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Informal Free Play - The Enormous Potential of attracting non participants to take up Football

Why Affordable Informal or ‘Free Play ‘ is the simplest way to begin your Grassroots Startup

Informal Free Play involves providing the basics for participants to play grassroots football amongst themselves.

If the cost of Informal Play to the participant is as low as possible, then creating a simple Informal Play programme has virtually no barrier to entry.

Free Play doesn’t mean you can’t charge a fee if you have to charge a fee this needs to be as low as possible

Such low cost format reduces the risks associated with startups and provides opportunity to gradually upscale the project

In terms of developing a ‘ Minimum Viable Product ‘ for Grassroots Football there is no better example than Informal Play - Safe, Physically Active Fun with Friends

Creating a Market where no market exists at the moment provides massive rewards for Innovators

Informal play is the easiest way to attract non players. As the pandemic eases people want to be physically and socially active in a safe friendly environment for themselves or their children Traditional routes to play grassroots football can,however, be costly, time consuming and inflexible.

Football is the most popular participant team sport in England but only about 3% of the population are registered football players: similar rates are seen in pre -pandemic German, France, Italy and Spain

There are many examples of impressive global growth for girls and women but for overall participation in these most popular football countries on the planet 3 people in a hundred are registered football players!

In the post pandemic world, with sky high numbers playing FIFA computer games and billions watching TV football show there is a clear opportunity to turn interest into affordable participation

Free play can seen as competition to the traditional participation model but clearly can be a pathway to registered player status: in either case it overall strengthens commitment and continued interested in the game

How to re- frame the problem and overcome the traditional barriers for non participants to start playing - Cost, Access, Time and perceived lack of skills


Simply put - Most programmes would attract more participants if they were more affordable. In the USA the Aspen Institute’s research has shown the clear relationship between costs and participation levels and also in post pandemic UK here . Affordable Informal football doesn’t require expensive coaches, travel, kit or indeed facilities. The enormous success of adult 5-a-side and Walking Football for Senior Citizens has in fact been self organised by participants.

If suitably screened facilitators are required to supervise children’s programmes then we can see how Soccer Shots and United Soccer Academies in North America have simply organised their own In House Training Programmes. As another innovation see how Grandparents have been engaged as volunteers in Denmark here

Many grassroots football programmes provide more than parents or players need or can afford !


The Economist points out that part of the success of retail giant Walmart is that it has a store within 10 miles of 90% of all Americans. So local informal football can maximise access as does the avoidance of try- outs

To maintain low costs you will need to compromise and having facilities which are ‘ good enough ‘: this is absolutely OK providing they are safe enough. Don’t dismiss the value of commonsense ‘ workarounds’.

Look at the many successful grassroots projects we have researched that use school facilities in return for providing curriculum teaching to the school.


Commitment should be very flexible-not a long season and no requirement to train. This format is responsible for the growth of an estimated 1.5 million 5-a-side players in England as reported here.

Perceived lack of Skills

Grassroots football has a very low skills threshold. Playing 3v3 football is within the capabilities of most individuals and modified for age and abilities ( e.g. walking football )

Given the exposure of football the rules are simple to understand. Our Sports Path report into Virtual Coaching demonstrates there is so much content available online and on apps for players to coach themselves

Identifying the Key Target Groups with limited current participation

Don’t just think of boys aged 4-11 years of age.Think of those who would like to play football but haven’t had the opportunity to do so. Some examples from our course :

  • Girls, & Women’s football is the fastest growing sport in the world as reported here . In Denmark for example overall post pandemic participation has grown by 11% but The number of girls and women in the country's football clubs has increased by 9979 (17 %) in the last year, from 59974 to 69953. In percentage terms, the largest increases are seen among the very youngest ( < 6 years, 50.1 %) and the very oldest ( > 70 years, 38.5 %)

  • Teenagers & Young Adults: 5-a-side football is assisted by the use of simple apps like providing 5-a-side football for over 900,000 urban teenagers and young adults in Europe

  • Relative Age Effect : our Sports Path Study on youngsters with ‘late birthdays’ who find it difficult to start to play and drop out at a greater rate than’ early birthdays: this is a classic opportunity for market creation innovation - as seized by this programme in England which now has franchises

  • Senior Citizens: the enormous growth of walking football in the UK , in the USA and in many other countries highlights the value of safe, affordable informal football with friends

  • Refugees: Open Fun Football Schools are the world leader in using football as a medium to engage over 1.4 million youngsters across ethnic, social and religious divides and in this way contribute to peaceful co-existence, social cohesion and resilience.They have 7 current projects in Ukraine to which Sports Path has made a donation and we encourage you to. Provision of football for refugees will sadly be a growth area in 2022 and clubs of all sizes can play a major role here.

