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Synthetic pitches in Scottish football

Artificial turf

Author – Matthew Sheridan

Disclaimer: For the purposes of ensuring anonymity, either requested or otherwise, clubs that were engaged with during the research period have had their names withdrawn and renamed as ‘Club A’, ‘Club B’ etc. 

 

The topic of synthetic turf has provoked much discussion within football circles in recent years. Season 2014/15 saw the use of synthetic pitches the top tier of Scottish football for the first time since 2005. Clubs such as Alloa, Airdrionians and Forfar having been using them in the lower leagues for several years now. Even in England a vote in November 2014 for their use in League 1 and League 2 was tied 34 votes for, 34 votes against with 4 abstentions. Although there has been research into the potential injury implications, there has been little research done on the social or financial benefits of installing a 3g pitch.

Artificial turf was first trialled in English football in the 1980s. However these trials proved unsuccessful and the use of synthetic pitches was banned in England in 1995. In Scotland the first team to install a synthetic pitch was Stirling Albion, who played on one between 1987-1992 (SPFL, 2014). The next team to subsequently install one was Dunfermline Athletic in 2003, who at the time were playing in the Scottish Premier League – now Scottish Premiership.  However in 2005, following a vote by the rest of the league, Dunfermline were made to remove their pitch and go back to playing on a natural grass surface following complaints from players and fears over an increased injury risk (Tait, 2013).

Since then there has been an increase both in the quality of synthetic pitch and the number of teams that have adopted them in Scotland. Hamilton Academical installed a synthetic surface in 2004 (BBC, 2008). Stenhousemuir followed in season 2006/07, with Alloa Athletic installing one the season after (Stenhousemuir, 2011; Tait, 2013). It should be noted that at the time all these teams were playing in either the Championship or below. Season 2014/15 saw artificial pitches return to the Premiership for the first time since Dunfermline in 2004/05. With the promotion of Hamilton Academical from the Championship and the decision by established Premiership team Kilmarnocak to install a synthetic surface there are now two Premiership teams using them and 12 teams out of the total 42 professional football league clubs (SPFL, 2014):

Table 1 – List of Scottish clubs with synthetic pitches

Scottish Premiership
Hamilton Accies – New Douglas Park
Kilmarnock – Rugby Park
Scottish Championship
Alloa Athletic – Recreation Park
Falkirk – Falkirk Stadium
Queen of the South – Palmerston
Scottish League 1
Airdrieonians – Excelsior Stadium
Forfar Athletic – Station Park
Stenhousemuir – Ochilview
Scottish League 2
Annan Athletic – Galabank
Clyde – Broadwood
East Stirlingshire – Ochilview
Montrose – Links Park

 

Note: Stenhousemuir and East Stirling both play their home matches at the same venue – Ochilview

There are now 29% of Scottish clubs playing with synthetic surfaces installed at their home venue, despite the synthetic pitches still not being fully accepted in some quarters of Scottish football.  It is accepted that a synthetic surface can accommodate a much greater volume of users when compared to natural grass. However outwith this, there has been little research on the benefits installing such a surface can bring. Further research is needed on the motivations and benefits of Scottish clubs installing a synthetic surface

Financial

It is important to evaluate the financial benefits of synthetic turf given the financial situation within Scottish football. Financially the Scottish Football League has faced difficulties in recent years with several clubs going into administration and even liquidation, the most high profile of these being Heart of Midlothian and Rangers respectively. Many clubs is Scotland are having to cut costs with many having had many years operating with costs greater than their income (Morrow, 2006). It is not uncommon for clubs in Scotland’s top tier to make a loss for the financial year (Cooper & Joyce, 2013).

