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From Kettering Tyres to Nexen Tyres: A brief history of shirt sponsorship

6 Jun

When a young kid dreams of becoming a top football player, or a famous manager it is unlikely that attending a ‘partnership signing ceremony’ set up to announce a new sleeve sponsor figures highly – or even at all – in their minds.

Yet in the modern game this is an unavoidable part of the role and so it was that Pep Guardiola, Ilkay Gundogan, Gabriel Jesus and Jill Scott found themselves part of a carefully choreographed event at the City Football Academy along with City’s chief Executive Ferran Soriano and Nexen Tire CEO Travis Kang.

In making their announcement City became the first club to sign a deal since a relaxing of the rules allowed Premier League clubs to enter into sleeve sponsorship deals, to begin in the new season.

The sophistication of the event and the language of ‘partnership’, ‘relationship’ and ‘brand’ in the accompanying article on City’s official website demonstrate in themselves just how well accepted corporate sponsorship is in football.

All this is a far cry from just a few decades previously. It was in January 1976, far from the glamour of Manchester City and the Premier League, that Kettering Town, then of the Southern League, became the first British club to wear a sponsors name on their shirts when they faced Bath City with the name of local firm ‘Kettering Tyres’ on the front of their shirts.

The FA, whose rules barred such sponsorship deals, reacted by ordering Kettering to remove the companies name from their shirts. The club however, only partially complied, cheekily amending the lettering to ‘Kettering T’, arguing that the ‘T’ stood for town, but they eventually backed down under the threat of a £1,000 fine.

This was though not the end of the issue, particularly as clubs facing declining attendances and financial pressures sought new forms of income, and in 1977 the FA finally relaxed the rules around shirt sponsorship.

Unsurprisingly it was the big clubs who reaped the most benefit with league champions Liverpool signing a deal with Hitachi in 1979, reported to be worth £100,000 over two years whilst Arsenal’s 1981 deal with JVC saw them net £500,000 – both amounts far in excess of whatever Kettering earned from their deal. Ironically Kettering themselves were unable to even find a sponsor in the immediate aftermath of the rule change.

In the intervening years sponsorship deals grew to such an extent that the website sporting intelligence reported that for the 2016-17 season Premier league teams combined shirt sponsorship deals were worth some £226.5m,with Manchester United alone enjoying a club-record £47m-a-year deal with Chevrolet.

Importantly shirt sponsorship also won over the fans. The ‘JVC’ on Arsenals shirt would go on to be as iconic as it was lucrative. The same can also be said of other early sponsors such as Crown Paints and Liverpool, Sharp at Manchester United, or NEC at Everton. Shirt sponsors act as a  point of reference for a particular era, or a moment of glory. In 2012 The Football Attic blog ran a contest to find the shirt fans found most iconic of all and among the top were: Holsten (Tottenham) Guinness (Queens Park Rangers)Newcastle Brown Ale (Newcastle) Pioneer (Ipswich), Carlsberg (Wimbledon), Wang (Oxford), JVC (Arsenal) and Commodore (Chelsea).

It remains to be seen though whether English fans will ever be receptive to the kind of shirt sponsorship seen in the likes of French football where several sponsors logos are permitted on shirts, including the sleeve, shoulders, and back, or Finland where football kits can be a confusing mish-mash of multiple sponsors logos all competing for attention and threatening to swamp the clubs own symbols of identity. Perhaps the furthest such sponsorship has gone is in the case of Brazilian Serie D side Fluminense de Feria who received worldwide media attention following their deal with a supermarket chain. The agreement saw the names of household items such as shampoo and pizza featuring on the back of the player’s shirts in place of player names with the price then displayed using the players shirt number. This may have brought the club some welcome cash, but perhaps at the cost of a little dignity. Thankfully sleeve sponsorship may be a long way from this point, but could it be one step further in this direction?

