Sunday Independent 04.09.22

The first long-term plan for Irish sport — the National Sports Policy 2018-2027 — was a real game changer. It was a long overdue recognition by our government of the important role sport plays in the life of our nation.

Key to the plan was the promise contained within it to provide the finance needed to back it up. The government committed, therefore, to double funding for sport over the 10-year lifetime of the policy.

We are now in the fifth year of the plan, and we have seen that commitment materialise year on year with additional funding going into all areas of sport including people and programmes, high performance and new facilities. We have seen a series of rounds of sports capital funding to create an ever better sporting infrastructure. And during the dark days of Covid again government stepped up to the plate with two rounds of the Sports Resilience Fund which helped governing bodies and clubs and ensured that they were there to spring into action as soon as the dark clouds departed.

Sport has always recognised the many demands on government at Budget time and this year will be no exception. Now, though, sport is properly recognised as a key element as we continue our development as a nation.

Some years ago, the Federation of Irish Sport ran a campaign under the banner ‘Irish Sport Matters’, which set out all the ways in which sport is important to us. The Federation represents all of sport’s major national governing bodies, which in turn are responsible for Ireland’s 13,000 clubs. We exist to champion their value and advocate for their value to Irish society.

Sport is good for the economy, with a €3.7bn gross value added (GVA) in terms of economic activity and it employs over 64,000 people in sports related activities. It has a major role to play in the health and fitness of our population. Sports tourism is worth at least €500m of to the economy. Sport is a major contributor to our international reputation. Our sporting volunteers’ efforts have been calculated to have a value of €1.5bn annually.

So yes, sport does matter, and we argue it will matter more than ever as we face the economic challenges before us in the coming years.

We can never be complacent. In our pre-Budget submission to government, we outline five ‘Asks’ to further improve the Irish sporting landscape. However, we recognise the ever greater demands on the Exchequer by making some suggestions as to how the funding we are seeking might be provided by some innovative changes to the tax system and some re-allocation of tax from areas where it makes sense to do just that given their connection with sport.

ASK 1: An increase in core funding and a commitment to multi-annual funding for NGBs and LSPs

In line with the commitment five years ago to double funding for sport by 2027, we are calling on government to deliver the monies already identified in the National Sports Policy to continue on that journey. When aligned to the funding commitment being multi-annual it will lead to transformative outcomes and sustained impacts on a cross section of Irish society.

ASK 2: Taxation reform — to include extending relief on donations to approved sporting bodies; VAT relief for sporting bodies; the granting of charitable status to those NGBs and LSPs who wish to pursue that option; and tax-driven incentives for personal exercise.

The Federation was asked to take the lead in examing possible taxation reforms under a number of headings: (a) the granting of charitable status for NGBs; (b) the lowering of the €250 eligibility threshold for capital reliefs on individual donations to capital projects; (c) the extension of the zero-rated VAT regime; (d) the extension of tax reliefs on capital donations to include donations for participation and coaching programmes; (e) incentivising personal exercise opportunities.

We worked with A&L Goodbody on this project and our final document has been delivered to government. The main recommendations are:

Eliminate the €250 eligibility threshold so all donations qualify for relief.

Extend tax relief on capital expenditure current expenditure, in particular on equipment and coaching.

Introduce tax relief for small cash donations (€50 or less) to approved sporting bodies in respect of all individual donations by way of standard 25 per cent top-up payment.

Introduce a nine per cent rate of VAT for the supply of sport or physical exercise classes, to incentivise getting active and mitigate costs incurred by sporting bodies.

Introduce a tax refund system on qualified costs associated with personal exercise, again as an incentive

Introduce an Employee Exercise Scheme modelled on the Cycle-to- Work scheme under which willing employers make a per annum purchase of exercise membership on behalf of the employee to a maximum of €500

Extend charitable status to NGBs and LSPs on an opt-in / opt-out basis.

ASK 3; That 2.25 per cent (approximately €2m) of the total amount of betting duty raised annually be allocated to tackle gambling addiction

In partnership with Extern Problem Gambling, we want the government to allocate funds to establish a support and education body for those most affected by gambling addiction. Deliberate, focused and sustained interventions must be taken to combat the spiralling gambling harms in Ireland. Currently there is no specific public health programme in Ireland for gambling addiction. Given how much of gambling focusses on sport, we believe this is an appropriate vehicle for such a programme.

We propose that funds equivalent to 2.25 per cent of the total annual amount of betting duty be allocated to awareness campaigns of the potential harms associated with gambling, for targeted educational interventions, to provide people involved in sports with information on the warning signs of a gambling problem and signposting information on specialist helpline and treatment services and having a dedicated helpline and treatment service to support anyone seeking help.

ASK 4; Allocate 4.5 per cent (approximately €1.5m) of the total amount of the sweetened sugar drinks tax raised to combat obesity.

The sugar sweetened drinks tax (SSDT) was introduced in 2018 and in 2020 the monies raised from this tax was €31m. We are asking for around €1.5m to tackle obesity and promote physical activity for school-going children.

Ireland has one of the highest levels of obesity in Europe, with 60 per cent of adults and over one in five children and young people either overweight or obese. In Ireland the cost of obesity and physical inactivity is €1.5 billion a year to the health budget. In 2019, 97,000 cases of disease were prevented by participation in sport and physical activity. The net value of health care and wider costs savings achieved was €0.4bn.

We want increased funding as support for schools to achieve the Active School flag. Currently 809 of our 3,300 primary schools have the flag. The intention is that the funding goes directly to NGBs, LSPS and registered practitioners to deliver programmes in schools that will earn certification and to create a Healthy Pupils Capital fund to give children access to top quality PE equipment.

ASK 5; Recognise the burden that insurance costs are placing on the delivery of sport in Ireland and undertake some much-needed reforms.

The impact of insurance costs on our members and their clubs and volunteers is seismic and continues to have a negative impact on our sector. Rising premiums and new exclusions in policies is preventing them from providing some services, their capacity to facilitate programmes and ultimately inhibiting their ability to grow as organisations. The post-Covid cost of insurance continues to act as a significant barrier to recovery and will continue to hamper our sector unless it is resolved as a matter of urgency.

When I reflect on our asks I am conscious of the many demands on government, particularly at these difficult times. However, I believe we have been innovative in how the funding might be found. We believe that sport and physical activity are more important than ever if we are to successfully navigate what lies ahead. Sport has the potential to serve as a driver of positive change in Irish society, assisting in the delivery of wider government policy objectives particularly in the areas of public health, education, social integration, tourism, and economic growth. It is important to preserve sport as a public good and use it to help realise policy goals.

The decisions made and support provided by government will define the sport and physical activity sector as well as the wellbeing and health of our nation for generations to come. We must fully harness the sport and physical activity sector to improve the physical, mental, and social wellbeing of the nation and sup


Mary O’Connor is the chief executive of the Federation of Irish Sport