Scottish football does not generate the levels of income through television rights that the English Premier League can (Cooper & Joyce, 2013). Due to the limited revenue available from television, match attendance makes up a greater percentage of the revenues for Scottish football (Morrow, 2013). The level of attendance is therefore important for clubs to continue to be economically viable. However Allan and Roy (2008) found that increased television coverage of matches can lead to reduced attendances at games. This can be a particular issue with the increase of foreign football leagues available to view on TV (Solberg & Mehus, 2014). Given the increase of football now shown on television and the reliance of Scottish clubs on gate receipts, this could potentially be a major issue for Scottish clubs, who may have to look into other sources of revenue.

Clubs can also incur extra costs and decreased attendances if games are postponed during the winter (Cairns, 1984). Many postponed matches are rearranged to a midweek night where attendances are lower on average when compared to a weekend match at 3pm. This is particularly relevant in Scottish football given the inclement weather faced during Scottish winters, and the importance of fan attendance to club finances.

Due to the often precarious financial position of Scottish clubs, they are having to focus on youth, cut costs and explore other revenue streams (PWC, 2012).

Community

Synthetic turf could also be beneficial for the provision of community programmes. There have been several studies that have highlighted the importance of stadia and the club brand when delivering community programmes. Stadia based activity is recommended when providing community programmes as it allows the programme to more effectively make use of the clubs brand to achieve social goals (Curran, Bingham, Richardson & Parnell, 2014; White et al., 2012). Football stadiums are becoming more important as a community resource and are a good location for community programmes due to their local and familiar setting for local participants (Pringle et al., 2014; Sanders et al., 2014). However a study by McGuire (2008) found that the growth of football in the community schemes had begun to outstrip its resources.

More research is require to see if clubs who have artificial turf installed in their stadium are better placed to provide community programmes. This is due it its ability to sustain many more hours of use without deterioration in the playing quality, therefore allowing more community programmes to be based there. This study proposes to explore the motivations and benefits of Scottish football clubs installing a synthetic pitch within their stadium.

 

Methods

The study was conducted with representatives of 5 Scottish football clubs who had been identified as having an artificial pitch installed within their stadium, a representative from the Scottish Football Association and a representative from Sport Scotland. The clubs involved had artificial turf installed in their stadiums for an average of 4.8 years (SD=2.7).

Clubs were operating at various tiers of professional football in Scotland. Club H currently competes in the Premiership, Club F and Club A compete in the championship, Club S competes in league 1, whilst Club P compete in the Lowland League. Club H and Club F were clubs where players were employed full-time. All other clubs were part-time.

Representatives from the clubs included chairmen from Club A, Club H and Club S and Club P. At Club F a director was interviewed instead. The director had overseen the installation of the pitch from start to finish and had been heavily involved as part of the board for a number of years. Chairmen and directors were identified as the best people to interview, as they would have a sound understanding of the process the club went through to acquire the pitch and the motivations for doing so.

Interviews were also conducted with Cameron Watt, the Scottish Football Association facilities. All participants were contacted by email and participated in the study on a voluntary basis. To ensure anonymity, a coding system was adopted to attribute quotes to the clubs.

Since the clubs interviewed were operating at varying levels within Scottish football, interviews allowed the clubs to fully explain their own circumstances. The interviews covered topics surrounding the motivation for installing a synthetic surface within their stadium, the impact this has had on their relationship with the local community and the financial implications of converting to a synthetic surface.

 

Results/Discussion

Community

When considering the community benefit there are three different groups that can be considered. Firstly, the local community that live nearby but may have no official affiliation with the clubs. Secondly, the community users who may participate in a variety of community programmes provided by the clubs. Finally, the club community – players who represent the clubs at any level. They could be part of the club’s women, youth, amateur or professional teams. At smaller clubs this tends to incorporate predominantly people from the local area

For all of the clubs, installing a synthetic surface was crucial to their interaction with the local community and community users. Even for those clubs who were not open to private lets, they were able to offer their facility for a local youth community programme, their own club youth development programme and for special events such as cup finals for local teams.

So putting down the surface was the conduit to us getting a lot of the people who wanted to come to the stadium, so that would include all the local boys clubs… … our after schools programme, which you’ve seen before…. the community coaching part. And all of that meant that we became the hub of our community – Club H

The majority of pitches were very heavily used, with user groups often on the pitch from morning or early afternoon all the way through until night time.

