At some point in the coming days, the government’s scientific group for emergencies will receive proposals to get sporting life in Britain back on its feet. And while I understand that the finer details are still being sketched out by a cross-sport working group, the broader brushstrokes – restarting the Premier League, horse racing and cricket behind closed doors, with frequent testing for Covid-19 and appropriate physical distancing measures in place – have been teased and trailed for weeks.
Whatever happens next in these discombobulating times it is probably safe to assume that the Premier League will emerge relatively unscathed. True, players might end up a touch less remunerated. And, yes, transfer fees and TV rights will come down. But when the circus cranks up again, it will still be swimming in money and attention. It’s the rest of sport that we should be worried about. Because right now the darkest economic cloud in our lifetime is fast looming into view, and I am not sure we have grasped the potential consequences for sport – and for us.
Academics have long noted “the recession effect” whereby sporting activity among the public falls during times of economic downturn because people are less able to pay for team sports or gym membership – or are worried simply about keeping their heads above water financially. But when I spoke to a leading figure in sport this weekend, they warned of a “grave danger” that much of the infrastructure that enables us to do sport might not survive for the 18 months it might take for a vaccine to be found.
Many leisure chains and gyms are already in serious financial trouble. This month UK Active, which represents more than 3,500 commercial gyms and community leisure centres, warned that landlords were “coercing gyms into paying rent that has been withheld as a result of Covid-19” – and there was a “growing number of cases where the reaction of landlords has been to instigate legal proceedings against operators when rent cannot be paid”.
It’s not like councils can step into the breach, either. Massive cuts to local authority budgets during the austerity years have made it difficult for them to deliver their statutory functions, such as looking after vulnerable children and pensioners, let alone provide parks, swimming pools and leisure centres. In fact in some cases it is councils which have been the most vociferous in demanding gyms continue to pay their rents.
Meanwhile according to one recent report, more than 200 school football pitches have been sold and 700 council-owned pitches closed since 2010 – while nearly 700 publicly accessible tennis courts and 80-plus school cricket pitches have also gone. That is bad enough. But what will be the effect for kids who may be deprived of PE lessons and sport for months? All these issues are likely to have greater knock-on effects than is realised. If leisure centres go out of business, for instance, that is fewer courts for people to play badminton or netball, to swim or do senior citizens yoga when things return to normal.
People may not return to their weekly class, either. We also know that habits can easily bend or break – or simply change. Do you know what the third most popular sporting activity was in the UK in 1977, after walking and swimming? It was playing snooker and pool – with 9.3% of adults in the annual Great Household Survey saying they had a game regularly. Fourth was darts with 5.8%.
Also in 1977 just 3.3% of respondents said they had done keep fit or yoga in the previous four weeks, with 2.7% playing football, and 1.9% cycling. Nowadays things have changed, with more of us riding bikes or going to the gym. We also have a far better understanding of how much activity helps the body and mind. But there are understandable fears that a downward spiral of an economic recession, fewer facilities and less activity could lead to the UK becoming more of a two-tiered sporting nation.
Incidentally, I am told that any decision affecting sport will not happen in isolation. Instead it will fit in to wider plans to ease the lockdown – the key question being where sport fits in to the sequencing of removing some restrictions over the weeks and months ahead. It might be June. Perhaps later. But while I expect racing and Premier League football to be back behind closed doors before too long, the working assumption of most of the scientists and senior sportspeople I speak to is that there won’t be packed stadiums again until next year.
That, of course, could be devastating for sports such as rugby league, athletics and basketball. The British Basketball League play-off finals at the O2 Arena, for instance, are reckoned to generate around a third of the League’s income. UKA will also take a big financial hit if the Anniversary Games in July is cancelled.
Meanwhile Sport England is already highlighting that the trend for those in lower socioeconomic groups to be less active appears to be growing during the pandemic – with research already showing that people on low incomes are finding it harder than normal to be active. Last week its chief executive, Tim Hollingsworth, urged sport to begin thinking collectively about how to sustain the nation’s wellbeing after the pandemic. That is a conversation that really can’t start soon enough.