Sport left to sweat on rescue from a half-listening government


After a kick in the teeth, a kiss of life? Sports bodies were left blindsided and woozy by the announcement on Tuesday that the return of crowds to stadiums would not only be “paused” but could be delayed until 1 April. Then came a slither of hope with the news that up to eight elite sports are now likely to be helped by a rescue package. The question now is how deep is the government’s pockets – and will the money really be enough?

Make no mistake: this is a crisis so menacing it should come accompanied by the soundtrack to Jaws. How can it not be when the Premier League is warning that football is losing £100m a month? Or when the Rugby Football Union chief executive, Bill Sweeney, a man not prone to hyperbole, says rugby clubs at the heart of communities across England are “in danger of disappearing for ever”. Racing, cricket, golf: they are all saying the same thing. The pips have already been squeezed. Even the plinth is dry.

In July the government came up with a £1.57bn package to save the arts. I am told that sport will not get anywhere near that level of help – and a better indication of what to expect is provided by the £16m in aid it gave to rugby league over the summer. We are talking millions not billions – a lifeline to save the majority of clubs from the breadline. Nothing more.

But there is anger within some sports, too. Many have jumped through every hoop to make their stadiums safe. Yet they have been defeated by a resurgent virus – not helped by the government’s inability to track and trace effectively.

Sports bodies know there is no way they can allow spectators into stadiums when the entire country is being told to batten down the hatches.

However, privately they are far from convinced that a safe and socially distanced return of fans would increase transmission. After all, across the continent fans are returning. The Netherlands, for instance, had more than 60,000 inside grounds in the top two divisions last weekend – even though positive tests are more than double that of the UK once you account for population.

Brighton is one club that have said they can demonstrate fans are safer in stadiums than they are in pubs. But Michael Gove, the Cabinet Office minister, clearly disagrees saying that “mingling” by supporters could lead to a resurgence in cases.

Of course there is a risk when fans congregate in pubs before games and travel to matches together. But Botan Osman, the chief executive of Restrata, which has provided Covid-safe technology to monitor spectators during the cricket season in England as well as the current Indian Premier League, told the Guardian it was possible to make grounds secure.

Osman said that at Surrey and England matches everyone in the stadium was given a small device when they entered – which meant they could be tracked in real time using Bluetooth technology to ensure adequate social distancing.

“The technology exists so if two people who are not in the same bubble come within two metres of each other in a stadium, we know right away and they can be alerted,” Osman said.

“Similarly if it appears that there are more people in a concourse of a football ground than you would like, the remainder of the spectators and stewards can be made aware. Using such technology to monitor and manage fans would give sport more of a fighting chance.”

Meanwhile it is not just elite sport that is facing a massively uncertain future. The Guardian understands a proposed £500m plan to help rescue grassroots leisure facilities is still waiting approval, with the treasury said to be sceptical.

But without a bailout the industry groups UK Active and Community Leisure UK are warning around 20% of the UK’s swimming pools could also close for good – along with hundreds of leisure centres run by local authorities.

Already around a third of them have not opened since lockdown was eased. And there are the knock-on effects here. Many of the facilities under the greatest threat are in the most deprived areas of the country.

Not only are thousands of jobs at risk, but it makes it hard for people of all ages to get active.

An investment now would surely pay off in the future – especially when we know the massive savings to the NHS from a healthy population.

That was part of the message that the Premier League, the RFU and more than 100 national and grassroots governing bodies sent to the government in pleading for more support. In a letter to Boris Johnson they warned the prime minister to ring‑fence funding for the recovery of the sports and activity sector , or risk fuelling physical inactivity and related illnesses for a generation.

There is a sense among many in sport that Johnson is only half listening. As the executive of one sport put it to the Guardian: “Really challenging times for sport. The prime minister seems to think that we’re all OK if the Premier League is still happening.”