An example timetable of pitch usage from Club P is as follows:

 

Table 2 – Club P normal weekly pitch usage

 

Weekday
10am-12 noon – Elite Academy
12 noon – 4pm – Unis, schools (football & rugby) other occasional users,
4pm – 5pm – Street Football (Community programme)
5.30pm – 10pm – Clubs Academy (Youth, adult, men & women) Friday night games (Local amateur cup finals etc…)

 

Weekend
9am – 12 noon – Kids community programmes
12 noon – 6pm – Matches from various teams

 

The big difference we were saying… the stadiums been here for 10 years… and I drove passed it at night and it was in darkness. The last 2 years its looked alive and we see the lights shining, and people go oh there’s something on at the stadium. Look out at the car park and see all the cars parked out there. Parents bringing their kids down and young guys hiring the pitch. A third of the pitch just to play on the surface. The place is alive at night, which is fantastic when the stadium is being used. And we get people up off their butts and out and doing it, which is good. Club F

The clubs studied found that the synthetic turf allowed them to create a much greater sense of community towards the club. With the creation of the community programmes and the club being a hub for community sports, the clubs felt the community started to have an increased affinity for the club. Clubs gave anecdotal evidence that this translated into an increase in younger fans where previously they may have supported one of the bigger teams such as Celtic and Rangers.

From the point of view of community involvement it is beyond words better…the access of the community to the facility and to your young players and to your whole club, to male it feel a sense of we are A or we are H or we are F, it’s immeasurable…It’s allowed us to go from a situation where the average 5 year old, 6 year old in A wore a Rangers or a Celtic or a Man Utd or a Hibs top. To the average kid now wears a Club A top – Club A.

This is consistent with previous research that found that clubs were an effective way to deliver community programmes, whilst football stadiums were becoming more important as a community resource (Rutherford et al., 2014; Sanders et al.., 2014). Installing artificial turf would appear to make the stadium even more important as a community resource given the large increase in volume of people who can use the pitch. This means the club has the resources for even greater provision of community programmes.

The clubs were able provide programmes for a diverse range of people. Clubs had programmes to encourage weight-loss, after school programmes for children, as well as programmes to help integration of local immigrants.

On the stadium pitch, there’s a problem, in terms of educating the Polish community here… not cause there’s any trouble or any nonsense it’s just, the kids can’t join the clubs one at a time because they’ve nobody to speak to because they can’t speak English and so there’s this thing in … called the goal academy which we host, which is basically a Polish youth club. We host that on a Friday night – Club P

Football clubs are well positioned to affect number of hard to reach groups (Pringle et al., 2014). The continual use of the pitch for local community football was not the only benefit. For some of the clubs the use of the pitch for football was the catalyst for attracting other sports and non-sporting community activities to the stadium, even if they didn’t specifically use the pitch for football. Rugby is a good example as a sport that could take place as a dual use surface. Not only are the pitch specifications similar, there specifications of synthetic turf required for both sports are also closely matched. Some clubs even rented their stadiums out for concerts during the off-season. They were more comfortable doing this as synthetic turf was much less likely to get damaged, whilst logistically it could be back ready for football in around 48 hours.

Naw (sic) there’s other things that don’t happen on the pitch. That community programme’s led to us also having dance, there’s tae kwon do goes on, there’s judo goes on, there’s… you know we’re the regional gymnastics centre now. All of that was driven by the community football programme. So there are all these other sports now that are driven by the community football programme. But the community football programme is the one that uses the pitches. Obviously. The other ones use the other buildings that we’ve since sorted out around about the stadium. So it’s all stadium related use. But it was driven by the football – Club A

The new opportunities created by the synthetic surface are consistent with studies by Holt and Shailer (2003). They argued that stadiums that were originally of use just once every two weeks, are now seen as multi-purpose facilities and catalysts for urban regeneration. Newer stadiums are created with the infrastructure to cater for more than just its primary use (Kitchin, 2012). They are also designed to have the capacity to generate income all year round from a variety of sources (Paramio et al., 2008).  Club S expressed a vision for the area round the stadium to become a true multi-use sports complex.

