John Eady of KKP considers some options that might be considered based upon the calendar of challenges that 2020 has brought. With professional sport in crisis, what does the future hold for grass roots sport and is it time to look again at the role of community clubs?
Sporting headlines tend towards the cataclysmic at the best of times but recently the usual references to crisis, chaos and disaster have been less easy to dismiss. Many clubs, leagues and entire sports are staring over the financial precipice and facing unprecedented circumstances.
There is no doubting the scale of the challenge. The English Football League (EFL) is talking about further losses of £200m without a return of supporters through the gates. Premiership Rugby and rugby’s second tier, the RFU Championship, are questioning whether they can survive much longer in their current form. Hopes for a support package for sport from the DCMS seem to be edging further into the long grass the lengthier discussions become.
But most of the ‘sport in crisis’ headlines, and a proportion of the pleas for central government support, are about the plight of professional sport. For all the economic impact assessments of the professional sports sector, it is hard to justify government bail-outs for leagues that have rewarded themselves handsomely for their multi-billion-pound broadcasting contracts or clubs that commit to spend 120% of their turnover on player wages. In the context of large-scale support for professional sport, we are surely obliged to ask what we are actually getting for our money. If the professional leagues collapsed, we might wonder, what difference would it make to the grassroots?
There are no easy answers. A great many professional clubs do have strong bonds with their communities. The loss of long-established clubs such as Bury FC and Macclesfield Town has had an impact, not least on local supply chains and retailers. KKP’s work on the EFL’s report Measuring the Impact of EFL Clubs in the Community, published in January 2020, demonstrated the scale of these connections, particularly through their club community organisations (CCO); 41 million person-hours of participation in sport and physical activity is not to be dismissed lightly. But CCOs are, technically at least, independent. Could they continue without the support of and relationship with the clubs they work with so closely? It would seem unlikely.
While football gets the lion’s share of attention and investment, professional rugby has been building a comparable financial model. For all its successes, professional rugby has been on the cusp of a financial crisis for as long as it has existed. Being brutally honest, I can’t get too exercised about the Championship losing its RFU funding. Taking rugby’s second tier out of the (RFU underpinned) professional player-based equation and allocating the funds released to other areas of the game was being considered when I first evaluated the financial implications of Rugby’s World Class Programme two decades ago.
At community level, rugby union’s club-focused structure has been one of the game’s strengths for generations but the willingness to accept the trickle-down of professionalism has put it under strain. The Covid-19 crisis may have at least one beneficial effect in that it may compel all clubs below the Premiership to address the fundamental issue of how and where money is spent. Over the last 15 years KKP has worked with dozens of rugby clubs that have invested heavily to recruit and pay players that can move them up a couple of divisions. The notion of putting the existence of your club at risk in order to secure its place at a slightly higher level of recreational rugby has always seemed to be a pointless exercise, now more than ever.
This has evolved to a degree where player recruitment has, for many clubs, become more important than player development. It has led to the ‘products’ of their own investment of time, effort and other resources in mini and junior structures hitting a first XV glass ceiling whereby the opportunity afforded to home-grown players is limited. It has also, in many clubs, shifted the focus of their executive committees and key volunteers onto an annual drive to raise funds which are simply channelled into the pockets of nomadic players who will, for an extra £10 per game, be playing elsewhere the following season. A number of clubs have invested in paying players at levels that have led to them incurring significant debt, to the point where selling off parts of their grounds for housing and other development has been the only way to stave off terminal financial crises.
We may find that the Covid crisis goes some way to clarifying or redefining the relationship between the professional elite and the grassroots of sport. For all the excellent work of EFL club community organisations, the world of professional football is ruthlessly competitive. Rugby’s steps along that road have already prompted some to wonder whether the loss of the connection between a club and cohorts of local players coming from juniors through to the first team is a price worth paying.
With financial challenges arriving with ever greater frequency, we may start to place a higher value on the role of the community-focused club, the kind of set-up that runs dozens of teams, from minis and juniors aged six or less to under-19s, women’s teams, and three or four men’s teams, all with coaches, assistants and helpers. Clubs with their own facilities, a strong and broad membership base, and deep roots in their locality have a much better chance of surviving current (and future) challenges, whatever their sport might be. In such circumstances, which level of league each of your (many) teams is playing in and whether your first team is one league above or two below your local rivals may not prove to be quite as important. With a bit of luck it will revert to being a matter for discussion in the bar and of local bragging rights rather than a huge commitment of club finances.
Just as empty stadia are requiring the elite end of the sporting spectrum to reassess its relationship with its paying spectators, the prospect of even less money (and, in the case of rugby and many other sports, less NGB staff-led professional support) finding its way from the elite to the grass roots may prompt re-evaluation of all the relationships in the game. Professional sport set up to maximise the commercial returns for owners, administrators and players is fine, but that is business based on sport. Government initiatives, NGB energies and available financial support should be primarily focused on clubs that are set up to enrich their communities rather than remote investors.
There are, as always, no easy answers and the question of what sport is for will prompt a different response from everyone asked. However, the reaction to the question of what kind of sport we should be actively seeking to encourage may prove to be clearer.
John Eady is chief executive of KKP.
KKP produced the report Measuring the Impact of EFL Clubs in the Community on behalf of the EFL. The report, published in January 2020, demonstrated the scale of the connections between professional clubs and their local communities, particularly through the work their club community organisations.
Download the full report via the EFL website via the link above [pdf].