The architect of 5-a-side

Do you play 5-a-side? If you do, you probably owe a debt of gratitude to one Keith Rogers.

By Chris Bruce

This article first appeared in Issue 2 which was published in December 2016.

Extract from The 5-A-Side Bible. First published in 2015 by BackPage and Freight Books

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I thought there was an opportunity to get people in their 30s and 40s back into the game if you offered a quality facility for the recreational form of football.

In 1987, young Scottish entrepreneur Keith Rogers transformed an underused tennis court in Paisley into a 5-a-side pitch with his own hands. What happened next changed the way thousands of recreational footballers play the game.

If you play 5-a-side football, you may very well play it in a purpose-built facility such as Goals or Powerleague. Those two brands dominate the 3G-landscape of 5-a-side in the UK, and they share the same origins.

If Rogers hadn’t gone to work on that tennis court, the explosion of 5-a-side might still have happened – but perhaps not. Maybe there’d be far fewer of us playing. Maybe we’d be hiring out school halls and leisure centres and chasing a fuzzy, fluorescent ball around on an unforgiving wooden floor.

Rogers was running a health and fitness club in the Glasgow area when he converted four tennis courts for 5-a-side use. This was the gold-rush moment, the discovery of an untapped market of recreational footballers by someone with a business brain who would spend the next 25 years as the primary influencer in the expansion of 5-a-side into the vibrant football culture it is today.

That health and fitness club became the first centre in the Pitz chain. Pitz became Powerleague after Rogers sold his business to a venture capital firm, and he started over again with Goals. The path of both of the big players started out on the same under-used tennis court in Paisley.

Today he divides his time between the UK and America, where he is laying the foundation for a new 5-a-side explosion to keep pace with the biggest soccer boom in North American history. This is how it all happened.

How did you come up with the idea of constructing the first purpose-built 5-a-side facility in the UK?
Before the late 80s, if you wanted to play football you booked an indoor hall, were squeezed in between the badminton players and bribed the receptionist for a bit of time. It was a wooden floor with 50 different coloured lines and parallel bars on the wall. I was involved in a health and fitness club which had four tennis courts, but neither myself nor my mates played tennis. So we converted four tennis courts into four 5-a-side courts.

We didn’t design it in a particular way. It was more a case of, ‘Let’s put some timber boards around the tennis
courts… hang on, it gets dark around 6pm and people want to play … OK, let’s dig a hole and put some lights in’.

Then we said, ‘The ball keeps going out of play – let’s put a fence around the pitch’. So we solved the problems as we went along until suddenly, after a year, we looked out and said, ‘Wow, that’s a 5-a-side pitch’. The 5-a-side pitch invented itself.

Once we had the first pitches completed with zero problems we moved to six pitches then 10, all the while being surprised by how popular the game was and how quickly the pitches filled. We realised we were making more money from 5-a-side football than we were from the health and fitness club. So we closed the club and turned it into a football centre.

Having established a successful centre in Paisley, did you then realise the huge potential?
We approached several banks, explained our idea and pointed out that we had a centre in Paisley which we had built ourselves. Several banks passed on giving us a loan because they couldn’t imagine a 5-a-side centre as a viable business idea.

In the end, we contacted Scottish & Newcastle Brewers who loved the idea and, on a dark weeknight in winter, a contingent came up to Glasgow on a bus. It was one of those nights where the rain was blowing sideways in a gale. Every single 5-a-side pitch was full. There were people waiting to get on, people coming off. You could see the penny drop with the Scottish & Newcastle contingent and it was obvious that they were in.

They took me for lunch to a restaurant in Edinburgh called Fat Sam’s which had newly opened. As we sat in the restaurant I said, ‘Let me tell you the future. This restaurant won’t be here in five years but I can guarantee you that the 5-a-side football centre will still be there in 20 years’. I was proven right. The facility in Paisley has been standing for 30 years and is still hosting 5-a-side football every night of the week. Scottish & Newcastle Brewers came on board as a shareholder and they made the introduction to the bank, so suddenly things began to move quicker.

From there, we opened a centre in Glasgow and one in Edinburgh, on the site of the old Portobello swimming pool which was close to the beach. In those early days the players would get annoyed when the sand from the beach blew onto the pitch. I remember our advertising campaign on local radio around the time of the 1990 World Cup.

We used the Nessun Dorma World Cup anthem with the words “our socks are blue our strips are yellow, we play 5-a-side down at Portobello”. It was so cheesy that it was good.

The next site was in Hamilton, opposite the racecourse. We realised that we had the main central-belt population of Scotland covered, so the next step was England.

In quick succession we opened centres in Liverpool, Manchester, Sheffield and Newcastle. The centres didn’t take off as quickly as we had anticipated. While all the Scottish centres were regularly full with what we would call ‘casual’ or ‘pickup’ games, the English centres wanted leagues, competitive football.

We hadn’t run leagues on that scale before so it was a learning curve, but we got to grips with it and continued to build the business up.

We were then approached to sell our company and 3I [a venture capitalist firm] was the winning bid. I was asked to stay on as the chief executive but I took the view that I could do better if I went away and started again.

The day the deal was done I handed in my letter of resignation and walked out the door.