We’ve got a golf club there, we’ve got cricket club there, we’ve got the football club here. Ideally what would be better over there is a big pavilion, gym, sports hall. Maybe a couple outdoor tennis clubs. You’ve got rugby here, you’ve got football, you know… cricket. Hook in the local bowling. This would be… you know that would be a fantastic thing to do. And, if somebody had the will… maybe it might be feasible in the future  – Club S

The capacity for urban generation would depend on the location of the stadium and also the potential to attract additional investment. Whist a synthetic surface is no guarantee of urban regeneration, it does have the capacity to completely change the way the stadium is viewed. A traditional grass pitch could be used for around 6-8 hours per week. A synthetic surface can be used between 60-80 hours per week. Therefore instead of being used solely for a match every two weeks, the stadium could be used for a wide variety of activities throughout the week. Installing a synthetic surface is a relatively inexpensive way to achieve this compared to building a new stadium. This would enable the stadium to have a more diverse revenue stream, meaning it could generate revenue all year round (Paramio, Buraimo & Campos, 2008).

 

Finance

Revenue

Generally most clubs found that installing the artificial surface was financially beneficial. Clubs were able to generate up to an extra £200,000 per year. This was though savings made of training facilities and additional income generated through using the pitch for commercial activities.

There are also additional financial benefits to having a synthetic surface. Clubs can open a catering facility to generate additional income. For several of the club this could generate up to £400 a day, depending on who was using the facility.

And its not just the revenue on the pitch itself, if you have… the pitch on… your getting people here that will then spend money in the café/bar, buy programmes or they’ll do other stuff, as well, so its what we call secondary spend as well. Its not just a question of the… you know the income itself that the pitch generates. – Club P

Such sums of revenue can be important to clubs, particularly in the current financial climate of Scottish football. It is not uncommon for clubs to make a loss over the financial year, with many of them technically insolvent (Cooper and Joyce, 2013).  Improved financial management has been highlighted as essential within Scottish football (Morrow, 2006). It is also necessary for Scottish football clubs to establish new sources of revenue (PWC, 2012), installing a synthetic pitch may be a way in which to do that.

Having a synthetic pitch makes it less likely that teams training sessions or matches will be postponed due in inclement weather. Since the installation of their pitch 2 years ago Club F has not had a single day of training cancelled. Club A has had the pitch for 7 years and in that period had only 4 matches cancelled. This benefits the club financially since it is much more cost-effective for a team when the match takes place on a Saturday (Cairns, 1984).

All we know is that, with an element of certainty, the game goes ahead on the Saturday. It doesn’t get postponed and you don’t end up playing Celtic on a Tuesday night where you’ve no hospitality and you’ve lost £100,000… Cause that’s the things that are not budgeted for, you know. – Club H

Missing out on the hospitality revenue is not the only financial implication of having matches cancelled at the scheduled time on a Saturday. Cairns (1984) found that clubs incur extra costs and decreased attendances if games are postponed in the winter. Many matches are re-arranged as a mid-week fixture where attendances are lower on average. This presents an issue for Scottish clubs in particular since match attendances make up a greater proportion of revenue for Scottish clubs compared to other countries (Morrow, 2013). For a smaller club this could represent a significant loss in income, particularly if the fixture was against a team with a large support.

Costs

The capital expenditure requirement to install the pitch initially is about £500,000. There are two different aspects to this: the initial ground preparation costs – £300,000. The carpet will cost £150,000-200,000 and will have to be replaced every 8-10 years. The initial installation cost incorporates preparation of the ground, laying the foundations and other technical aspects such as installing shock pads. Once installed, these foundations will last for 3 carpet cycles – approximately 30 years.

