Future of sport in Britain facing serious challenges, say leaders

Despite success at the Olympic and Paralympic Games in Tokyo, the return of spectators and the reopening of leisure facilities, they say massive gaps remain across the sporting environment, which pose substantial risks.

Robert Morini, head of governance at UK Sport, said there were huge financial concerns for all national governing bodies. But there were also ideas for the future, including a call by the head of Great Britain Wheelchair Rugby to give children £50 to spend on becoming active.

“Sports bodies faced some particularly serious challenges even before Covid hit and even more so now,” Morini told the Westminster Media Forum, a gathering of politicians and industry figures. “At the macro level are declining financial revenues, limited financial reserves and no obvious way out of reliance on public funding.

“There is huge complexity in running and innovating public sport with limited resources, competing priorities and pressures, including from public funding bodies. [There are] increasing responsibilities and overheads, some significant challenges at governance level, as well as the need to continuously attract diverse skills.”

Morini said elite sport could not be separated from the broader sporting environment, where grassroots activity continues to fall. “I think it’s really important that high-performance sport is connected to wider deeper issues within our society. Mental and physical wellbeing as well as obesity and inactivity amongst young people start to become long‑term issues … and have an impact on our performance success.”

Ed Warner, the chair of GB Wheelchair Rugby, concurred with Morini’s analysis. ParalympicsGB claimed the first medal for a European country in the sport when they won gold in Tokyo. They did so despite having lost all their national funding at the beginning of the four-year cycle. But Warner, a former chair of UK Athletics and author of sportsinc, said a lack of participation is leaving some sports in existential crisis and called for a joined-up solution from government.

“Many leisure centres remain closed,” he said, citing the example of a drop in participation of 40% in badminton, Britain’s most popular racquet sport. “If a sport can’t be played, it is no surprise governing bodies and clubs are taking a financial hit from reduced membership numbers. England Athletics suffered a 24% fall in membership in the first year of the pandemic. England Netball reported a 25% drop in affiliation fees.

“Government needs an overarching strategy for the provision of multipurpose sports facilities and a willingness to spend accordingly. At present money flows piecemeal to those smartest enough to work a system built on disparate pots of funding. But often it is those least savvy in lobbying who represent the corners of society most in need of sporting opportunity.”

Warner proposed government action to arrest declining levels of activity by giving 11- to 16-year-olds money to spend on sporting activity each year. “Let’s look for interventions to encourage children, not just rely on [them] being inspired by sports stars they might see on a screen. A £50 voucher [would be] under £300m, even if all vouchers were spent. Repeat every year and you should help form some really healthy, worthwhile habits. The multiplier effects in healthcare savings could be phenomenal.”