The Difficult Past and Uncertain Future of the English Football League Cup

13 Jan

Without the fig leaf of a corporate sponsor the EFL Cup – as it has been branded this season – seems decidedly bare. For this pioneer of corporate sponsorship there are no ribbons in corporate colours, no promotional tie-ins and no cup final tickets reserved for executives and lucky competition winners. In all it is an even more depressing and dour affair than it has been in recent years. Some salvation may be at hand, thanks to a new sponsor, Thai energy drink company Carabao and from June 2017 the EFL Cup will become the Carabao Cup, until at least 2020, but whilst the deal may safeguard the cup for a few more years, the vultures will undoubtedly continue to circle as in an age when the FA Cup is struggling to find space in both congested fixture lists and the hearts of fans a second major domestic cup – a rarity in European football – looks increasingly anachronistic.

Question marks over the cups continued existence are also by no means a recent phenomenon and at least some of its current problems can be traced back to the circumstances surrounding the cups birth. Initially proposed by Football League Secretary Alan Hardaker the cup was merely one element of a package of reform aimed at rejuvenating English football and halting the slide which had begun to set in after the immediate post-war boom years.

The main thrust of Hardaker’s plans involved a restructuring of the league into five divisions of twenty clubs, reducing each clubs number of fixtures. As a compensatory measure for the clubs Hardaker put forward the idea of a new cup competition involving League clubs, to be played as a pre-season contest.

Hardaker’s restructuring plan would however, be rejected by the clubs. They were though receptive to the idea of the League Cup, which received approval at the League’s annual meeting of 1960. A further deviation from Hardaker’s master plan saw the cup instituted as mid-week contest during the regular season, played under the floodlights which had become prevalent at league grounds over the preceding decade. An ironic twist being that the cup, part of reforms aimed at easing fixture congestion, actually acted to increase the fixture burden.

Although it counted Football League President Joe Richards among its supporters (Richards had purchased the trophy with his own money and had his name engraved upon it) when it was launched in the 1960/61 season the cup encountered its share of indifference. Of the 92 eligible clubs 87 signed up to compete in its first year and by its third year this was down to only 80 clubs. Overall the big clubs viewed the contest with such disinterest that lesser sides were able to prosper and in the first year Division Two Rotherham United made the final whilst in its second year the final was contested by Division Two Norwich and Division Four Rochdale.

Soon dubbed ‘Hardaker’s Folly’ by its detractors prospects for the cup looked bleak indeed. That the cup is still around today is thanks largely to two developments; A Wembley final and the prize of a UEFA cup slot for the winners, the latter secured by Hardaker’s strong-arming of UEFA. 97,952 people attended the first Wembley final in 1967 between Queens Park Rangers and West Bromwich Albion, beating the combined attendance of the two legs of the previous year’s final by over 37,000. The two sides provided a spectacle fit for the grand venue as West Bromwich established a two goal lead, only to see third-tier QPR stage a remarkable comeback. Headlines were assured when it was the appropriately named Mark Lazarus who won the game by netting QPR’s winner in the 81st minute.

This medicine seemed to have had the desired effect and by the early 1970s the cup was enjoying something of a golden age. The most striking piece of evidence of this being the appearance of Chelsea on Top of the Pops, performing their cup final song Blue is The Colour, released to mark their appearance in the 1972 final which reached a chart high of number 5. The 1980s though proved a more difficult time for the cup – and for football in general. Attendances slumped for both cup fixtures and league games, but even in this environment the cup retained its prestige as a respected part of the English game whilst successfully pioneering corporate sponsorship with a landmark deal during the 1981-82 season with the Milk Marketing Board which led to the cup being officially renamed as the Milk Cup .

A new challenge awaited in the 1990s as the coming of the Premier League era saw an increasing shift in clubs priorities towards the ever more lucrative league programme. Manchester United and Arsenal among those who took to fielding cobbled together sides of fringe players and youth players in league cup fixtures – a practice which could, on occasion, spectacularly backfire – such as in 1995 when a weakened Manchester United found themselves being turned over 3-0 by third-tier strugglers York City in front of a stunned Old Trafford in the first leg of their second round tie.

