Questions of sport: is it time to come up with some answers?


There is no doubt that the post-lockdown environment will be a challenging landscape for much of the sport and leisure sector but is sport suffering from being largely overlooked in the rush for re-emergence? With so many difficult questions on the table, has the sector got any answers?


With schools reopening, traffic building and people (albeit gradually) returning to work in greater numbers, it feels as if the UK is starting to emerge into a post-lockdown landscape. The Covid-19 emergency has been (and still is) a steep learning curve for everyone, not least those in the sport and leisure sector who have had to face hitherto unimagined challenges and deal with new realities.

In the short term at least these include an acceptance that not all leisure centres are going to reopen and that sports spaces (in particular sports halls) have been annexed to enable the development and (hopefully short-term) presentation of a feasible fitness offer. In addition to this, school sports facilities may be unavailable for an extended period. At the same time the Government’s newly published strategy for countering a national obesity crisis barely mentions physical activity; and leisure operators (of all hues) need their direct debit customers to return to the gym as quickly as possible.

The Covid crisis also created a perfect storm for social objectives, or rather for missing them. It can reasonably be argued that the Government’s post-lockdown focus for sport and leisure has been health and fitness and helping the commercial sector stay viable rather than creating opportunities for ordinary people to rediscover and build on experiences of exercise and activity. If we are being completely honest about the sector, this argument was not a difficult one to make even prior to the lockdown in March.

Keeping operators on their toes is no doubt important but the emphasis on commercial viability has meant that sport has been squeezed out. Sports halls full of gym equipment and exercise stations, for example, have taken up the space used by badminton, netball and basketball, leaving players with restricted access at best and often no court option at all. What impact will this have on participation?

Sport is already feeling the pinch as national governing bodies contemplate trying to make ends meet after having income streams cut to a trickle. Many were, in response to Sport England’s (pre-Covid) demands, working hard to improve the proportion of their income derived from individual and club memberships; the lockdown has had a brutal impact on the strides that some were making in this regard. Development programmes and the staff that deliver them have, almost inevitably, borne the brunt.

Discussions with regard to emergency funding from central government for local authority sports facilities have illustrated the point. While arts advocates have secured input of £1.25 billion, sport is still trying to negotiate a lesser package to support the future of provision and facilities across the local authority sector. There seems to be an ongoing and implicit assumption at all levels of governance that the arts deserves its subsidy but that sport should be expected to survive with substantially less (or no subsidy at all) in a commercial environment.

Apparently sport is able to trade its way out of difficulty while the arts (which if we are being honest, also has a very well-developed commercial capacity) needs to be supported as part of the nation’s cultural wellbeing.


To be an advocate for sport is all too often to be treated as an annexe to public health – another area in which Government changes are creating substantial uncertainty.


While the arts is articulately lauded (often from within) for its contribution to the health and wealth of the nation, sport (and associated physical activity) often has its role in creating and building lives, communities and economies taken for granted. To be an advocate for sport is all too often to be treated as an annexe to public health – another area in which Government changes are creating substantial uncertainty.

Some of the new realities have been harsh. A key lesson of the recalibration of public services during the coronavirus emergency and post-lockdown re-emergence is that there is little interest in the low-profit user. Re-engaging with and bringing back the monthly direct debit customer is being seen (justifiably from a commercial perspective) as the route to salvation of the leisure sector. While entirely understandable, this would be slightly more palatable if (pre- or post-Covid 19) there was a concurrent drive to install a decent ‘leisure card’ offer to give the low-waged and disadvantaged a realistic option to take part.

The current focus is on return on investment to enable operators to survive the commercial shock of Covid-19 and to help local authorities mitigate their losses. Recognition of, and the implications for, the social return on investment have largely been missing.

But this should come as no surprise; it is where we have been for the last 15 years at least. The original rationale for swimming pools (‘public baths’) was to enable people living in poverty to have a wash. Our parks and open spaces were laid out to allow those living and working in cramped, congested conditions to get some fresh air and a little exercise during their rare moments of leisure. Despite this history, more recent attitudes to public services and public health have seen the concept of social investment relegated to lip service, platitudes hidden away in the footnotes of commercial contracts.

Emergence from lockdown is a critical moment for sport. Facility-dependent sports are under huge pressure. Badminton, netball and basketball need access to sports halls and courts to continue. With any form of social distancing required, gymnastics will struggle to get sufficient numbers into its dedicated facilities to make them viable. England Athletics has nine sets of guidance on its website.

Rugby and cricket may suffer slightly less trauma given that there is some money within the sport and many clubs own their own facilities. That said, the swingeing cuts to the field development workforce in rugby betray a limited corporate appreciation of just how significant the interaction between in situ development staff and people at various levels in clubs (not just those sat on executive committees) is in respect of the stimulation and maintenance of not only junior and women’s rugby but also the adult 15-a-side game. Swimming too, is in many environments, only on the radar for its role in generating potential pools revenue via swimming lessons.


The coronavirus emergency has put the spotlight on the leisure sector and many operators and local authorities have found themselves exposed, not only financially but also in terms of their priorities and motivations.


The coronavirus emergency has put the spotlight on the leisure sector and many operators and local authorities have found themselves exposed, not only financially but also in terms of their priorities and motivations. Perhaps the biggest exposure has been the limited extent of the management information upon which relationships between councils and contractors are based.

Extensive and detailed financial and commercial data is available but, when it comes to social return on investment or data relating to areas of deprivation, access from people accommodated by housing associations or post-operative interventions, information is almost always sparse. Is this because it is unavailable or difficult to produce; or simply because there is insufficient interest in the answers? While prominent in national strategy statements, is there sufficient local focus on driving opportunity for such groups – groups for whom sports and leisure provision might be of primary importance. How else can we hold contractors to account on their behalf? It’s a good question.

Covid-19 has prompted plenty of questions and the emergence of the sport and leisure sector into a post-lockdown environment will pose many more. In the near future the sector needs to be prepared to come up with some answers. By April 2021 will we have considered responses to questions such as these:

  • Are we (and when) going to start better serving the key groups for which sport and physical activity is an essential component in improving physical and mental health and wellbeing?
  • Are we going to commit to accommodating sport in its purest form and indoor sport in particular?
  • Is the short-term cannibalisation of sports halls on the altar of group fitness likely to follow the trajectory of squash courts? Will Covid-19 accelerate the processes already in train to ‘convert’ sports halls into further fitness rooms, studios, ten-pin bowling centres, soft play spaces and clip ’n’ climb venues?
  • If the sport user is to be evicted from the leisure centre is the schools sector sufficiently keen, able and responsive to provide the sport-specific venues that are already in high demand?
  • Should we set a national target to get local authority sport and leisure venues to a position where they all levy realistic cost-recovery charges for access to facilities with real properly subsidised rates for (agreed) priority groups?

Answers on a postcard please; to be posted en route to your local leisure centre… but make it quick.


John Eady


September 2020