December 23rd 2020
Why Changing The Mentality Of Sport Is Going To Be A Long Hard Struggle.

It seems obvious, doesn’t it? Arrogant, abusive and inept governing bodies such as British Gymnastics or the FA should be quickly disbanded, or at least exposed to proper competition.


Everybody would benefit. A sector that has seen monopolies develop into huge monoliths, would suddenly open up to a regulated market allowing the consumer choice, best practice to flourish, and the Treasury to increase their revenue.


It seems like a win for everybody. But hold on a minute. What is blocking the way?


In thirty years we’ve seen how the system works from the outside, and occasionally from the inside too. You don’t need to be a rocket scientist to realise that the triumvirate of Sport England, the governing bodies themselves, and the DCMS wouldn’t want the status quo broken up.


And why would they? Take the sector we know best about – football.


It is a sector which actually has a strong quartet of bodies, all of whom have an interest in looking after each other:


The FA, made rich through sponsorship and the public’s insatiable appetite for football, receives a healthy dose of taxpayers money to boot, delivered by Sport England.


Sport England, for their part, are quite happy to have just one governing body in football. It is easier that way, and anyway, it might be a nice career move for someone from Sport England to go to the FA, or vice versa. It often happens. All friends together, as they say.


And then you have the Football Foundation getting in on the act. They are so close to the FA that, on the ground, the local county FA representative is barely distinguishable, and often the same person, as the Football foundation representative. Let’s just keep it that way, shall we?


But what about the fourth cog in the wheel, the DCMS?


Well, it certainly is in the interest of the DCMS to retain the status quo. Why would they want to ditch their friends and have to deal with a whole set of new people, with new ideas, that they don’t even know? Yes, much easier just to deal with one governing body, than perhaps three or four all competing against each other to provide a better choice for the end consumer.


And anyway, it is another part of the package for the jobs merry-go-round. Do a bit of research. It is a career move from the FA, to the Football Foundation, to the DCMS, or perhaps backwards again, the other way.


After all, much better to give jobs to your friends rather than to worry about anybody from outside – and of course, friends together know how the system works, and aren’t going to upset the apple cart.


But what of the politicians at the DCMS I hear you say? Well, they have tried their best. People like Jeremy Wright, Tracey Crouch and Nicky Morgan genuinely tried to make a difference in the DCMS, but had an unyielding civil service who are utterly intent on keeping things just the same way they’ve always been.


We have been involved with discussions with civil servants at the DCMS and it really is just like Yes Minister. It takes a very strong willed politician, and a brave one, to challenge the status quo built up over decades, especially in a department where being minister at the DCMS is often just a stepping stone to higher office or a better department.


These huge state run, state sponsored monopolies are going to continue for a little while yet. Some politicians see the need to change, and some have the will for it. But breaking down the Yes Minister mentality of the DCMS, to drive through real change, isn’t as easy as you might think.


But eventually, and as more and more abuse is exposed at bodies like British Gymnastics, or in cycling, or in swimming, or in football, then at some point the dam is going to have to break. Because ultimately the consumer is king. And the consumer wants choice.


There might be a brave politician who comes along and strikes a blow for the consumer. But it is much more likely that it will be public pressure, eventually, that will see the breakup of these outdated, unregulated monopolies that are causing more harm to sport in this country, than any good they are doing.


But hang on a minute, our sport’s governing bodies are doing so well, aren’t they? They are getting more and more people active, aren’t they?


Well, if you read the reports that they produce you would certainly think so. Enormous amounts of money are spent by governing bodies on producing reports which tell the politicians how wonderfully well they are doing.


And Sport England get in on the act, too. Of course, it is in their interests to tell the government how well all the governing bodies are doing, so they write reports giving out the same, false impression. Usually bearing little resemblance to what is actually happening on the ground.