The further expansion of the Champions League in 1999 only added to the cups problems; Not only did it increase the fixture burden of top clubs, but it also greatly devalued the UEFA qualification slot as many more sides could expect to qualify for Europe through the league. Then in the 2001/02 season the cup underwent some drastic pruning at the roots, first and second round matches changing from 2-legged to single games. At a stroke this reduced the competition from 154 games the season before to just 93 games.

In recent years the cup has continued to experience of criticism and disrespect from clubs, managers, players, pundits and fans alike. It is though not without its friends, or even its redeeming features: It is still competitive in the very latter stages, the relatively cheap tickets provide an opportunity for those who might otherwise be priced out of grounds whilst for fans of some Premiership sides the cup retained value as being the one major title within their reach in an era of growing inequality. As pundit Colin Murray pointed out in 2014 the cup “is one trophy Premier League teams outside of the big guns have a real chance of capturing.”

It is therefore a worrying sign when in 2016 for a fourth round game at their St. Marys ground attendance was low enough for the club to close an entire stand to the public, whilst on the field manager Claude Puel announced nine changes from their previous league game. Such indifference at a club like Southampton, whose last major honour was in 1976, serves to highlight the stiff battle for survival the cup faces beyond 2020. To stand any chance the competition must find a new way of being relevant to both clubs and fans alike.

The rise and rise of 5-a-side

21 Jun

Thursday evening at an outdoor 5-a-side centre and a crowd has gathered around two sides of the corner pitch. Peering in through the protective mesh fencing the object of attention is one Matt Le Tissier. Playing at his customary pace the splendidly languid Southampton legend receives the ball and resists the attentions of a younger and fitter opponent by gently nudging it behind his standing leg. His opponent succeeds in getting something on the ball, but it’s not enough. Seemingly out of nowhere, Le Tissier fires off a fast angled ball which instantly transports those watching the back to some point in the 1990s and which a teammate fully does justice to by converting into a goal.

The most unusual thing about the scene is the spectators. Aside from a brief period in the 1980s when Soccer Six attracted large crowds and appeared on television, small-sided football hasn’t ever really taken off as a spectator sport. As a participation sport however, the small-sided game, and in particular 5-a-side, has grown significantly over the past fifteen years to the extent that it is now the way in which most of us experience actually playing the game.

Figures from Sports England’s Active People survey for 2014/15 reveal that among those aged 16+ who reported playing football at least weekly 740,200 participated in small-sided outdoor football, whilst an additional 292,600 reported participating in small-sided indoor football. This compares to the 598,000 who reported participating in 11-a-side in the same period. Moreover whilst the number of those participating in 11-aside on a weekly basis has declined by over 100,000 and the numbers playing small-sided indoor football have dropped by around 150,000 since 2009/10 – the first year in which the survey differentiated football by type – the numbers playing small-sided outdoor football have held relatively firm.

There are several interconnected factors which can be implicated in this shift in how we play the game; technological, economic and social. In terms of technology, anyone with experience playing on pre-3G astroturf, and all the bloody knees and elbows that entailed (known affectionately as astro-burns), would find it difficult to disagree with one supplier of 3G pitches who describe 3G as “the most significant and successful development in synthetic surface technology designed for football and rugby at both competitive and recreational levels.” 3G proved a real game-changer in providing an all-weather surface which could be played on again and again with little of the wear demonstrated by grass pitches and which also provided a pleasant playing experience.

3G could of course equally be used for 11-a-side, however to build 3G pitches requires finance. Initially his investment would not come from under-pressure public bodies who owned and operated the majority of existing grass pitches, but from the private sector. The simple equation is that outdoor small-sided pitches, taking up much less space, offered such investors a much better return as more games and paying-players can be squeezed into a smaller area. The sheer scale of this private sector investment in small-sided football cannot be underestimated; One of the market leaders, who specialise in outdoor small-sides football, Goals soccer centres, boasts on its website that it operates 500 pitches which play host to over 130,000 players a week.

