There may be light at the end of Covid-10 crisis tunnel but sport and leisure may need to grasp the opportunity to adopt new approaches to perennial problems. Clare MacLeod, principal consultant at KKP, suggests that Badminton England’s facility strategy might be a step in the right direction
News of encouraging results in several of the coronavirus vaccine trials has re-ignited hope. With so much damage done to individuals, communities and businesses, could there be a chance to insert an LED bulb into the light at the end of the tunnel for the sport and leisure sector?
Not wishing to get carried away, the answer might be a cautious ‘maybe’, perhaps even a hesitant ‘yes’, but lessons have to be learned and opportunities grasped if we are to emerge from 2020 with a functioning sector able to survive and build upon the lessons learnt through multiple lockdowns.
One issue we face at present is the trauma of facility-based sports. Badminton, gymnastics, netball and basketball, to name perhaps the most visible, are struggling to find much to celebrate at the moment. Clubs are seeing income from memberships drop, the relevant national governing bodies (NGB) are taking a hit on affiliation fees and, perhaps potentially most damaging, players are being forced to find different things to do with their leisure time. It doesn’t take long for people’s lifestyles and habits to change; many clubs are concerned that, after prolonged lay-offs from their sport, people will have embarked on alternative activities. While facility-based sports ponder the huge opportunity costs of lost play, promotion and development activity, large chunks of the rest of the sport and leisure sector are heavily at risk from the impact of lockdown on physical activity of all kinds.
One of the earliest and most obvious lockdown problems for sports that hire rather than own facilities was access to indoor space. This has been exacerbated by a very high proportion of public leisure centre sports halls being given over (in part or in full) to other activities, predominantly those related to health and fitness, which ‘pays the bills’ in so many facilities.
Badminton has been working on this issue of access to courts (of the right quality and at the right times) for years but the NGB’s current facility strategy, drawn up just prior to the Covid crisis, sees access to school facilities as a potential solution. Community use of school facilities is far from new as a concept but in a post-lockdown environment it looks like an even better option for sustainable access to court space.
However, this requires a new approach if it is going to solve the problem – or part of it at least – in any effective way. The model currently being explored by Badminton England is for the NGB to support local clubs, leagues and/or coaches to gear up and function as operators of the community use of school facilities. This means them taking on the management function for out-of-hours letting to guarantee court access for badminton players, offer additional space to other users and provide a financial return to schools with minimal school staff involvement in the administration process.
As Nick Rimmer, head of development at Badminton England, explained, such an approach offers a real opportunity to make community-use facilities genuinely accessible.
“We don’t have many badminton-specific facilities and our clubs do not normally own their own venues” Nick said. “There are a few exceptions, probably 20 at most across the country, but we tend to find that better development and progression comes from these clubs. As an NGB, we recognise that having that control over facility access and, vitally, programming leads to better development work, from engagement to performance.
“Even before Covid we were seeing sports hall closures and those that were open becoming smaller in terms of court space and more expensive as the demand for other activities grows. It creates a real challenge for clubs that wish to grow and develop.”
Seeking to turn this around, Badminton England started looking at what it could do help clubs and coaches to run their own facilities. Schools are the obvious starting point for this. Research recently published by the Sport and Recreation Alliance shows that 45% of all sports facilities in England are located on ‘education sites’ yet 46% of these were not available to the community for use pre-Covid-19. This means that almost one quarter of all sports hall space is inaccessible to the public.
But how to make it work better than it has in the past so as to create a practical and sustainable route to facilities for badminton?
“It’s been done on a small scale before,” Nick said, “but we’re generally at the whim of sports hall operators. The challenge is to be a little more imaginative in our thinking and look at whether it can be done on a larger scale. Could a club take over a sports hall for several nights per week and build a programme of community use? It’s something we’re exploring while looking to work with these same clubs to put them on a firmer footing.”
The numbers suggest it is an option with huge potential. There are around 4,000 secondary schools in the country and most have a three- or four-court sports hall. That is all most clubs need if they can obtain the requisite programme time. Badminton England’s figures illustrate that around 500,000 people play the sport every two weeks, 50,000 of whom are NGB members. This suggests considerable demand for facility operators (in this case clubs on behalf of schools) to tap into. With so much play being recreational rather than club-based and so many players struggling to find court time, there would seem to be an opportunity for clubs to offer self-managed pay-and-play options within their allocated court time if the booking and management aspect of the letting process can be made to work for all parties. Badminton England is looking to develop core models that are straightforward and replicable for clubs and schools across the country.
Nick acknowledges that this is a big commitment for a club but the badminton-specific centres operating at the moment demonstrate what an impact dedicated facilities can have.
“We’re not looking to take over the world,” Nick said, “but if we can get a few examples working well we can then look to see what will work. We’re looking at a variety of models for badminton but there is no reason why netball and others could not replicate that model with a little help and support.”
The prospect of an NGB being closely involved with facility management also offers an opportunity for the use of schemes such as Clubmark to shape development and behaviours. Offering priority to clubs and leagues that can demonstrate that they are inclusive and safe, with all the positive habits that Clubmark encourages, would be a step in the right direction. A sport with clubs able to demonstrate that that they can deliver the ‘full circle’ of safe, high-quality sporting experiences has a head start in developing the sport and generating membership revenue.
From an education perspective, sports like badminton and netball have a relatively low physical impact on facilities, and the involvement of the NGB providing oversight and quality assurance in the letting process should ensure that schools get a good (and secure) financial return. They can, thus, be confident that clubs managing and using their facilities are appropriately affiliated and that their sports spaces are making a real contribution to the development of sporting opportunity for their students and the local community.
Such a vision undoubtedly involves a level of sophistication beyond that demonstrated to date in respect of community access to schools but that does not mean it could not happen now. Schools have appropriate facilities, court-based sports can bring a long-term, consistent and continuous demand for space, and the impact of the Covid crisis on leisure centre facilities means that operator access to school sites makes more sense than ever.
My own suggestion would be for a sports county governing body, or even perhaps an innovative active partnership, to establish a relationship with two or three schools, becoming the operator for its sports halls and providing coaching and financial benefit to the school (or academy network) in return for access.
At the moment it looks as if the damage done to the sport and leisure sector by the Covid crisis will be with us for a very long time but Badminton England is at least attempting to grasp the opportunity presented by the need for a new approach to existing problems. Let’s see if it can make it work.
Clare MacLeod is a Director and Principal Consulant at KKP
Contact Clare on firstname.lastname@example.org