As Football Federation Australia’s listening tour travels around the country for the National Plan for the Whole of Football, hopefully the administrators and their consultants pay a visit to Sydney’s north shore. It is here where Northern Suburbs Football Association (NSFA) is quietly working hard behind the scenes to increase the quantity and quality of its football pitches.

The equation is simple: no football pitches equals no football. Without an increase in the number and utility of football pitches the game will struggle to grow. It is something that NSFA’s Chief Executive Officer, Duncan Tweed, is all too familiar with. He also understands that facilities strategy is not about having coffee with the local bureaucrats. It’s about conducting surveys, audits, developing a plan and politicking. There’s a lot of effort that goes into trying to make the lights at the local field a little bit brighter so the kids can see the ball at training.

“Basically, every council has a different policy. Every council has a different structure,” explains Tweed, who has been in the role since June last year. NSFA boundaries fall under five different local councils: Lane Cove, Ku-ring-gai, Hornsby, Willoughby and North Sydney. “By way of example, Hornsby Council, I can go to one officer with every question. At Ku-ring-gai [Council] there’s probably five people and it’s siloed (sic). So they don’t talk much to each other. One of our biggest wins has been in creating the right forum at Ku-ring-gai Council to discuss these facilities issues.”

NSFA is a microcosm of how football tries to procure additional fields and maintain or upgrade existing ones. This association may operate in one of the more affluent areas of Sydney, but its challenges are not unique. Land is at a premium and government finances are finite. Multiply the issues NSFA face across all of the associations and zones, and you begin to understand the monumental challenge that FFA and the state federations are confronted with.

“They [the councils] all have different policies,” says Tweed. “Some of them completely random. I’m not saying random in a bad way; just no one else considers it. Willoughby [Council] won’t let males play on Sundays. So you can’t play men’s football. That’s a political decision, because they want to prioritise female sport. That’s commendable, but obviously it makes scheduling very difficult when there aren’t enough pitches to play all of the men’s matches on Saturday afternoons.”

Rather than complain, NSFA has been proactive in tackling the issue head on. This led to the development of the Strategic Facilities Plan 2014-2016. The precursor to this plan was a survey conducted with members (1,687 respondents) and discussions held with the committees of all of the 34 member clubs. The members said the number one issue was “condition of the fields and associated facilities”, while the clubs expressed their “concerns about availability of fields for club training, the lack of sufficient grounds for each club to have a ‘home ground’, the quality of existing pitches and the need for more synthetic pitches throughout the association”. Put simply, they need better fields and more of them. “Now we are in a position to make a fact based decisions, rather than speculating about what our priorities should be,” said Tweed.

NSFA has 15,868 registered players who share 174 playing fields. This is 91 players per field. Whilst this figure is considerably less than the national average of 140 players per pitch, quoted in FFA’s National Facilities Audit, there is no simple formula in determining what is the right number of pitches are required to meet demand. NSFA does not have enough grounds to service the traditional football slot, or “peak window”, of Saturday afternoons between 1:00pm to 5:00pm. In the 2013 winter season, the association required fields for 117 games with only space for 108 available during this window.

“Our capacity issues are two. One, men playing on Saturday afternoons. Two, mid-week training for all age groups,” explains Tweed. “Now we’re looking at a few things around how we alleviate some of these stresses during the week.”

One possibility that has been raised is to potentially shift entire divisions out of the peak window or shortening the duration of games, but there is resistance from male adults who are used to playing on Saturday afternoons. As mentioned, there is also the issue of playing games within Willoughby Council on Sundays.

Plans to play matches on Friday and Saturday nights have also faced a stumbling block with only eight fields currently having the required lux rating for night time amateur games. Lighting is also a major issue in the utilisation of fields and the quality of the training sessions. Some grounds have no lighting at all, so the fields can’t be used during winter nights. NSFA has considered imposing a levy on all players for funding lighting, as has been successfully implemented at Manly Warringah Football Association, however this has to be balanced against a desire to keep the game as affordable as possible.

Whilst local councils provide the fields, the onus is on the clubs to maintain them. The primary cause for field degradation is overuse, as well as the weather. Some councils have taken the drastic step of placing restraints on the number of hours a field is able to be used for.

According to horticultural experts, the accepted hours of use per field is 22 to 25 hours a week. Ku-ring-gai Council allows a maximum of 30 hours per week per field, which can be reduced to 25 hours if the pitch requires any maintenance and new turf. North Sydney Council enforces 32 hours per pitch and requires clubs to log every hour the pitches are used. These limitations are not only restricted to NSFA, but for anyone using these fields: local schools, other sporting clubs, private sport operators, etc.