The final factor is social change. In general explanations offered for declining participation centre around changes in working patterns, less free time, or the growth of more individualised leisure pursuits. The influential academic Robert Putnam famously observed that in the US that, between 1980 and 1993, whilst the number of people bowling had been increasing, league bowling experienced a sharp decline, of around 40%. It may be that small-sided football, is perhaps better placed to weather such pressures than the 11-a-side game which tends to be based almost exclusively around competitive leagues and which requires an overall greater level of time commitment than small-sided football.

There are signs however, that the growth of small-sided football may have reached its limit. The Sports England data show that numbers playing outdoor small-sided football has stabilised over the past few years, whilst in March of this year it was reported that Goals Soccer Centres had posted its first annual pre-tax loss in 12 years. Against this there is also some evidence that 11-a-side 3G pitches are beginning to attract grant funding, particularly as many grassroots leagues have approved the use of 3G for competitive games. For now though it still appears true that while we may not particularly enjoy watching small sided football, we do prefer playing it.

Corinne Diacre: Quietly achieving revolution in the Auvergne

4 Jan

In Clermont-Ferrand, capital of the mountainous Auvergne region of France, football has always been a poor second to Rugby. Whilst the towns rugby side boasts an illustrious history, more latterly becoming French Champions in 2010 and European Champions Cup (Formerly Heineken Cup) runners-up in 2013 and 2015, its football team, Clermont Foot, can only offer up a third-tier championship won in 2007 and which gave the club the membership of Ligue 2, French football’s second tier. It was therefore quite possibly the first time that football had upstaged rugby in the town when Clermont Foot appointed Helena Costa as first-team head-coach in May 2014, and in doing so grabbing the attention of the world’s media keen to hail a historic moment.

The appointment of Costa had indeed been ground-breaking; She became the first ever woman to be appointed as head-coach of a men’s team in the top two divisions of any professional European league. Instrumental in the move had been the agent Sonia Souid – also involved in the first ever remunerated transfer of a French Professional Woman’s player between two French clubs – who viewed the appointment as an opportunity to create real change in the world of football.

Although there were some who claimed that the appointment had been a publicity stunt on the part of the clubs president, Claude Michy – no stranger to such things – it was though clear that Costa boasted a not unimpressive set of coaching credentials. These included a masters degree in sports science and a UEFA coaching licence. Costa had also worked as a scout for Celtic and coached Benfica’s male youth teams as well as the women’s national teams of Qatar and Iran. Her CV also included a stint of work-experience under compatriot Jose Mourinho at Chelsea.

To those hoping for change however, there came a major blow when Costa quit barely a month into the job claiming that she had been effectively sidelined, being, she said, little more than a “face” to attract publicity. Among Costa’s complaints were the arranging of pre-season friendlies and players being signed without her knowledge as well as a series of emails to the clubs technical director going unanswered. A press conference in the wake of the departure only added to the impression that Costa’s appointment had been a false dawn for gender equality when Michy made a number of unenlightened-sounding remarks: “She’s a woman,” he said. “They are capable of leading us to believe in certain things and then… She simply said, ‘I’m going.’

This though was not the end of the story. Michy wasted no time in appointing another woman as head-coach. This time it was Corinne Diacre, a 39 year-old former French International defender with 121 caps to her name. Captaining the side she had also had a period as the national teams assistant manager and had managed Soyaux, her old club, between 2007 and 2013. As with Costa Diacre’s appointment caught the attention of the world’s media with much of the coverage focusing on her gender. Not all of this was welcome and according to Michy some reporters were even asking questions such as at what time did she enter the dressing room.

