However, as with all aspects of life there are also a number of apparently non-sporting government decisions which will have a significant effect on grass-roots sport and its ability to grow – or even stand still. As any half-way competent strategist will tell you ‘cause and effect’ should always be considered as ‘big picture’ considerations where, unfortunately, government tends to only consider decisions in one area in isolation. In government initiative seemingly always trumps strategy.
In the rush to recognise the value that Lottery funding has brought to sport in this country we sometimes forget that, at the grass-roots, it is not even in the top three of biggest funders. By far the largest financial contributors to sport are the many unpaid volunteers who keep it running. Their contribution is not limited to the obvious travel and time but is often invisible such as the North London coach I spoke to who pays entry fees for the young athletes he looks after because without they would not be able to afford to compete.
Following the volunteers in terms of contribution is the ‘bank of mum and dad’ – a bank that pays those entry fees when it can afford them as well as being kit purchaser/washer, taxi service, funder, sponsor and more.
With VAT seemingly set to remain at 20% for the foreseeable future this is the first area of negative impact on sport. Equipment costs more, facility hire costs more, travel costs more; in fact everything costs more. At the grass-roots end of sport, not an essential item of spending for the vast majority of the population, as the financial pressure builds sport becomes an area where cut backs can be made.
Fuel is an essential commodity but has been far from exempt from not just a single tax but double taxation as the seemingly ever-rising fuel levy adds to the burden of VAT. This stealth tax on small business (which many small sports clubs are) is also taxation on both participation in and the watching of sport. As with VAT, as family budgets are stretched difficult choices have to be made and little Johnny’s badminton lesson will more often than not be seen as less essential than getting to work , paying the bills or putting food on the table. It should be remembered that tax on fuel is a tax on everything reliant on fuel for its production or delivery – pretty much everything else!
Public transport might be an option but buses and trains do not always run according to where sport needs them to run at the times it needs them to and besides, with many families ‘time-poor’ the added time public transport travel can take makes it less likely to be utilised, especially outside of cities like London where it is less plentiful. And for longer trips for sports fans and away team travel the train, already expensive is now having £3.6bn a year of subsidies removed by the government.
The third largest funder of sport in this country is local authorities who, as we all know, are facing significant cuts. Like it or not, those cuts will most likely fall in areas in which those authorities are not bound by statutory protection; other than playing fields that is all facilities, sports development, community clubs, sports inclusion projects…..need I list them all?
I am on record as supporting sports facilities, sports development and community sport as candidates for statutory protection (as they are for many of our European neighbours) and would suggest that any government serious about a lasting sports participation legacy would make this a key component of any integrated strategy for the development of sport in the UK – a strategy that no government has yet seen fit to produce.
Indeed, it is the lack of investment in good strategy which most undermines grass-roots sport in this country. In June last year a Sky Sports News special report on legacy highlighted the problem of local authorities being unable to fund sports facilities when using Finsbury Park athletics track as a back drop.
One of the programme’s expert panel, former NBA star John Amaechi made the point; “…what’s going to happen here at the Olympics could be worse even than just people not participating afterwards, it could be that you excite young people to play, they go out into their communities to look for where to play and they come here and they realise it’s grassed over, it is no longer a facility where they can get the right kind of coaching and the right kind of development. That would be a true tragedy.”
The local facility might be closed, mum and dad can’t afford to get them to the nearest one still open and if they can, the volunteers can’t afford to offer the level of support they once did and there is no proper strategy aimed at addressing these issues or the overall development of sport properly.
(Blog first published at www.sportsthinktank.com on 2nd April 2012)
© Jim Cowan, Cowan Global Limited, April 2012