The annual maintenance costs were less for an artificial pitch compared to a grass pitch. A major reason for this was the club could employ unskilled labour to maintain the pitch, meaning there was no need to employ a skilled groundsman. The rate of pay for a full-time groundsman of a grass pitch is significantly higher compared to one who would maintain an artificial surface. A natural grass surface requires being re-seeded every season, a cost that can be between £20,000 to £30,000. There are also additional costs to be considered. Installing synthetic pitch will result in clubs having an increase in their variable costs. Clubs will have an increased electrical bill having the floodlights on for much longer periods than would be the case on a natural grass surface. There may also be increased costs such as staff and cleaning costs if clubs are also providing changing facilities. The clubs may also have to pay interest on a loan if they financed the pitch through borrowing.

Funding

Clubs funded their pitches in different ways. Some clubs funded the pitch through a ‘soft loan’ from the directors, whilst others got a grant from the local council or from other grant funders such as Sport Scotland. The method clubs adopted to finance their pitches was affected by their ownership structure. Although Club F and Club A would have been eligible for community funding, they considered the 2-year grant application process to be prohibitive. A directors’ loan allowed clubs to install the pitch almost immediately, generating extra income 2 years earlier.

It was probably the only game in town, because our council wouldn’t contribute. So because our council wouldn’t help us with it, we had to do it ourselves… They said they’ve got no money. So… they said they had no money for that kind of investment so we did it ourselves because we thought it was the right thing to do… We just decided that other funding was unrealistic, the time frames they could work to didn’t suit us because they were too slow. So they were too slow and too beauracratic. It would never have happened – Club A

Club A have a private ownership structure and were not eligible for funding. They would have been unable to finance their pitch without a director who was in a position to pay the initial cost of the pitch in the form of a loan. In the instances of Club A, F and H the local council was either unable or unwilling to assist funding the facility.

We were told by various funding bodies that we approached that * local sport facility * had synthetic indoor and * other local sport facility * was in our region and had synthetic pitch outdoors and that they weren’t prepared to put more money into another private organisation, because that’s what we are –Club H

In contrast Club P is listed as a charity and therefore was eligible for external grants. Without a grant their pitch would not have been financially viable. It is interesting to note that although the clubs had differing ownership structures, both structures allowed them to finance the pitch. Club A stated that if they had been set up as a supporter ownership then they would not have had the directors willing to loan the club money. Club P claimed that if they had been structured as a private ownership then they would not have had the charity needed to be eligible for grants, whilst their directors would not have been in a financial position to loan the club the amount of money required.

Clubs that are structured as a Community Interest Company, such as Club S, are well placed to attract social investment from companies such as Social Investment Scotland (Working Group Report, 2015). Some social investment companies will only invest in clubs that are structured in this way. Clubs that are not structured as a social enterprise such as those in private ownership or a company limited by shares are not always eligible for this funding. This is regardless of the clubs potential to deliver social outcomes. Given the unique position of football clubs within the community and their potential to deliver programmes to hard to reach groups, there is perhaps an argument that they should be more widely considered for this type of funding.

Football Reasons

Several clubs spoke about installing a synthetic pitch as a football driven decision. In addition to the extra finance the pitch can generate for football development, there were other football benefits. Excluding extreme weather conditions, first team managers had the certainty that training would take place and could plan accordingly. The community programme   Training and playing at the stadium was beneficial from a youth development perspective, in addition to making scouting easier and more efficient.

For the clubs who had a youth development programme, the installation of the synthetic pitch had several benefits. Clubs were able to have extra training sessions for their youth teams allowing for greater development of the players.

Having the pitch also made it easier to scout local players. Scouts and youth development officers could sit it the stand and watch every age group play a game in one day. Similarly they could invite local boys clubs or other teams to play at the pitch. In addition to building community links, this allowed them to see a large amount of players in the local area. Both save them many man hours travelling to different locations to watch people play.