For Diacre the continuing focus by elements of the press on her gender, rather than on her actions as a coach, has proved something of an irritant. Over a year into the job, she has though established a track record with which her work can be judged objectively. In her first season the club finished in 12th, an improvement of 2 places on the previous season, but so far her second season is proving to be something of a revelation. The approach of Christmas saw Clermont firmly in the race for promotion to French football’s top tier, Ligue 1, and at the time of writing the team sit in third place – no mean feat for a club which has such a small budget.

Diacre’s work received recognition in both an extended contract in September, committing her to the club until 2018 and at the end of the year being awarded the title of Ligue 2 manager of 2015 by the well-regarded weekly publication France Football. Diacre told the magazine that promotion would not just be a personal triumph, it would, she said be a just reward for club president, Michy, who she credits with taking a risk on her appointment and continuing to provide her with his backing.

It is though a small irony that much of the worldwide attention on Diacre and Clermont Foot has evaporated and once again, in the Auvergne, it is rugby which receives the higher profile. Diacre’s moment of triumph is therefore unlikely to be as widely reported as her appointment, but this is an achievement in itself as Diacre is unlikely to want any more than to be seen as just another coach of a football team.

Is the Premier League becoming more equal?

1 Jan

CV graph

Any conversation about the Premier League this season will invariably include an observation that it is ‘a strange season’ as the established order we have all grown used to has shown signs of a shift. Leicester at the top of the league table instead of battling for relegation, Manchester United trailing Crystal Palace, last seasons champions Chelsea going from bad to worse? Has the world been turned upside down?

For some this seasons results are due to a structural shift towards greater equality. In The Telegraph Paul Hayward writes in an article titled The Premier League has become the new NFL – volatile, rich and thoroughly equal “Once an immutable parade of four or five global corporations, with occasional interventions by Everton or Spurs, the Premier League has emerged from the latest deluge of television money more competitive, unpredictable, meritocratic, intriguing and fun.” There is even talk, such as on the blog Just Football, of a new middle-class of clubs, of which Leicester are said to be a member.

An article in The Economist, Why The English Premier League Has Been Turned Upside Down however, suggests that rather than any long-term structural change what we’re seeing is more likely the result of rapid innovations in tactics and the result of, in Chelsea’s case, a lack of summer transfer activity combined with fatigue impacting on the form of key players.

So what is the long-term picture? A while back, in an attempt to come up with a measure of competitiveness which allowed me to compare different leagues, I calculated the coefficient of variation of league wins. This is calculated by working out the average number of league wins, along with the standard deviation (SD), a measure of spread. The SD is then divided by the average to produce a percentage. A high percentage means that the number of league wins is more spread out, and therefore the league can be said to be more unequal whilst a low number shows that, the number of wins recorded by each club over a season is closer to the average, and therefore the league is more evenly balanced.

While there is a degree of fluctuation going all the way back to the 1983/84 season we can see the long-term trend over this period has been for the coefficient to increase, suggesting that inequality has been rising, notably so in the Premier League era; In 1983/84, for instance, the coefficient was 27.1, whilst it peaked in 07/08 at 46.8. The league, much like society, seemed to have become infused with a greater inequality between those at the top and the rest.

The past few seasons however, have seen something of a slight fall in the inequality. In 12/13 the coefficient was 46.8, 44.6 in 13/14 and 40.2 in 14/15. For the current season, up until the end of 2015 the figure stands at a slightly higher 41.8. So the league taken as a whole this season is not any more competitive than last season. But despite this  apparently downwards trend it is hard to really tell whether this is a long-term change, or just short-term fluctuation, so we can’t rule out either the Hayward hypothesis, or the Economist alternative – or at least not yet.

Interestingly making a comparison with the other major European leagues  shows that currently the Premier League is more evenly balanced than the rest. To a greater, or lesser extent almost all of the big leagues have seen a rise in inequality in recent years and at the end point of 2015 it is in fact the Bundesliga which is the most uneven with a coefficient of 49.1. The figure for Ligue 1 is also interesting as whilst at 46.7  it doesn’t stand out in the group, but between 2004-05 and 2012-13 its highest coefficient had been 38.4, and for most of the time it had been around the mid-thirties. This change is unsurprising though as what had been an open league has become increasingly dominated by one club, Paris St. Germain, who last season won the treble of league, cup and league cup.