But there are some independent reports, as well, aren’t there? Yes there are. But look at most of them. Look at who writes the reports, who pay them to do the research, or what their background is. Yes, you’re right. The independent reports are not really independent at all, written by people who are within, or used to be in, the very hierarchy of sports governance in this country that is not serving us very well at all.




And it doesn’t end there. Take football for instance. Read some of the reports and you’ll think the FA are doing a wonderful job, growing the game in all areas. But what is the reality?


Leave aside the widespread antipathy towards football’s governing body, that you meet at almost every facility you visit, who get bullied by the FA or Councils who feel terrified to do anything that their local county FA might not like, or players, or coaches fed up at their treatment, and look at where they actually get their statistics from.


Firstly, you’ll think that the numbers playing 11 aside football were actually growing, not falling. And they only get their statistics from the places they know they’ll get the answers they want. For instance, Leisure Leagues has the largest database of small sided football players in the UK, a not inconsiderable 200,000 people playing each week. But these numbers are never considered, and Leisure Leagues views on the future of football are never asked for by the sports authorities. Well, you wouldn’t ask the organisation that has the largest number of actual football players playing small sided football in the UK, would you?


And the government has something to answer for, too. The recent £300 million announced by the government to help sport was administered through the governing bodies. And in football’s case, a lot of the money was distributed to football clubs in the lower tiers. Well, after all, they do spend 90% of their budgets on players wages, don’t they? That is why they need the money. Obvious, when you think about it.


But perhaps some of this money might’ve gone to some of the commercial organisations who genuinely, and with no taxpayers money, attract thousands of inactive people into football each year. Goals’ struggles have been well documented, and at the end of the pandemic they have been forced to close facilities in Stoke and Hull for lack of cash. Wouldn’t it have been better to support that organisation rather than some local football club? Or is it better to simply give money to mismanaged FA clubs, through a biased governance body, so that a few 11 aside footballers can keep getting paid, rather than give it to the thousands of inactive people who play a small sided football match each week at their local Goals facility which is the only thing that they have to look forward to?


Or perhaps some of the money should have been given to Play Football, as they teeter on the edge of demise following a pandemic which has led them to shut most of their football arenas, with Birmingham and Swindon unlikely to reopen even when this is all over. Shouldn’t some of this money have gone to them, if it was going to be distributed at all?


Does sport need any taxpayer’s money at all? Well, some sports do if the governing body monopoly system is going to stay in place.


Just look around. The challenging governing body in gymnastics, UK Gymnastics, with no government funding whatsoever, has increased participation in membership in the sport by five times more than the taxpayer funded governing body, British Gymnastics.


Yet, when British Gymnastics’ monopoly was being challenged by the up-and-coming UK Gymnastics, and British Gymnastics were leaking members, sick and tired of the arrogant abusive power that the sport’s governing body had, it was Sport England that stepped in to save British Gymnastics bacon, even sending their powerful director, Phil Smith, to court to speak up on British Gymnastics behalf. Sport England as an independent body? You must be joking. The organisation that should’ve been the arbiter in a dispute between two gymnastics organisations, ended up automatically siding with one over the other, even though they ended up being on the wrong side of the argument.


All look at athletics, for instance. Companies such as Marathon Kids have reached 80,000 schoolchildren without any taxpayers funding at all, whilst membership in UK Athletics remains relatively static.


And again, the best example is football. Commercial operators such as Goals, Power Leagues, Play Football and Leisure Leagues have introduced tens of thousands of inactive people into physical exercise over the last decade, with not a penny of taxpayers money in their pockets. Whilst the FA scratches about, using taxpayers money to produce more glossy reports convincing the politicians how well everything is going.


But there is another problem. The politicians are not entirely blameless. We have spoken to more than one MP who told us, in a recent documentary we are producing about the Football Foundation, that they didn’t want to talk to us because it might hinder their chances of getting a grant for a new football pitch in their own constituency. Yes, really. Better to suffer an injustice rather than not get elected again.


What was that old line about you can find anything you want in statistics, if you look hard enough?

Back to Blog