Sunday, 2 December 2012

Assembly Welsh Premier League Inquiry

Full houses at Welsh Premier grounds are rare. Our national football league
has always been poorly sold and poorly supported by the FAW and
other authorities.
(Pic : Welshpremier.com)
The Welsh Premier League (WPL) is a much-maligned creature. Attendances are woeful, the standard of football leaves a lot to be desired and (S4C attempts aside) there's precious little promotion of our national league.

The Assembly's Local Government and Communities Committee, chaired by Ann Jones AM (Lab, Vale of Clwyd), reported back on their inquiry into the WPL last week. There were 9 key recommendations, summarised as:
  • More co-operation between the Football Association of Wales (FAW), Sport Wales and the Welsh Government on football development and finance
  • The FAW needs to improve their relationship with WPL clubs
  • Welsh Government, FAW and local authorities should support the development of 3G/4G pitches (artificial/mixed playing surfaces)
  • The Welsh Government and FAW should develop WPL clubs as "community hubs", with an academy system supporting grassroots football

Funding & Governance

The FAW are - broadly - said to be "making progress" by taking a more strategic approach to the sport. The FAW have a reputation amongst football fans of being parochial - bordering on incompetent - so it's good news. There were criticisms that the WPL is only represented by one member on the FAW Council, which WPL clubs consider a "lack of respect".

Welsh Government support is
targeted at the "grass roots".
(Pic : FAW)
There's also criticism that the Welsh Government doesn't do enough to support Welsh football.

The Minister in charge, Huw Lewis (Lab, Merthyr Tydfil & Rhymney), pointed to £800,000 grants to the Welsh Football Trust by Sports Wales (the funding body who receive most of their funds from the Welsh Government). However, he added that, "the WPL and professional game in Wales do not receive any financial support from the Welsh Government", and instead money was target at the grass roots game.


The FAW themselves are criticised for similar reasons. Bangor City pointed to infrastructure funds being targeted at lower league clubs rather than established WPL clubs. The FAW defend this by saying it's to enable clubs to meet licencing requirements for promotion applications.

The Welsh Premier League itself

The elephant in the room in Welsh football is that our biggest sides play in the English pyramid. But without a national league, there's no justification of the FAW's existence – so no Welsh Premier, no Welsh national teams. I've covered the background to the WPL's formation before.

Wales' biggest club sides ply their trade in the
English pyramid, while the WPL is a semi-professional
league. Does this harm the domestic game?
(Pic : BBC)

Dic Mortimer submitted evidence about Welsh clubs in the English pyramid. The FAW acknowledge that the move to a national league in the 1990s was "handled badly", but said expecting the likes of Cardiff and Swansea in the Welsh pyramid is "unrealistic".

Although it appears as though the committee washed their hands with the issue, in fairness, there's little they could've done.

The report cites pitch conditions as a factor on the poor standard of games. The FAW acknowledge issues, but said many pitches – rented from local authorities or other bodies – don't attract enough investment from those third parties. It's said 3G/4G pitches would "transform the fortunes of all our clubs", and point towards improvements in Northern Ireland, Sweden and Turkey. Oswestry-based The New Saints already use an artificial pitch (pictured below).

It's said a move to mixed/artificial surfaces would
improve WPL club fortunes and the standard of games.
But it comes with a hefty price tag.
(Pic : technicalsurfaces.co.uk)

It's estimated introducing 3G/4G pitches to all 12 (current) WPL clubs would cost ~£5million. Huw Lewis expressed tacit support, without making any commitments.


The introduction of a 12-team league has – reportedly - led to a 26% increase in attendances, but the average WPL crowd remains around the 300-mark. The "split" in the second half of the season to decide champions and relegation is welcomed by some, but clubs are disappointed with the format, expressing preference for a 16-18 team league (the old format). Coincidentally, the Scottish pyramid is being reformed that way.



Media coverage

S4C in particular are praised for their coverage, but
are WPL clubs being short-changed?
(Pic : Daily Post)
Although WPL clubs were complimentary of S4C coverage (Sgorio), they were less pleased about other outlets (BBC Wales, ITV Wales, print press). I remember BBC Wales used to show League of Wales highlights - and live games - in the 90s, and Depeche Mode's Enjoy the Silence is now embedded into my brain because of that.