Then you bought over another Glasgow-based 5-a-side business, Goals…
The family which owned Goals explained to me that it stood for Glasgow Open Air Leisure Services. I remember asking the owner if the name Goals came first or did Glasgow Open Air Leisure Services come first and then they realised it spelt ‘Goals’! Joking aside, you couldn’t get a more perfect name so we kept it.

There were five centres in total: Glasgow South, Glasgow West, Aberdeen, Wembley and Dagenham. In essence, the new business started with a blank sheet. From the very beginning we put in systems and processes, and started investing in IT to build a backbone that could handle a much bigger business. It was important to think ahead in what we were planning to do.

The first thing we did was travel to Holland and visit FC Twente because I had heard that they had this new rubber crumb turf. I remember walking across the grass pitches and eventually I realised I was standing on a rubber crumb pitch. I had only ever experienced sand-filled pitches and immediately thought ‘Wow, there is no going back. We have to have this’.

The Glasgow South centre was so badly run down when we bought it, there was a traffic cone on one of the pitches because there was a hole in the turf worn down to the concrete. People had to play football around the traffic cone! The week we bought Goals, the Environmental Health came in and threatened closure because it was a danger, so we had to re-turf the pitches – a perfect opportunity to use the new turf we had experienced in Holland.

I remember watching the first set of games played on the 3G turf – people were slide-tackling and goalkeepers were diving for the ball. On a sand-filled pitch you were always aware of the playing surface and how it constantly affected the way you played. If you were a goalkeeper, for instance, you were wrapped up like the Michelin Man in case you ended up in Accident and Emergency. The great advantage of the 3G pitch was that you played the game, you didn’t play the surface – that created a fundamental shift in the game.

The response to the 3G rubber crumb was incredibly positive. We followed suit and made changes to the other sites.

Goals as a new venture appeared to have a strong emphasis on the quality of the experience…
There are people who will get a ball and play 5-a-side on any surface or situation because they love the game so much, but I took the view that if we were going to attract a whole new player base into the game then a new approach was needed. I am talking about the guys who played football in school and stopped when they left because there were no other avenues to play. There was no recreational game. Or the recreational game was jumpers for goal posts. I thought there was an opportunity to get people in their 30s and 40s back into the game if you offered a quality facility for the recreational form of football.

To achieve this you had to create a facility to a much higher standard because this particular player base wasn’t your ‘diehard’ who would play under any conditions. It was a player base who might have a negative perception of football – the idea of muddy pitches, bent goals posts and cold showers.

Life was changing for the better around that time and people’s expectations had shifted. In order to capture a wider spectrum of the demographic we had to create something new.

You can play football to a very high standard and enjoy 5-a-side. Some of the 5-a-side teams we have could give the professionals a run for their money because the game requires a particular set of skills. Watching the top 5-a-side teams in the UK is like experiencing an art form. Conversely, you can be a bit on the heavy side but turn up and play with all your mates and still get the same enjoyment. An added bonus is that you will end up dropping a few stone over the course of the year, and getting much healthier. When you look at why people play football there are three top reasons – the love of the game, fitness and the social side of the sport.

So 5-a-side originates from the west of Scotland, a particularly obsessed football culture…
You’re right. It is a cradle and the west of Scotland was the birthplace of 5-a-side football, I believe. If you look at what is happening now, 5-a-side is turning into a global movement. The FA came out with a stat 10 years ago that stated 5-a-side football had caught up with 11-a-side football in participation. In 2014 the stats showed 5-a-side was twice as big. That is an incredible statistic when you think back to the days of kicking a ball around YMCA halls. It was a niche sport then and today it is twice as big as the national sport – in many ways it is the national sport!

The unique thing about 5-a-side is you can come into the game when you are five years old, because of the size of the pitch, and if you want to, and are good enough, then graduate to the 11-a-side game. There are people who play 11-a-side and who play 5-a-side as a form of training. Then there are people who are 30 and upwards who drop back down to play 5-a-side. There is a movement between the two games. The FA now embraces the 5-a-side game because they realise that it complements 11-a-side.

The participation levels in the sport and the expansion of your company suggests further potential for growth. How do you see the company developing?
I think the best is yet to come. Goals has huge potential as a company. I took the view that I should take the company to the United States – not Europe – for lots of different reasons. I believe America is on a path to adopting soccer as one of their national sports. The growth is massive and arguably it is the most popular participation team sport in the U.S.

In Californian schools, soccer, to use their terminology, has been one of the most popular participation sports for close to a decade now, so there’s been loads of kids choosing to play soccer in high school. However, when they come out of high school there’s nothing for them to move on to, unlike here in the UK where we are well provided for in terms of grass pitches and full size all-weather pitches. In a city like LA, which has 18 million people, finding a local park would be a miracle because the city is built up to an incredible degree. Also, after the kids leave high school there are other sports, the big three – baseball, American football and basketball – competing for their time. We have the first pilot site, in LA, and it is going well. You do not enter the American market just to open two or three sites – you do it for a reason. The opportunity is substantial. We are slowly building up the property and land banks required to open many centres. The professional game is also catching up with participation levels and you are seeing that reflected in the attendances at games in the MLS.

Extract from The 5-A-Side Bible. First published in 2015 by BackPage and Freight Books

This article first appeared in Issue 2 which was published in December 2016.

Extract from The 5-A-Side Bible. First published in 2015 by BackPage and Freight Books

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