spend on developing grassroots football is a step in the right direction. However, with the wealth of revenue flowing in from television deals more should be done by the FA and Premier League to ensure money is spent wisely on improving facilities, moulding players with technique, and developing high quality coaches. To put into perspective the lack of grassroots investment, the annual £100 million pledge is 43% less than the £174 million Premier League clubs paid agents for transfers in 2016-17.

If England are to reap the benefits of having the richest league in the world then more money should be invested nationally, at a local level, to ensure there is an adequate supply of well-trained, highly qualified, and suitably paid coaches who can work with youngsters in schools and local clubs.

Their ultimate goal should be to produce the types of players England has short supply of: two footed, technically gifted, intelligent players who can take responsibility and lead by example.

The country has the money – but do we have the resolve to invest it properly?