Fortunately, the Welsh Premier/Welsh domestic football in general has excellent independent online coverage via the likes of Welshpremier.com, Llandudno Jet Set, Mark Pitman and Ffwtbol - amongst others.

It's said the FAW needs to do more to "sell the league" to media and sponsors, and lack of action has caused a rift between clubs and the FAW. WPL clubs don't receive money for broadcasting live games. The producers of Sgorio, Rondo Media, were "astounded" by that fact. I also think it's ludicrous, but it has to be said that S4C don't have much money as is. However, for WPL clubs, I imagine even a token sum like £1000 could make a difference.

Summer football

It's been suggested that moving Welsh domestic football
to a summer calendar would improve performances in European
competitions - like the Republic of Ireland.
(Pic : whoateallthepies.tv [Shamrock Rovers v Rubin Kazan - 2011/12 Europa League Group Stages])

The FAW supports the introduction of a March-October (summer football) domestic calendar, as used in the Republic of Ireland. It's said to benefit clubs because (ideally) warmer weather would prevent matches being called off, and it means Welsh clubs would be mid-season when playing in European competitions - which might boost performances.

However, clubs and S4C oppose the move. The clubs because they believe it would be harder to attact part-time players and fearing irrigation problems. S4C because fewer people watch TV during summer months. It's said 3G/4G pitches might solve a lot of the problems, and the focus should be there instead of summer football.

Player/Coach Development & Management

The standard of coaching is praised, but the report
suggests moving to a "community hub" model to
encourage take up of football amongst underrepresented groups.
(Pic : FAW)
The report points to a number of WPL players who've been developed by clubs in the league and moved to the English pyramid. There's overall praise for the academy network, but there were concerns that - outside the WPL - clubs don't have the funds to develop their academies.

The FAW is investing up to £400,000 in coach development in the WPL, and the standard of coaching is said to be high. It's said the FAW should lead a strategic development of academies, and decide what role "the 12 Welsh Premier clubs should play". This probably falls within the "community hub" model that was recommended, which would include improving access to things like kit, travel to training & games and encouraging underrepresented groups – like women - to take up football.

The WLGA said that league management needed "updating" as it was still based on the pre-1974 county model. The FAW pointed to transport rules drawn up by UEFA and FIFA to keep local players "local".

Welsh football independence

There were noted concerns that many FIFA members have/are actively trying to overturn Wales' independent status within FIFA and the rule-making body (IFAB). Sport Wales' Dr Huw Jones said the creation of Team GB wouldn't have done much to "exacerbate the situation", but both he, and other witnesses, suggested caution and "keeping eyes open".

It's said independence needed to be "cherished and....actively brought out by the Welsh Government, internationally" to protect it. Despite this, it isn't said to be a "major worry at the moment."

Conclusions

They're more famous for football , but Catalan giants FC Barcelona
play other sports under the same name. Could the "community hub" model do the
same thing in Wales on a smaller scale?
(Pic : Euroleague.net)

I doubt I'm the only person who believes that the Welsh political circles have been overly concerned with rugby as opposed to football. There's room for both in Wales, but rugby union has always seemed the establishment "favourite sibling". I don't think this inquiry will go far by itself, but I hope politicians – of all colours – realise there's more to Welsh sport than rugby. I think many do, to be fair.

Seeing WPL clubs as potential "community hubs" is a step forward. I'm not sure what it means in practice, and I fear it'll end up another strategy filed away. It's all very well making steps forward but Wales needs leaps and sprints.

I think one way to develop Welsh sport (in general) is establishing local authority based "athletic clubs" that could include several teams - playing different sports - under one umbrella, perhaps including a WPL club too. It's a model that works well for the likes of FC Barcelona, for example. That's unlikely to be popular as clubs value their identity and football fans are rather tribal.

