The research project, led by Sheffield Hallam University’s Sport Industry Research Group on behalf of the Sport and Recreation Alliance, looked at how Covid-19 has impacted grassroots physical activity across the country.
Over 1,400 community sport providers involved in the delivery of more than 75 sports and activities took part in the survey which focused primarily on voluntary clubs. Around four million people regularly access physical activity through such clubs in England alone.
The findings demonstrate an incredible resilience in the sector, with volunteers continuing to support their clubs across the lockdown period. However, a lack of income during this time has placed additional pressure on the financial reserves of our community organisations and the results show that grassroots clubs with greater ethnic diversity face the biggest challenges.
The findings showed that virtually all participation opportunities organised by community sport providers ceased during lockdown and that organisations responding to the survey lost an average of 60% of their members.
This figure is projected to recover to 75% of pre-pandemic levels once restrictions are removed, with clubs and other providers expecting to deliver 90% of their participation opportunities once restrictions are fully lifted.
This suggests that organisations believe that could deliver activity at, or close to, their pre-pandemic operating capacity.
A priority which emerged from the study was the need to support the UK’s three million coaches, from elite down to grassroots.
Paid coaches were the individuals within the sport and physical activity workforce that suffered the most significant fall in numbers, dropping by 63% during the pandemic.
Activities projecting the most significant decreases in the number of paid coaching staff include archery (45%), athletics (38%) and boxing (43%).
Volunteers in administrative and facility maintenance roles seem to have ‘stayed at the wheel’ to some extent during lockdown, with only one in four administrators inactive during the pandemic, and 98% predicted to return.
Overall, voluntary clubs expect to lose only 4% of their overall volunteer workforce, compared with 13% for companies and paid individuals.
Responses showed that around one in three providers operate without any financial cushion. During the pandemic period, those providers with cash reserves saw them decline by 18%, while liabilities increased by an average of 20%.
To mitigate the impact of lockdown on participation levels, most providers have reduced expenditure in line with this decrease in activity, although the 41% reduction in expenditure was outpaced by a 51% drop in income. Due to the shutdown in provision, the sparsity of new funding opportunities also presented a challenge for generating income for grassroots clubs.
The study also shows that the impact of the lockdown on providers’ financial viability, while broadly negative, may be reversed if organisations are able to return to delivering income generating activities at the earliest opportunity, with the availability of facilities a priority in this area.
“The research underlines the critical role that volunteers play in providing participation opportunities every day"
David Barrett, research fellow in the Sport Industry Research Group at Sheffield Hallam University, said: “We are delighted to be supporting the work of the Sport and Recreation Alliance. Our research confirms that despite the ravages of the pandemic, community sport providers are poised to deliver on behalf of their members as soon as facilities open their doors. Volunteers have worked hard as ever behind the scenes to prepare their clubs for the return to action, and with the support of their governing bodies they stand ready to welcome participants back to the field of play.
“The research underlines the critical role that volunteers play in providing participation opportunities every day, which support a range of positive physical and mental health outcomes. We know that for every £1 invested in community sport and physical activity, £4 is generated in social and economic benefits, and this has rarely been so important to the health and wellbeing of the nation.
“It may take time for clubs to get back up to full speed, and some private providers may need ongoing support, but there is no question that the determination to return to play exists among volunteers and paid providers alike. As lockdown restrictions are removed one by one, we should expect to see community sport get back on its feet and come out fighting.”
Sport and Recreation Alliance CEO, Lisa Wainwright said: “This research highlights how successfully our community clubs have coped in unprecedented times. The resilience, determination and passion shown is to be commended and this is why grassroots activity remains in a healthy position.
“As a sector, it is really important that we make being active the easy choice and one that is safe, enjoyable and beneficial to all.
“Any decline in the quantity or quality of coaching available is likely to have a negative impact on returning members and so it is crucial this is addressed to avoid a further decline in activity levels.
“The availability of facilities is also fundamental to the entire eco-system of delivery for sport and activity providers and is key to the restart process.We must make sure that facilities are opened as quickly and as widely as possible to encourage participants back and to allow our community organisations to start building their income once again and provide them with the financial sustainability to continue delivering their activity.
“This has taken on even greater significance following the latest Active Lives Adult Survey from Sport England which has shown a concerning drop in activity levels, with certain demographics harder hit than others.
“Community sport clubs are the life blood of cities, towns and village across the country and we must support them as the nation recovers, to allow everyone to take advantage of the incredible wellbeing benefits of sport and recreation”
The full report can be read here.