VAT on five-a-side football could turn next generation away from the game
“Five-a-side is so important. Everybody has to start somewhere.” These are the words uttered by Leeds United manager Neil Warnock in an interview with the Telegraph about plans to force five-a-side leagues to pay VAT.
For decades, companies operating all-weather pitches have not been subject to VAT as they believed they were only supplying the land to sports teams, rather than providing a service – which is always liable to tax. However, HM Revenue and Customs (HMRC) has announced that the use of such pitches should in fact be eligible for VAT as leagues provide extras such as organising fixtures, awarding trophies and publishing scores and league tables.
The move would result in the average cost of a match increasing from £4.50 to £5.50, with this figure potentially rising to £7.50 if tax officials slap leagues with a backdated bill for the last four years. This rise in cost could potentially put off thousands of adults from having a kickabout at a time when the government is attempting to use the publicity generated by the Olympics to inspire people to get fit and healthy.
However, perhaps more damaging for the national game itself is the potential effect the move would have on children’s involvement in football.
If five-a-side centres are forced to pay VAT at 20 per cent, they may have to look to recoup the funds elsewhere by cutting back on activities such as offering their pitches to schools for free. It is estimated that more than 500,000 state-educated school children use five-a-side pitches free of charge, with this figure poised to double over the course of the next decade.
Many schools would be unable to foot the bill, leaving a whole host of budding young stars unable to regularly play the game during their crucial formative years. At a time when it is common to come across reports of major clubs signing up six-year-olds from across the world and many promising youngsters fast-tracked into the youth ranks of professional teams, it may seem puzzling to question the future of the game based on a rise in the cost of playing five-a-side matches.
However, the move, which will collect just over £5 million a year, could deter those from deprived areas from even beginning a career in the game as they struggle to find regular, organised matches to play in.
As Warnock said, everyone has to start somewhere and if they are unable to take that first vital step into the game then they will never be snapped up by a club who will then go on to nurture their talent.
Participation in five-a-side matches is currently much higher than 11-a-side as it is seen as a more accessible version of the game for youngsters. It would therefore appear foolish to deter people from playing the most popular form of the game at a time when the Football Association has just opened its £100 million national football centre in Burton-upon-Trent.
The so-called “nerve centre” of English football, which spans over 330 acres, looked set to become a white elephant after being deemed too expensive to finish. However, England’s failure to qualify for Euro 2008 prompted officials to re-start the project.
Let’s hope it does not take similarly poor performances on the national stage to encourage HMRC to back down from its plans.
Laurence Taylor, football correspondent