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Grassroots sport remains resilient – but 'requires further support' after losing 60 per cent of members

By Tom Walker    12 May 2021
Clubs and sports providers have, on average, lost 60 per cent of their members during the pandemic / Shutterstock/ChameleonsEye

There is "incredible resilience" in the sports and physical activity sector – but the industry requires further support to bounce back from the devastating effects of the pandemic.

That is the headline finding of a new report, based on a survey of more than 1,400 community sport providers involved in the delivery of more than 75 sports and activities across the UK.

Conducted in partnership between the Sport and Recreation Alliance (SRA) and the Sport Industry Research Group at Sheffield Hallam University, the survey found that volunteers were crucial in supporting clubs during lockdowns and that the lack of income during the pandemic has placed additional pressure on the financial reserves of community organisations.

Respondents to the survey were asked to consider their position prior to the onset of the pandemic, how this has changed since restrictions were imposed, and the effects of this experience on their ability to restart activity once restrictions had been eased.

When it comes to participation, the findings showed that virtually all participation opportunities organised by community sport providers ceased during lockdown and that organisations responding to the survey lost an average of 60 per cent of their members.

This figure is projected to recover to 75 per cent of pre-pandemic levels once restrictions are removed, with clubs and other providers expecting to deliver 90 per cent of their participation opportunities once restrictions are fully lifted.

This suggests that organisations believe that could deliver activity at, or close to, their pre-pandemic operating capacity.

Meanwhile, the pandemic has had an effect on the sector's workforce too.

Among the main concerns emerging from the study was the need to support the UK’s three million coaches, from elite down to grassroots.

Paid coaches were the individuals within the sport and physical activity workforce that suffered the most significant fall in numbers, dropping by 63 per cent during the pandemic.

Overall, the pandemic has had a huge effect on the finances of clubs and sports providers.

According to the survey results, around one in three providers now operate without any financial cushion.

During the pandemic period, those providers with cash reserves saw them decline by 18 per cent, while liabilities increased by an average of 20 per cent.

To mitigate the impact of lockdown on participation levels, most providers have reduced expenditure in line with this decrease in activity, although the 41 per cent reduction in expenditure was outpaced by a 51 per cent drop in income. Due to the shutdown in provision, the sparsity of new funding opportunities also presented a challenge for generating income for grassroots clubs.

The study also shows that the impact of the lockdown on providers’ financial viability, while broadly negative, may be reversed if organisations are able to return to delivering income generating activities at the earliest opportunity, with the availability of facilities a priority in this area.

Commenting on the report, SRA chief executive, Lisa Wainwright, said: “This research highlights how successfully our community clubs have coped in unprecedented times. The resilience, determination and passion shown is to be commended and this is why grassroots activity remains in a healthy position.

“As a sector, it is really important that we make being active the easy choice and one that is safe, enjoyable and beneficial to all.

“Any decline in the quantity or quality of coaching available is likely to have a negative impact on returning members and so it is crucial this is addressed to avoid a further decline in activity levels.

“The availability of facilities is also fundamental to the entire eco-system of delivery for sport and activity providers and is key to the restart process.

“We must make sure that facilities are opened as quickly and as widely as possible to encourage participants back and to allow our community organisations to start building their income once again and provide them with the financial sustainability to continue delivering their activity.

“This has taken on even greater significance following the latest Active Lives Adult Survey from Sport England which has shown a concerning drop in activity levels, with certain demographics harder hit than others.

“Community sport clubs are the lifeblood of cities, towns and village across the country and we must support them as the nation recovers, to allow everyone to take advantage of the incredible wellbeing benefits of sport and recreation.”

• To read the full report, based on the survey, click here.

Sport and Recreation Alliance  SRA  Sport Industry Research Group  Sheffield Hallam 
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