European league coefficients (2015/16  season up to 31st Dec 2015)

Bundesliga 49.1

Ligue 1 46.7

La Liga 47.5

Serie A 43.5

English top division coefficients (15/16 up to 31st Dec 2015)

83 84 27.1
84 85 31.8
85 86 39.2
86 87 30.5
87 88 39.7
88 89 31.0
89 90 30.6
90 91 34.8
91 92 25.9
92 93 23.9
93 94 38.1
94 95 37.8
95 96 36.7
96 97 32.3
97 98 31.7
98 99 33.7
99 00 38.0
00 01 35.8
01 02 42.2
02 03 35.6
03 04 39.4
04 05 46.2
05 06 42.2
06 07 39.7
07 08 46.8
08 09 44.0
09 10 45.3
10 11 33.7
11 12 43.8
12 13 46.8
13 14 44.6
14 15 40.2
15/16 41.8





Counting the cost of Football

9 Dec

How hard is it to establish the cost of supporting a football team? Well, it seems that it is more difficult than first appears. Just take the BBC price of football survey which has recently come in for some criticism from The Ball is Round blog.

To recap the price of football survey has been running for a few years. Clubs are contacted and asked to provide pricing information about some of their tickets – most notably the most expensive and cheapest match day tickets and season tickets they have on offer.

This focus on just the ends of the pricing spectrum can though be problematic according the critique offered by The Ball is Round who demonstrates, with the example of West Ham, that ticket pricing is rather more complex:

At West Ham United for instance, the cheapest ticket is apparently £25, which it is for the pre-Christmas game versus Stoke City. The game before, versus West Bromwich Albion the same seat would cost you £45 (for a ‘Category A’ game this would rise to £70). To therefore report the cheapest ticket is so low is simply misleading.

This is a valid point. Whilst the figures for the cheapest and most expensive tickets illustrate the maximum and minimum points of a clubs price range they are rather less revealing about the amount that most fans can actually be expected to part with to see their team.

This is perhaps a point the makers of the survey are acutely aware of as unlike the 2014 iteration in the 2015 survey the larger 13 page report available on the BBC website does actually provide a figure for the ‘most popular matchday ticket tier’ which at West Ham is £51-£60. Better, for sure, but still this is somewhat vague: What does ‘most popular mean’ and just how many tickets are priced outside this bracket?

From a methodological perspective one solution to the question: what do most fans pay to watch a team would be to calculate an average ticket price, but far from being easy this is actually a task of huge complexity. The reason for this is that ticket pricing has become hugely complex. Returning to West Ham there are three categories of matches and six pricing bands for each: Bands 1-4, Restricted View and Accessibility. Added to this there are also different prices for members for category A matches.

Calculating the average price of a West Ham ticket would involve using all this information. We would, for instance, need to know how many tickets were available at each price, for each match throughout the season. This would then give us an average ticket price, but just to add an extra layer of complexity this figure would not be the actual average paid in reality by fans. To calculate this we would need to take into account the number of seats which were sold at a discounted price to members, or other concessions (for simplicity the BBC survey focuses only on the price of an adult ticket available on the day of a match – in many cases there will be no available tickets). This information would not be available until after a season has finished. In many cases too this information may not be publically available, or clubs may not wish to disclose it.

Which moves us onto the other criticism levelled at the survey by The Ball is Round, notably that it is clubs themselves providing the information. This can in some cases bring in questions of how reliable the information is, but in their description of the methodology the BBC reveal that though the clubs were asked to provide the information this was then verified by journalists at the BBC. Once again to look at West Ham’s figures the information supplied tallies with what is available on their website. It also seems unlikely that clubs would set their ticket prices in an attempt to deliberately ‘game’ the survey as there is as of yet not a great deal of importance placed on the results. On the whole it appears too that clubs have been quite happy to cooperate, with only Swansea city declining to take part.

