The Football Association is committing to the improvement of thousands of run-down and dilapidated playing fields nationwide after 84% of those involved in the game's grassroots cited "poor facilities" as their most pressing concern. In a national facilities strategy due to be published on Tuesday, the FA pledges the Football Foundation's £50m annual budget from 2013 to 2015 will be spent mainly on improving large football sites in often poor areas of England's cities.
It is unlikely, however, that the Football Foundation, which has since 2001 been funded by the FA, Premier League and Sport England, will be given extra money to address the problem. Even though Premier League clubs are anticipating a massive boost to £5.5bn in their 2013-16 TV deals, the FA is not expecting the 20 top clubs to increase their contribution to the foundation. The strategy has been drawn up assuming the three funders will maintain the same level of investment as in the past three years: £12m from the Premier League, and £10m each from the FA and Sport England.
The strategy recognises that despite the huge amount of money in football and £780m invested by the foundation since 2001, many who play the game still do so in abject conditions. "While there are some excellent facilities," the strategy says, "some are so poor that they act as a disincentive to participation – no changing provision, showers, toilets, waterlogged pitches. This presents a huge challenge to the FA and all those involved in the game."
That challenge is made more difficult by the Conservative-Liberal Democrat coalition government's cuts to local authorities, which own 83% of playing facilities and are struggling to maintain their budgets for sport and leisure. That has produced a focus by the FA on improving larger sites in the cities. They are pledging to produce better-maintained grass pitches, changing rooms and a new generation of artificial surfaces, which can operate as "hubs" for many different teams across a wide area.
"There is a mixed picture across the country," said Peter Kay, the FA's head of facilities. "We have done remarkably well with some investment, but there is a long way to go; we're not pretending everything in the garden is rosy. The most serious challenge is in urban areas and that is a reason why we want to concentrate on them. We plan to sit down with local authorities in the major cities and identify the sites which will be most effective to improve and increase participation in football."
The FA's strategy, the first dedicated solely to facilities, envisages the Football Foundation investing £150m in facilities between 2013 and 2015, which includes funding from sources in addition to the three main partners. The FA has set targets of improving 3,000 grass pitches, building 100 new artificial grass pitches and refurbishing 150 more, "new and improved changing facilities and toilets", a small grants programme for smaller clubs and projects, and "support with the purchase and replacement of goalposts".
Kay said money will also be directed at helping to train volunteers and club officials in the maintenance of facilities, and the FA will also examine the feasibility of "asset transfer", by which larger grassroots clubs could become the owners of the pitches on which they regularly play.
The FA's director of the national game, Kelly Simmons, said these facilities' targets are aimed at supporting the more general aim of improving the quality of football, which includes youth teams playing more small-sided games for longer.
Simmons said the FA is assuming the Premier League and Sport England will contribute the same money to the Football Foundation as in the past three years, although the amounts are not finalised. "We are due to meet our funding partners shortly and hope we can get it concluded as soon as possible," Simmons said.
The Football Foundation was formed in 2001 after a promise by the Premier League in 1999 that it would invest 5% of its total income in grassroots facilities, in return for the government supporting the 20 clubs' collective sale of TV rights in the face of a challenge by the Office of Fair Trading. However, the Premier League now considers that pledge to have lapsed. It distributes 8.75% of its TV and commercial income outside the Premier League, but half of that, £49.8m, goes to Football League clubs.
While the Premier League spends £10.7m on its Creating Chances community programme, the £12m to the Foundation for grassroots facilities represents only 1% of the Premier League's central income of £1.26bn this year. The clubs' coffers are expected to swell as the next TV deals are concluded, but the Premier League is not expected to invest any more than this £12m on improving the rundown facilities at the game's grassroots, often near the top clubs' own grounds.