Preserving Grassroots Football

With sports currently on hold due to lockdown, Reading’s Dr James Reade, speaks to CONNECTED about how the landscape for grassroots football might look once the COVID-19 crisis is over.  

Over the recent weeks, we’ve heard a lot about Premier League footballers and their salaries. But the lifeblood of any sport is at its grassroots – the football that is played on local playing fields between teams of all ages. But how are these local games going to survive COVID-19?

Work versus leisure

Dr Reade, from Reading’s Department of Economics – alongside his colleague, Dr Daniel Parnell, from the University of Liverpool – argue that it is all about how we define leisure against work.

“Economists make a clear, and usually fairly crude distinction between work and leisure. All time not working is leisure, whether that be sleeping or playing online games. Leisure is everything you do that isn’t work. However, this distinction becomes blurred when leisure requires work, for example, homeschooling children or organising leisure activities.

“And we value some leisure activities – ones that provide a greater social good – over others. For example, playing a team sport is better than playing an offline computer game alone, since the former involves exercise as well as socialising. In addition, a team sport may be interesting for spectators too.

“There are social benefits over and above the benefit to the individual. Economists have always used this argument to make the case for government support for certain activities.”

Despite the social benefits Dr Reade describes, over the years, government support for arts, cultural and sporting activities has become more and more economic in nature. Successive governments have sought to measure the economic value in everything, ignoring the social goods and other hard-to-measure benefits. For example, funding for Olympic sports is provided on a cost-effectiveness basis to improve the UK medal chances in key sports over anything else.

When it comes to the grassroots level of football, it is not clear what the measure of success is as there aren’t gold medals to be won, but success matters deeply on a local level. There will always be a tension between sport being competitive – about winning – and sporting being about the taking part – participation. The question is whether we have moved too far towards the economically competitive, and whether COVID-19 will cause us to lose many grassroots clubs and leagues? Will the training be different with social distancing post-lockdown? What will team demographics look like? Will COVID-19 leave us with a different model for grassroots sport?

“The UK has an incredibly rich ecology of leagues throughout all the age ranges, which teams can enter into. It’s easy to take for granted – but youth teams rely on progression, on leagues existing right through the age ranges, and across ability ranges, too. If gaps begin to appear, this may reduce the willingness and ability of teams to form.

“Philanthropic giving is one possibility to protect grassroots football – when activities have social benefits, we hope that generous people will choose to donate to them and keep them alive post-lockdown. However, due to COVID-19, there will be less scope for charitable donations if the economy shrinks so we should not rely on charity alone.”

What can be done?

Dr Reade argues that perhaps the most effective argument, given the current climate, is to appeal to the economic after all and try to weigh up relative values and costs. He says:

“A more physically active population is a healthier population, and one with fewer lifestyle-related diseases imposing costs upon the state via healthcare. A society with more outlets for the energies of people, especially younger people, is surely one where crime rates and incarceration rates are lower, and hence again costs on the state are reduced.

“Football, which appeals to all ages and genders, is surely a cost-effective instrument to mitigate both of these costs, as well as bringing social benefits to individuals and communities across the land.”

Find out more about Dr Reade’s research.