Football’s largest state is making up for years of wrong doing. Football NSW has put together a plan to address the shortage of pitches and the poor quality of facilities under its jurisdiction.

The first step was writing the Facilities Strategic Plan 2014-2024, which was completed in November last year. The second step was to recruit a Facilities Development Manager mid way through this year to execute the plan’s objectives. Now Football NSW is going through the process of collecting a survey on the state of facilities from all of 16 metropolitan associations and 3 regional branches.

“It’s incredibly important for us to know what each association is doing, what each club’s plans are so that we can lobby with state and federal government and be effectively one body,” said Football NSW’s Facilities Development Manager Ricardo Piccioni. “We need to make sure each association and each club is on board with that so that we have a coordinated approach.”

With 45% of Australian footballers playing for one of Football NSW 663 clubs, if the federation can execute its plans to increase the number and improve the quality of football facilities under its jurisdiction, it will make a significant impact on the sport. It will not only improve the football experience, but also help to increase the number of participants, allowing the code to maintain its dominance as the sport of choice.

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“The overriding goal for me being in this role is to improve the football experience for our members and facilities is the most important,” said Piccioni. “We desperately need a coordinated approach to our facilities planning to plan for the future.”

To understand the scale of the project Football NSW is currently undertaking, there are over 700 sites that include 1,650 individual grounds. Football NSW Facilities Strategic Plan outlines challenges in sourcing funding for capital works:

The economics of football are such that the options to source funding are limited, where a significant source of funds for capital works comes from Government grants and sponsorship. However, the remainder must be sourced from the large number of players and participants in a practical and sustainable way.

As mentioned in Strategies for Grassroots: Northern Suburbs Football Association, football facilities strategy is ‘about conducting surveys, audits, developing a plan and politicking’. It’s a large project at association level alone. Multiply that across Football NSW and that challenge is monumental: 111 councils, 76 state electorates and 40 Commonwealth electorates.

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“Engagement with state, federal and local government is a big part of my role,” said Piccioni. “At the moment I’m focusing on the state [government]. I’m very, very heavily involved in that at the moment. As you would know, there’s a state election on March 28th next year.”

Leopold Method examined the lack of collective lobbying effort by football during the last federal election. It was a series of single shot campaigns across the country, and as a collective football did not gain much improvement on the current state of facilities. The Labor government made most of the pledges to football in an effort to stave off an inevitable defeat, with a lot of these projects being cancelled by the current Liberal government. Football got found out, particularly at FFA and state federation level. Football NSW is now ensuring that won’t happen again.

“The election cycle is such that now is a critical time for football to get in front of many ministers as possible and put our case for increasing facilities in from of them,” said Piccioni. “Just over five months out from an election, is now when they’re going to be spending their dollars. The state government is planning on selling the poles and wires if they get re-elected next year and they are putting in $500 million into a sports and cultural fund. My job is to get as much of that dollars as possible for football.

“There’s a big project they are undertaking at the moment which the Future Needs of Sports, which we’re fully engaged with to help them learn about the facilities needs across the state, to help them plan for the future, for the next 5, 10, 25 years.”

Football NSW’s facilitates football for an area of 6.1 million people. It is estimated that this population will increase to 8.8 million by 2056. To maintain the current ratio of football pitches per head, the sport will need an additional 246 new pitches by 2026 (or 19 new pitches per year) or 607 new pitches by 2056 (or 14 new pitches per year). The problem is that land is at a premium and government finances are finite.

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“We as football working with councils are going to have to be very clever that we keep up with, not only the current rates of participation, but football is growing,” said Piccioni. “Participation rates in football are going up. So not do we have to keep up with current rates of population growth, we’ve got to increase the number of fields for the players who increasingly moving to football.”

Add to this the following problems with existing facilities: 38% of existing grounds have drainage issues, 34% of football facilities have no irrigation, 35% of pitches have no lights and for many that do these lights are not even adequate, 34% of existing football grounds do not have change rooms; of grounds that do have change rooms 17% are considered inadequate; and 43% of existing football grounds do not have unisex or women’s change room facilities.

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“It’s adding a storey to a clubhouse in the inner west [of Sydney], it could be adding toilets to a facility that might not even have toilets or a changing room,” said Piccioni. “You wouldn’t believe it that some facilities are so poor that they don’t even have basic amenities. That could be a $50,000 or $100,000 project.”

The problem has been that the lack of investment in maintenance in many facilities means that the cost of replacement is expensive. Piccioni’s role is to develop tools and guidelines for clubs and associations. This is to simplify the design and development application process to help reduce these cost pressures and to develop an appropriate business case model to be more successful in obtaining government funds.

“A grants guide, that’s an important one. What’s in the guide, what language do you use. That’s all part of the toolkit to help clubs and associations with their facilities,” said Picconi. “Just this morning I receive a grant application for a local club from the Highlands Football Association, down near Bowral. One of the local clubs down there wants to put an application in for a new fence to stop the balls going into the creek. I saw this application, I’ve connected with the club, and gave them some suggestions on their grant application. It’s hands on help, really in a practical sense, that’s going to get people across the line.

“I can’t do that for all 650 clubs. In a broader sense, it’s me providing information to associations and clubs so that they can go and use. For example, at the moment, I’ve just commissioned a first of a series of facilities guides that will be made available to everybody. First is on synthetic surfaces, which I’m gathering the guru of synthetics, Martin Shepherd. I’ve also commissioned a guy to write one on grass field maintenance. So including when to cut, when to fertilise, drainage and that sort of thing.”

With so many projects across the state, with each facility issue being unique, Football NSW tries to prioritise projects based on increasing the number of and improving the utility of existing fields. Improving the playing surface by installing appropriate drainage and irrigation, as well as installing synthetic pitches, are ways to increase the utilisation of playing surfaces.

“It’s a difficult one. We try not to prioritise one over the other. We want to try to develop facilities at all levels. It’s just very much a case-by-case basis. You might have an elite club and an association club next door to each other and both have desperate needs. Which can your prioritise? No one is right or wrong, it’s just a question of a case-by-case basis and just coming out with the best result for football,” said Picconi.

“The first port of call is the association. Sitting down with each heads and saying ‘right, what are the areas of big need? What are the immediate short-term goals? What are the projects that are desperately need now? What can we put into 1 year, 3 year, 5 year, 20 year plan.’”

The problem with a lot of plans is that there is a lack of key performance indicators (KPIs) and therefore no accountability. Piccioni admits that Football NSW does not have a set of KPIs to achieve, but they are focused on improving the numbers from their current position, as well as plan for future growth. Picconi pulls out a document and begins to list what Football NSW has requested from the state government.

“We put a document to the government in terms of what we need: 50 facilities upgrade projects in the next 12 months, 8 new synthetic surfaces, 25 alternate use projects and 5 to 6 major projects. These are goals that we have. We want to get as much investment as we possibly can.”