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Economy of scale

It’s football, but not as we knew it. Andy Stevens assesses the rise of the five-a-side game as a serious – and profitable – business

Every month, more than 30,000 football enthusiasts descend on Derby’s Pride Park. But these aren’t fans going to watch a match at the stadium, they’re five-a-side footballers who are playing at the adjacent JJB Soccer Dome. The facility, which houses eight indoor and three outdoor pitches, is just one of many five-a-side venues that has opened during the past 20 years as the popularity of the sport increases.

Oliver Selfe is general manager of the Soccer Dome and he believes that changing lifestyles are the reason why many players prefer the smaller format to the traditional 11-a-side game: “Five a-side football is rapidly becoming the most popular sporting activity in the country because it’s fast, quick and doesn’t take up your whole day. There is no aggravation to it and anybody can organise a five-a-side team.”

The FA’s research backs up this theory, with most players who play either format of football claiming that five-a-side is more suited to today’s lifestyles. Some 70 per cent of footballers believe that it’s more difficult to get an 11-a-side team together, a factor Selfe believes five-a-side operators have capitalised on: “It’s easier to register and less hassle. Everything is done for you. All you have to do it simply turn up, throw your money on the table and play.”

There are now estimated to be some 2.7 million five-a-side footballers in England, which is more than the 2.4 million who play the 22-man game. This trend has caused concern for some County FA officials, who have dismissed the smaller format as “fast food football” and an “epidemic”, but this is not a view shared by James Hope-Gill, chief executive of Sheffield and Hallamshire FA, who explains: “We have become involved in the organisation of small-sided football because the way people play football is changing dramatically. As an organisation within the football industry we are adapting to the needs and expectations of the footballing customer.”

Sheffield and Hallamshire FA have even developed their own network of SoccerScene leagues and, along with the JJB Soccer Dome in Derby, were one of the first recipients of the FA’s Small-Sided Football Award. The scheme was created in response to increasing numbers of complaints from players about centres and leagues that are blighted by inconsistent rules, unqualified referees and poor – and sometimes non-existent – standards of discipline. This has meant that those playing in unaffiliated matches have sometimes found themselves lining up against opponents banned from playing 11-a-side football because of violent conduct.

Next year, the FA are seeking to revive a national five-a-side tournament, the FA Umbro Fives, but getting the co-operation of some companies behind five-a-side centres is proving difficult as the sport has become a very lucrative, and therefore very competitive, industry.

Specialist providers such as Goals Soccer Centres, Powerleague and Soccercity are now public companies listed on the Alternative Investment Market. Powerleague, which is the largest chain of five-a-side centres in the UK with 32 venues, recorded sales of more than £20 million in the financial year ending July 2006, from which the company earned a profit of almost £5m. This compares favourably with the average Coca-Cola Championship club which, according to Deloitte, generated less than £13m in revenue during the 2005-06 season, and posted an annual loss of £2m.

It is therefore perhaps unsurprising that people such as Wigan chairman Dave Whelan, who owns the JJB chain, and Richard Keys, who is fronting a new start-up venture, are seeking to develop their business interests in five-a-side football. However, finding suitable locations for new centres presents a considerable barrier to their expansion plans. The large operators require at least ten pitches for a centre to be viable and, with the requirement for a pavilion and sufficient car parking spaces, a site of more than two acres is often required and such plots are becoming increasingly scarce.

The location must also be convenient for participants, many of whom play on a weekday evening on their way home from work, but securing the necessary planning and licensing agreements from local authorities is becoming more difficult as objections from local residents about floodlights and noise have to be considered.

Still, with the smaller format proving more popular with children, the traditional 11-a-side game has an unexpected competitor.

From WSC 239 January 2007. What was happening this month

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