If the domestic game is to thrive, it needs better coverage and a better portrayal. The standard of football isn't great compared to what's on offer by English pyramid clubs, but it isn't awful and the WPL plays an important part in maintaining Welsh football's independent status. S4C and independent websites aside, I think our major national outlets do Welsh pyramid clubs a disservice.

It's a mistake to reject summer football out of hand, IMO. WPL clubs are right to be wary of anything coming from the top, but I don't think it would hurt to trial it – with or without 3G/4G pitches. Maybe there's scope to create a beefed up Futsal League (a fancy name for 5-a-side) from the current FAW Futsal Cup for the winter months too (if the moved to a summer calendar).

It's also important that clubs in the lower tiers want promotion to the WPL, especially clubs from the larger settlements of the south and south east. Bridgend Town are doing their best to muck that up this season.

And yes, getting all Welsh clubs playing some sort of all-Wales competition would go a long way to lifting the profile of the domestic game, and I've mentioned that before. Last season's attempts to get those sides involved in the Welsh Cup were an embarrassment, while the FAW Premier Cup was never taken seriously.

One way the Welsh Government might help is by working with the FAW to get a big name sponsor for the Welsh Cup to provide a financial carrot for the likes of Swansea and Cardiff – alongside a European place – so they'd take the proposition seriously. That would be a big, big ask and a hard sell to the English pyramid sides.

The Welsh Government will need to be careful they don't pry too far into the internal workings of the FAW while trying to create "community hubs", as FIFA and UEFA take a dim view on "political interference". Cooperation is the best way forward, even if you would like the Welsh Government (or Assembly) to wring necks sometimes.

8 comments:

  1. By political interference they mean like Bosnia forcing their FA to let different religions have a go at running their game. Or like Poland when they disbanded their FA.

    Not all clubs are against summer football, S4C is the main problem. Their short termism is hindering the league.

    Summer football would give bored fans of the exiles something to do in the summer. And if Ireland is anything to go by it could go a long way to improving the European coefficient.

    Speaking of Europe, UEFA has already ruled the exiles cannot compete for a Welsh slot in Europe.

    Wrexham and Newport came back into the Welsh cup last year but they had to play the cup games the same day as their league games. Their opponents weren't willing to switch the dates, you can't blame them for that. So they fielded reserve teams. All because the FAW didn't have the sense to see that coming.

    They need to switch to a summer league and hope that this leads to an increased coefficient which could be enough to entice the two smaller of the 6 exiled clubs into the pyramid. It'd be a start anyway.

    I made this graph back in May to compare us and Ireland. The coefficient is based on around 5 years of data so it's interesting to see the Irish coefficient improve as the cut off date approaches.

    Increased coefficients mean more slots in the competitions which means more money.

    ReplyDelete
  2. Thanks for the comment, WnB.

    Summer football does sound, on the surface of it, to be a bit of a gimmick, but as I said, I think it's one way forward. I think clubs reject it because the FAW support it. There doesn't appear to be a good relationship between FAW and clubs. I don't really blame them (clubs), to be honest.

    I don't think summer football in itself would improve the WPL, or put that many bums on seats either. It's, as you said, more about UEFA coefficients.

    I think UEFA might be pursuaded to let exiles compete in Europe, but only if they gave up one of the English competitions like the League or FA Cup. I don't think there's a chance in hell of that happening, which is a real shame. Cardiff and Swansea (or perhaps Newport and Wrexham) should be able to get to the group stages of the Europa League - perhaps further - which would boost Welsh coefficients even more, and get more UEFA slots for the WPL itself in the long term.

    It's probably wishful thinking though on my part.

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  3. I like the idea of community hubs. What about expanding rugby's 'regional' concept to football and other sports? Teams could be based on the current local authorities.

    Northern Conference: Anglesey, Gwynedd, Conwy, Denbighshire, Flintshire, Wrexham.

    Central & Western: Ceredigion, Powys, Carmarthenshire, Pembrokeshire, Swansea, NPT.

    Southern: Bridgend, RCT, Merthyr, Cardiff, Vale of Glamorgan.