To be sure critiques like those offered by The Ball is Round are on to something. The BBC price of survey football survey does leave many unanswered questions – my own observation would be that it ignores concessionary prices for groups such as the U18s, over 65’s and people with a disability, something which is crucial when looking at clubs reaching out to the next generation and more disadvantaged groups. But before being too tough on the BBC survey what needs to be considered are the questions of resources, complexity and proportionality. Ticket pricing is a complex issue. To me this is a sign that – rightly or wrongly – clubs have a far more nuanced view of their target market and how to maximise this revenue stream.

This complexity, as we have seen, makes any attempt to compare a large number of clubs in a consistent manner difficult. Even something as simple as the price of a pie can be nuanced as the pies will vary in both size and quality, whilst the price of pies tell you nothing about the cost of sausage rolls, or other hot snacks. You do though have to start somewhere and in this endeavour the BBC survey, for my part, gets things broadly right by providing solid points of comparison and producing information which can be (unlike many matchday pies) easily digested.

Football’s continuing participation crisis

6 Jul

Tuesday night and the text messages become more frantic; do you know anyone – anyone at all – who can show up for a game of 5-a-side tomorrow evening? Getting players is always a challenge at this time of year when people start taking their holidays, but is there something more at play, is this scramble for players indicative of a wider trend for declining participation in the game?

Once again the Active People Survey, commissioned and published by Sport England has revealed worrying figures for football. In the latest set of stats, covering the period April 2014 to March 2015, the number of people aged 16 and over participating in the sport at least once in the last 28 days showed a continued decline with the figure now standing at 2,660,000, down from the peak of 3,150,200 for the period October 2010 to October 2011. Equally worrying is the decline in participants who are members of a club; For football this has declined from 642,300 in the Active People survey covering Oct 2007 – Oct 2008 to 481,300 for the period April 2014 – March 2015 while, over the same time period, the numbers taking part in competition have plummeted from 962,500 to 676,300.

Active People graph

The stats themselves reveal little about the causes of this decline, but there are several explanations which have been in circulation including; changing working patterns, lower disposable income, lack of good facilities, and the impact of spells of inclement weather. Even the closure of pubs has been implicated – with good reason too, as many local pubs acted as hubs for organising teams and recruiting players (Interestingly the survey also shows a sharp decline for traditional pub games such as darts, pool and skittles – the number of people playing pool at least once in the last 28 days falling dramatically between October 2006 – October 2007 and April 2014 – March 2015 from 97,900 to just 39,400).

Traditional team sports requiring a large number of players and – quite often – a degree of organisation appear to have been similarly affected by declining numbers. Participants in rugby union fell from 267,800 in the first Active People survey, spanning October 2006 to October 2007, to 248,000 for the period April 2014 to March 2015 whilst for cricket numbers fell from 380,300 to 259,200. Contrastingly, over the same period, cycling – a relatively more individual sport -has enjoyed a dramatic increase in popularity from 3,554,800 taking part at least once a month to a current 3,817,400.

AP index

The stats though leave out as much as they reveal. Importantly, for football, the survey does not differentiate between 11-a-side and other forms such as 5-a-side and Futsal. This means it is not possible to chart the relative changes in the popularity of these different forms of the game and whether, for instance, a deeper decline in 11-a-side is not potentially masked by the popularity of 5-a-side. What is clear however, is that the ongoing participation crisis is biting deep into the grass-roots level of the game. Over a quarter of a million fewer players taking part in competitive football is enough to see long-established leagues wither and even fold, in turn causing the organisational infrastructure which makes, in particular, competitive 11-a-side possible to become further diminished. This can only make the challenges of providing improved facilities, flexibility, accessibility and affordability even greater and it is these challenges which need to be met if football is to halt its decline as a mass-participation sport.

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