21 April, 2020

(First published at The Football Collective)

We’ve heard a lot about Premier League footballers in the last few weeks, and we’re seeing more and more stories of football clubs and players taking action regarding their earnings at a time when no money is being made by football clubs anywhere (outside Belarus).

But the lifeblood of the game is its grassroots – the games being played on local playing fields between teams of all ages, and even sometimes with jumpers for goalsposts. Spotting the next Harry Kane or Trend Alexander-Arnold coming through. How is that going to survive coronavirus? This is the kind of thing we economists worry about.

Instinctively this is an issue about our leisure time. Economists make a clear, and usually fairly crude distinction between work and leisure. All time not working is leisure. You may choose to sleep, you may choose to play online games, or even the #Toiletrollchallenge in isolation – but you are not working. Leisure is everything you’re doing that isn’t work. The distinction, of course, is blurred when leisure requires work – work around the house, for example, home-schooling children, organising leisure activities.

And we value some leisure activities over others, as we argue they provide a greater social good. So, playing a team sport is better than playing an offline computer game alone, since the former involves exercise and also socialising. In addition, a team sport may be interesting for spectators, too. That is, 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.

But over the years government support for arts, cultural and sports activities has become more and more economic in nature. Successive governments have sought to measure the economic value in everything – but this ignores social goods, and other hard-to-measure benefits. Perhaps the clearest example of this is the funding provided for Olympic sports – provided on a cost effectiveness basis to improve the UK medal chances in key sports.

This is neo-classical economics at its clearest – allocate resource to the most productive uses. However, at the grassroots level of football it’s not clear what the measure of success is – there aren’t gold medals to be won and national acclaim, but success matters deeply on a local level. Which local Football Associations receive the funding from the English FA and how funds are distributed across the regions matters, to ensure communities and players in poorer parts of the country don’t lose out.

There will always be a tension between sport being competitive – about winning – and sport being about the taking part – participation. This is what one of the first sports economists, Walter Neale, called “the peculiar economics of sport” – the tension between economic and sporting competition. The question is whether we have moved too far towards the economically competitive, and whether coronavirus lay that bare? Will we, as Greg Clarke worries, lose many grassroots clubs and leagues? There’s a natural turnover year by year of clubs, as friendship and work socialising patterns change, as groups of people get older and start doing different things. Each year, new teams start up to replace those that fold, but will any start up this summer? And will many more fold?

Other challenges await, too. Will training be different with social distancing, post lockdown? What will the demographics look like, given many coaches and scouts are drawn from groups that are higher risk? Will coronavirus 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 this for granted – but youth teams rely on progression, rely 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 from this: when activities have social benefits, we can hope that generous people will choose to donate to them. It may be that charitable donations of time and money will help ensure grassroots football continues after coronavirus. However, there are two problems here, still. One is that there will be less scope for charitable donations if indeed the economy shrinks by the eye-watering 15% to 25% this year as projected by the National Institute for Economic and Social Research. The second is that charity, like grassroots football, is an activity with a positive externality – social net benefits exceeding private ones. Basic economic analysis tells us that charity will be underprovided, and hence grassroots football also will be underprovided if we have to rely on charity alone.

What is to be done, then? Perhaps the most effective argument given the landscape is to appeal to the economic after all, and try to weigh up relative values and costs. 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 are lower, incarceration rates lower, and hence again costs on the state are reduced. Football, which appeals to all ages and genders, is surely a cost-effective investment to mitigate both of these costs – as well as bringing social benefits to individuals and communities across the land.

Dr James Reade is an Associate Professor of Economics at the University of Reading, @jjreade

Dr Dan Parnell is a Senior Lecturer in Sport Business at the University of Liverpool, @parnell_daniel