    Eastern: Caerphilly, Blaenau Gwent, Torfaen, Newport, Monmouthshire

    Probably goes against UEFA/FIFA rules but I don't see why we can't apply this to say basketball or handball.

    ReplyDelete
  4. Absolutely Anon, I was thinking along similar lines. I'll probably come back to it in more detail another time.

    I don't think it would be against UEFA rules, as long as the way European place are decides is fair. I think it would be perfect to "minority" sports liek basketball and handball, as you said.

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  5. There was a period when BBC Wales put significant resources into coverage. The Premier Cup did a good job of raising the profile of the league, even though it wasn't taken that seriously.

    I don't think this had any effect on ground attendances (looking at the historical figures) though.

    For now the pleasure I get from following the Welsh Premier is that it's a niche. It's so real and so grassroots that it hurts! There's no way that can be a viable product in the modern marketplace.

    Instead, a non-profit style approach of community hubs would be a good way forward. I'd like to see grassroots sport being a responsibility of local authorities. This would see more regular and stable investment in Welsh Premier clubs than private ownership, and risks would be mitigated. There would also be much more potential for education and schools involvement in clubs. The only catch would be that we would have to keep the existing club identities in some way. Creating new 'local authority' clubs would seem faceless and would lose that local town loyalty that you get from supporting Port Talbot, or Carmarthen Town etc.

    One way of looking at this would be to create an additional funding stream through council tax that directly supports the continuation of Welsh football. Sounds crazy, perhaps, but would entail recognition that Welsh football is part of public services, not a private business. Remember, many forms of culture are (rightly) regarded as public service in Wales and supported through taxpayers' money. Even with current pitiful attendances, Welsh football is being patronised by a between one and two thousand people in Wales on an average weekend. Any other form of culture that could bring in those numbers regularly, that needed financial support, would probably get it.

    A 'community hub model' sounds great but needs finance.

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  6. I like the idea of a not-for-profit approach. Effectively, the likes of FC Barcelona are co-operatives. So if Wales did go down the atheltic club route, then that could be one way of ironing out the differences between a "club" and a "franchise". If local communities "owned" the club - or several clubs under the same umbrella - then they might be more attached, unlike the rugby regions for example.

    If there were local authority "atheltic clubs", then I'd see them as what the Americans and Canadians would call "farm teams" - a bridge between the professional game (English pyramid sides) and the amateur game (Huw Gray Alliance and McWhirter League sides). Local clubs would feed into the local authority-based sides, who would - hopefully - produce players good enough to go professional, raising money via transfers.

    Local authorities already play a role (sort of) in maintaining community facilities. I don't think I'd be a fan, personally, of taxes going towards sports clubs directly. If there were to be some sort of funding then it would be better coming centrally via the Welsh Government and Sports Wales, so no club gets disadvantaged. i.e. Cardiff Council might put £20k into a club, while a Blaenau Gwent based club might only get £2k.

    Maybe the WPL needs to move to a collective bargaining model to try and get even splits of sponsorship money for example.

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  7. Thanks Owen and although I say 'not-for-profit' that doesn't mean community clubs wouldn't bother with marketing, promotion, merchandising etc. They would still set out to make money. But I would like to see the 'product' socialised because I don't see how you can run viable football clubs at the grassroots level as businesses.

    Under the athletic route you've suggested, you could have Neath FC and the Neath rugby team belonging to the same 'franchise'. They wouldn't have to have the same badge or name like Barcelona's various teams do. They could just opt in to the Neath Port Talbot Community Franchise (or whatever you want to call it).

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  8. Thanks, Anon. Don't worry, I knew what you meant. I agree that grassroots football needs a better business model. Unfortunately, European football in particular is set up to be a "dog eat dog" business. You could call it a meritocracy, or you could say it leaves smaller clubs go to the wall for no reason other than having poor seasons.

    On the franchise, I pretty much agree. All they'd need is some way of identifying that they are under the same "umbrella" - presumably kit colours/patterns. The goal of an athletic club/franchise should be to provide joint training facilities, marketing, youth development/coaching etc. but the clubs should be autonomous. "Opt in" as you suggest, but it would have to be worth their while.

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