Budget 2021 will mark a “watershed moment” for Irish sport after a year in which governing bodies have experienced losses of up to 70% of their self-generated income.
Mary O’Connor, CEO of the Federation of Irish Sport, gave evidence to the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Media, Tourism, Arts, Culture, Sport, and the Gaeltacht on Wednesday, where she warned that any failure to increase government funding could create an “insurmountable gap” to meet the National Sports Policy target of doubling investment in sport to €220m by 2027.
Examples of the scars the coronavirus shutdowns will leave on Irish sport were given, with over 10% of Irish swimming pools, around 35 in total, having closed permanently since March.
Badminton Ireland have seen 10,000 players and 250 clubs fall away as affiliation fees slump by 76% compared to this time last year. This equates to a loss of over €190,000.
Athletics Ireland, who were due to host the European Cross Country Championships in December, are instead involved in a redundancy process with 15% of their staff, having seen their income halved in the second half of 2020. A further 40% of staff have been on short time since May.
The ‘big three’ of the GAA, FAI, and IRFU have already outlined estimates for combined financial losses of €81m this year. That trio are due to get €40m of the government’s €70m resilience fund for sport, with €10m ringfenced for smaller national governing bodies, €15m for struggling clubs, and €5m for a sports restart and renewal programme.
O’Connor said she hopes that money will be distributed to bodies this month as applications, which were received in September, are currently being considered by Sport Ireland.
It will, however, not cure all of Irish sport’s woes.
The fund was implemented at a time when it was anticipated sport would be further down the road to recovery by now. As events continue to be cancelled and mass crowds remain out of the question, O’Connor expressed significant concerns over the “long-term viability of people and programmes if financial losses persist”.
She also warned of a “stagnation of emerging talent” which will result in a “long-term impact” on Ireland’s ambitions for the Paris 2024 and Los Angeles 2028 Olympic Games. While funding for the delayed Tokyo Olympics remains in place for carded athletes, a return to Level 5 coronavirus restrictions would be “catastrophic” and lead to a “competitive disadvantage”.
“Our single biggest ask is that Budget 2021 provides for further investment in people and programmes by increasing core funding for sporting organisations,” O’Connor told TDs and senators during a 45-minute hearing where she cited the societal benefits of that investment for physical health and mental wellbeing.
While Athletics Ireland is the only governing body currently involved in a redundancy process, O’Connor said others would have to consider similar measures.
Speaking about the increased costs involved in operating during a pandemic, Athletics Ireland CEO Hamish Adams gave the example of the five-person group being sent to the World Half Marathon Championships in Poland next week.
Each will be tested four times, once before leaving Ireland, once on arriving in Poland, and twice upon their return. The four tests will cost €600 per person.
“That is a tiny team,” he said. “Over the course of the year, we will send over 200 athletes to events. Each of those athletes will also have to stay in single rooms.
“Those are just two examples of why we will require additional funding and additional support to help our talented athletes across all sports to be the best they can be and make our nation proud.”
Swim Ireland chairperson Peter Conway appealed for swimming lessons, which had been permitted under Level 2 coronavirus restrictions, be allowed to resume at Level 3 with carefully regulated numbers.
That association has experienced a 79% drop in income from lessons, while leisure centres and pools suffered a 65% overall decline in revenue from March to August.
“We see a place for swimming lessons within Level 3,” he said.
Badminton Ireland CEO David McGill said access to halls and uncertainty over restrictions were driving the drop off in participation, while Cara CEO Niamh Daffy called for sport for people with disabilities to be at the heart of all government plans.