Sport is central to the Irish story; we revel in it so much so that for many it’s essential to our very existence, part of our DNA. We want to enjoy it, be excited by it, entertained by it, educated by it, and simply just to be part of it, writes Mary O’Connor

Like every sector right now, sport is navigating uncharted waters. When we think of sport we seldom think about what it does for us all.

Yes, it is good for health, is inclusive, is a great source of national pride and identity and is good for our tourism industry.

It is however all too easy to forget that modern sport is a business and a big business at that.

For many people sport remains a diversion — something that just happens no matter what. What the current situation has shown is that we cannot take sport for granted and in fact it is perhaps more important than ever — and will be a vital pillar as we come out of the current pandemic.

Covid-19 has brought into sharp focus the value we place on sport and physical activity and it is true to say that the pandemic is wreaking havoc on the sport sector in Ireland and Europe and the collateral damage will be widespread.

Sports volunteerism in this country is valued at €1.1bn, sport supports €2.7 bn in consumer spending and directly employs 39,500 people.

At the time of writing there have been no specific supports announced by government for sport despite the fact that for every €100 invested in sport by government there is a return of €195 in associated taxes.

Our counterparts in England, Scotland, Wales, and Northern Ireland have all benefited from significant government measures to support grassroots sport clubs and organisations but that is not the case here.

Time is rapidly running out for our sports organisations, our clubs and their volunteers.

We need definite action now from the Government.

So why has finance for sport dried up? The simple answer is that the very activities that makes sport and physical activity happen are now on hold and these are our members’ main sources of income.

They have lost gate receipts from major events, sponsorship revenues, membership/affiliations fees, coaching programmes, educational workshops; camps; closure of facilities and on an on.

The list is a long one. Without support it will be difficult for sport to get back up at its current levels.

Earlier this week a position paper on the impact of Covid-19 crisis on the sport sector in Europe was published.

Its findings were stark.

Every 47th euro generated in the EU is by the sport sector, sport has a related employment in the EU of 5.56m persons and sport related GDP of €279.7bn.

However, Covid-19 presents an unprecedented challenge, the very sector trusted with the responsibility of promoting wellbeing, health, and social
interaction is in the real world itself under pressure to survive.

It goes on to state that European sport largely relies on a fabric of small clubs and associations which play a key role in allowing so many citizens to take part in affordable sport activities and to enjoy sport and physical activity on a daily basis.

These small clubs and associations are the backbone of European sport.

However, being non-profit by nature and thus without any reserves, they work in precarious conditions often, driven by the support of passionate volunteers and employees.

In sport, especially at grassroots level, this economic crisis will result in the bankruptcy of associations and clubs which promote physical activity and offer affordable sport activities to citizens across Europe.

Consequently, the sport sector is also set to face an unemployment emergency. These smaller European grassroots associations are at the greatest risk of shutting down due to the crisis, which could have a number of long-lasting impacts on the economy and society.

This will endanger the future of all grassroots sport in Europe. This is Ireland in a nutshell: 81 national governing bodies of Sport (NGB) are members of the Federation of Irish sport and they account for approximately 13,000 clubs.

A recent piece of work by the Federation of Irish Sport with our NGB’s tells a compelling story, our sports clubs who for the most part are run by volunteers currently have a loss in revenue of between 60 and 100% but they still have expenditure of 85% on costs such as insurance, rates, utilities, maintenance loan/mortgages.

These clubs are all affiliated to their NGB and if the clubs are at risk so is the NGB.

The federation have been actively advocating on behalf of our membership to government and we have had number of productive meetings with Minister of State with responsibility for Sport and Tourism Brendan Griffin along with DTTAS officials.

However, we now need outputs it will be infinitely harder to reboot sport post pandemic than it will be to support it through the crisis.

Our key asks have been as follows:

  • The establishment of a sport, physical activity, and recreation sector working group for an immediate and long-term response to Covid-19.
  • Provision of a government led funding injection package through Sport Ireland for NGB’S to stimulate
    activity post the Covid-19 emergency.
  • Sport specific direct financial supports for clubs similar to the hardship/resilience funds available in the UK.
  • Potential repurposing of a proportion of the 2020 Sports Capital Grant to current funding.
  • Construction of a plan in relation as to how to sport will come back as restrictions are lifted, this could be endorsed by government and/or Sport Ireland. (Being mindful that is of course health led).
  • A framework such as Protect, Prepare, Prevail.
  • VAT rebate available to all sports bodies for six months to help towards sport as a business remaining operational.

Sport and physical activity have always added value to people’s lives and right now Irish Sport finds itself in a unique circumstance.

We are eager to play a significant role in the revival of normal Irish life and deliver health enhancing activity as well as contribute robustly to the Irish economy in a myriad of ways but we need innovative thinking, swift action, and investment at local and national level.

– Mary O’Connor is Federation of Irish Sport CEO.