  • Players with disabilities: As highlighted here 15% of the world’s population have a disability. Football can simply provide enormous opportunities as we discovered on our Online Course from Matt Greenwood: Executive Director, Pickering Football Club, Ontario, Canada who in meeting a local social need has enrolled 100 players with disabilities into his club with a bespoke curriculum, a proficiency programme with awards / badges etc + Integration and pathway to all club activities

How Innovation pulls in resources and attracts stakeholders “ If they come then build it !”

Evidence in our research shows that sequencing matters - once numbers start to appear at a Grassroots Football Programme these then ‘ pull ‘ other resources from sponsors and stakeholders. Innovation therefore precedes infrastructure. So with due respect to Kevin Costner ( The Field of Dreams ) the sequence appears to be “ If they come then build it !”- not “ If you build it they will come”. There are white elephant facilities in all sports across the world that were built without creating the market for them.

Every country has the potential for EXTRAORDINARY growth and exploit interest in the game - stoked by TV, FIFA e-games and the forthcoming UEFA Women’s Euros and the FIFA Men's World Cup .

We outline below some of the examples we highlight for free play on our course

- 2,300 Recreation players with 90% retention

- $99 for 12 weeks inc free uniform


- A non profit set up to build mini, futsal and pick up soccer courts at schools and parks across the USA

- Building communities and health through unstructured play - courtesy of founder Ted Kroeten .See and

From their website :

We do things differently here!Our philosophy is clear. Youth football is a KIDS' game. It belongs to kids not to adults. Kids do not (and should not) play for adult entertainment. They should play for themselves. They should play because they love football. This love of the game drives development. ​You can see it every time a truly great player plays. Our job is to cherish that love of the game and use it to promote individual and football development. We have developed some very clear rules ​to help us return the game to the kids and to promote and foster their all-round development. 1. We prioritise individual development. It's far more important than the scoreline. Adults creating 'winning teams' of young children means the focus is on short-term wins not long-term development. 2. Our child-centred goals mean we don't hold trials. The 'best player' at 8 might be different to the 'best player' at 12. Good coaches coach all children, not just the handful they've determined to be 'the best' at a given age! 3. We expect high standards from our coaches and promote continuing professional development. As well as volunteers, we use highly qualified paid professional coaches who are not parents of players with the aim of guaranteeing a greater level of independence and expertise. 4. Our football is truly competitive. Real competition is not about moaning about the scoreline or chasing from club to club trying to get a place on a 'winning' team. It is about taking ownership of your own game, wanting to try hard, learn and improve. It's about being prepared to make your own decisions and 'mistakes'. It's about having fun! 5. We organise equal pitch time for every child who regularly attends club sessions. No one learns by sitting on the sidelines. Our job is to keep all kids involved. 6. We rotate positions. The game has changed. Restricting children to certain positions on the pitch from a young age might help the scoreline but it undermines children's development. At our club, every child will get experience in all positions on the pitch. The evidence clearly supports this. 7. We don't direct play in matches. The kids lead the play! Kids learn by making their own decisions and we want to develop confident, thinking footballers. This can take time and patience so if you want your child to be spoon fed instructions shouted across the pitch by a coach, or if your focus is just the scoreline, we are definitely not the club for you! 8. Kids' voices will always be louder than the adults. We are not concerned with adult needs or egos. ​It's their game, let them play!​​ Football is also about values and about community. We are committed to making football affordable for all kids. No one should ever feel "priced out" of our national game. Learn mo

- Low cost, no tryouts,

- All intra Club games no inter club ‘ travel ‘ games

- Developed their own Coach Education

- Doubling in size every 12 months

Involving over 2,000 children


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