Councils have also “verbally advised NSFA that in light of the shortage of facilities, their aim is to be equitable to the community by supplying one (1) hour per week per team – whether adult or junior, male or female”. This is where the facilities issue impacts on the National Football Curriculum (NFC). For example, for the Skills Acquisition Phase (U10s – U13s), the recommendation is for two to three training sessions per week at duration of 60-75 minutes each. It is difficult to meet the objectives of the NFC if the councils will not allow football clubs to have the required access to fields to train on. Even if there are no restrictions, a shortage of fields to meet demand or inadequate lighting to conduct training sessions already impedes on executing the National Technical Director’s plans.

Football is not only in competition with other sports for council funds, it is also up against all the other council programs, and it is the elected councilors who determine how the expenditure should be allocated. According to Tweed, these decisions have historically have been made both for political and subjective reasons.

“Different councils have different political motives. You’ll have councils who are worried about being amalgamated. So as soon as they get the money they spend it,” says Tweed. “Then you’ll have other councils who throw their hands up and say ‘we’ve got no money. What do you want us to do?’ And of course historically there have been councils who have prioritised other sports over football.”

NSFA is developing working groups to have regular contact with both the councillors and staff for each of the five councils it deals with, but trying to extract money from state and federal government is extremely difficult for an association that resides in safe Liberal territory. “There’s no leverage to get anything out of state and federal government for really big dollars,” says Tweed. Funds can be accessed from the NSW State Government in two main ways. One is through the NSW Office of Communities: Sports and Recreation for grants up to $25,000; the other is through the local state member who has $200,000 to spend on local area projects at their discretion.

Asked if Football NSW needed to increase its lobbying to the state government, Tweed answered. “Definitely. The Association should be dealing with local issues and the state body should be dealing with state issues. Football NSW has recently appointed a full time Facilities Development Manager, so hopefully that will be a big step forward in this area.”

The concern for Football NSW is that player growth trends in the next 40 years are estimated to be far higher in metropolitan Sydney than the remainder of NSW. This is a major problem in NSFA’s boundaries, as land is more difficult to procure than in most parts of the state due to population density and land prices.

The Association is doing its part by working on a more flexible competition schedule. It has access to some school grounds in the area, although this has not always been of benefit to the association.

“We would like it to be better. Anything we can do to get access to grounds is a good thing,” says Tweed. “But look at some of the facilities now. At Chatswood High School, our competitions manager basically had to draw a line under it for the second half of the season because overuse has left no grass on it. Just dust and dangerous.

“Private schools have no reason to let you on [the fields]. They have money and they have no interest in promoting community football. State schools can do with the extra income from renting fields however those surfaces are already stressed, they just get trashed. The kids are on them every school day.”

The other step is to increase the utilisation of pitches by working on capital expenditure projects to upgrade the lighting and improve the surfaces. There are currently ten major projects within NSFA that are planned to be completed by 2020. The Association is dedicated to allocating more funds for these capital projects in partnership with the respective member clubs and local government. But capital projects are not cheap: new lighting costs between $130,000 to $150,000, drainage and irrigation upgrades cost $70,000 to $90,000 respectively, and a synthetic pitch is between $900,000 to $1,100,000 for one playing field excluding fencing and lighting. All of these costs can increase depending on the profile of the land being built upon (many local fields are built over old rubbish tips). NSFA will either match or partially match the funding raised by clubs. Encouraging local clubs to be proactive in this area is a large part of the challenge.

Faced with such enormous costs, NSFA has been reducing its cost of operations in an effort to free up much-needed funds. One area in which it has made significant cost savings is through its National Premier Leagues teams. Less money is being spent on the elite program to fund the requirements of the much larger grassroots program. The top end of the pyramid is only as strong as its base, and it is an investment that aims to produce long-term dividends.

Around Sydney, there has been a movement towards converting fields to synthetic turf. Synthetic pitches have many advantages, primarily being that games are almost never washed out. Whilst the surface is a lot more expensive to lay that natural grass, it provides greater value in the long run. Statistics provided in the Football NSW Strategic Facilities Plan:

It is estimated that over a 10 year life span artificial turf may cost 33% more than natural turf, but is 56% more cost efficient due to its utilisation capacity. This can be improved over a longer life span of 25 years where it is estimated to cost 18% more, but is 61% more efficient. 

Synthetic Pitches copy

Source: NSFA’s Strategic Facilities Plan

NSFA states that it will provide any “financial assistance to any other council driven project which results in the development of a full sized synthetic pitch”. The Association sees the return on this type of investment.

The usual chest beating that football deserves more fields because it is the largest team sport is a strategy of little use, and one that borders on negligent. NSFA’s alternative approach is one worth learning from and implementing elsewhere. We need to understand the current situation by conducting a full audit on the number and quality of facilities. We need to prioritise the important projects and be proactive in raising funds. We need to work on improving the scheduling of matches and training sessions. We need to understand the political process if we are ever to extract the funds the game deserves. Football needs to get smart.

Click here to read NSFA’s Strategic Facilities Plan 2014-2016.