We’ll have football, boys clubs tournaments where we’ll invite 50/60 clubs in over a weekend and they’ll pay a fee and they’ll come in and we get to look at all their young players, and they get to play in the stadium… In an hour… you see the 3 players in an hour don’t you. As opposed to spending 100 man hours trying to find these boys. – Club H

The clubs found training and playing at the stadium to be an important selling point when trying to attract players into the programme. It was inspiring for the players, however it was also a safe environment where parents could sit and watch training and matches.

We’re also aiming to attract players because of the facility and the stadium environment. Especially at the younger age groups at 7 and 8 and 9s and 10s. You’ve got a chance of bringing them in here it’s a safe environment, closed area. Playing on the pitch where the first team play and the kids respond ot that absolutely, so they recognise that, love coming here and then on a Saturday they can see the first team play there, they say to themselves I played on that same pitch. So its a really good tool to attract players to come… and that’s from kids all the way up. Its because 1: safe environment but quality of the pitch, the stadium all adds to the… experience of coming to play and train here. – Club F

This is beneficial for clubs for two reasons. Firstly they may be able to attract a higher calibre of player as a result of having better facilities, and the chance to play and train in a team’s stadium. Secondly the club will have greater opportunity to offer more training sessions for their youth team. Since financial repayments on the pitch will be a fixed cost regardless of usage, there will not be an increased cost for the club to provide facilities for more training sessions. However they would have to be careful to balance it with community usage and external lets depending on the financial model.

Having a synthetic surface led to a greater sense of community within the club itself. This was thought to have benefits for the youth teams within the club. Players of all ages were based at the one location. Youth players were regularly playing on the same pitch as the first team, and would regularly see players from other age groups all within the one place.  The synthetic pitch allowed the clubs to have provision for a large number of teams, both men’s and women’s, who could all feel part of the one club.

So what we’ve built now is a situation where all of our kids from age 5 upwards in the community up to age 13/14 and all of our kids that are sent so academy professionals from 11 and upwards to u20 all play and train at the stadium…eh… and you’ve got no idea what that feels like on a… winter night in December with the floodlights on, its fantastic. And you’ll maybe see… 300 people on the pitch… and eh… you just have to see that to believe it… If you’re a wee boy getting to run out on a synthetic pitch with floodlights in the middle of the winter, playing in the stadium. Would that be better than running out in a public park?. – Club H

The ability to increase provision for the clubs youth teams has several benefits. It gives younger players a greater opportunity to reach the 10,000 hours deliberate practise required to be become a top class athlete (McLeish, 2010). The importance of developing young players has been highlighted as particularly important given the poor financial situation of Scottish football (PWC, 2012). Developing home grown players has several benefits. Clubs can reduce their wage bill through a reduction in the higher wages associated with more experienced players. In addition a club developing talented players may be able to sell them on a profit, thus increasing a clubs financial sustainability.

 

Conclusion

The installation of a synthetic surface was beneficial to Scottish clubs in three aspects: social, financial and football development. Clubs who had a synthetic surface were able to increase their provision of community programmes, allowing the to reach a greater number of people. The local community also benefited through having access to a high quality facility. The financial impact varied between clubs, with the full-time teams considerably better off financially after installing the synthetic pitch. The clubs were able to use the synthetic pitch to generate an extra source of revenue that would not have been possible previously. There were also benefits it terms of youth development, in both scouting and attracting high quality young players.

Due to the poor financial situation Scottish clubs find themselves in, and that synthetic surfaces are now accepted in the Premiership, it may be a route more full-time clubs decide to take. In their 2012 report PWC highlighted 4 areas clubs could improve upon to adapt to the current financial climate: Reduce player salaries, focus on youth, maintain existing customer base and explore other revenue streams. Installing a synthetic surface would appear to give clubs the opportunity to do all of these.

 

Matthew is a student at the University of Stirling and represents the University football team .He has previously worked with Supporters Direct Scotland on the anti-sectarian programme, Colours of our Scarves.