8.Physical inactivity is responsible for one in six UK deaths, and is estimated to cost the country £7.4 billion every year. Before the Covid-19 pandemic, Sport England’s 2018–19 ‘Active Lives’ survey identified record levels of activity among adults in the UK: 63.3% of adults (28.6 million) were undertaking an average of 150+ minutes per week, an increase on the previous year of 400,000. Since the Covid-19 crisis began, Sport England has commissioned weekly surveys to find out how adults’ activity levels have been impacted by the lockdown restrictions. In the week commencing 30 March, Sport England found that there had been “massive disruption in the physical activity behaviours of adults and children”: 31% of adults did more activity compared to pre-lockdown, and 41% did less. In their ninth weekly survey, covering the week commencing 15 June, Sport England found that 28% of adults did more compared to pre-lockdown and 25% did less.
9.Yet, in some ways, the benefits of daily physical activity have increased in profile during lockdown. This is partly owing to the Government’s messaging around the freedom to exercise outside, but is also because of the explosion of free online fitness content such as The Body Coach’s weekday ‘PE with Joe’ sessions, and Kate and Rio Ferdinand’s ‘Ferdinand Fitness’ workouts and challenges. Although Sport England found that 53% of adults had been encouraged to exercise by the Government’s guidance during lockdown, differences in activity levels continue between demographics: older people, those on lower incomes and those with disabilities or long-term health conditions have all found it harder to be active during the pandemic. Some submissions have voiced concerns about how participation in physical activity by women and people from BAME groups will be affected. Ali Donnelly, Marketing Director of Sport England’s ‘This Girl Can’ campaign, told us that at the beginning of March 2020 more women than ever were active, but that the Covid-19 crisis has prompted an exacerbation of gender inequalities in terms of activity levels, and that “people who stand to benefit the most struggle the most” to be active. This is reiterated by the Sport for Development Coalition who told us that the:
direct risk on health and economic situation is worse for women. They are more likely to be exposed to COVID-19 with 2.5 million of the 3.2 million workers in highest risk roles are women. Women are also doing the bulk of unpaid care (for children, elderly, disabled or vulnerable relatives) and proportionately more childcare, reinforcing stereotypical gender roles.
10.Sport England’s Active Lives survey has consistently found that Black and Asian individuals are the most inactive of all ethnic groups. The groups with the lowest levels of participation are Asian females and Black females: in 2018/19, 63% of White British women were active compared with 53% of Black women and 49% of Asian (excluding Chinese) women. With Type II Diabetes more prevalent in BAME communities, and a link identified between Covid-19 and Type II Diabetes, we are concerned that decreased opportunities for physical activity during and after this crisis will exacerbate Covid-related deaths within BAME groups and communities. Submissions have also raised the issue of fear of returning to group physical activity. We were told by the ‘This Girl Can’ campaign that women strongly associate exercise with fear as an emotion: fear of performing badly, fear of how they look, fear of the opportunity cost associated with exercise. All of these are likely to be exacerbated by the virus and possible risks of transmission when getting back to exercise after lockdown.
11.We are concerned that a lack of confidence, and a fear of being in close proximity with people from outside their own household, will affect people’s return to group sports, particularly those that take place indoors (such as indoor exercise classes), those that require physical contact (such as rugby), and those that require participants to be in close proximity for extended periods of time (such as rowing). We support requests from the sport sector for clear and effective public messaging from the Government to ensure people feel safe returning to group physical activity. To help to get the UK moving again, the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport should fund advertisements, based on the ‘This Girl Can’ model, using realistic content about how to get back to exercise without fear. In the medium-to-long term, we recommend that DCMS establishes a fund to invest specifically in helping those people whose activity levels have been adversely affected by the lockdown restrictions—including older people, BAME people, disabled people, women, people from lower socio-economic backgrounds and those unable to access physical activity content online—to ensure that the progress that was being made in physical activity levels within these groups is not set back by Covid-19.
12.Initially, social distancing necessitated the cancellation of nearly all recreational sport bar solo running, walking and indoor household-only exercise. Early June saw a limited re-opening of some distanced sports including tennis and fishing, and in July, some other recreational team sports, such as cricket, were able to return once guidance was approved. While some commercial gyms have adapted by moving training content online, shifting to digital content and systems has been harder for subsidised leisure centres, and places renewed emphasis on the importance of people having access to the internet—as we shall explore further in chapter 5. For many community sports organisations, school-based delivery has been compromised by closures, the ability to fundraise has been curtailed and, in some cases, corporate sponsors have pushed back delivering their commitments due to financial pressures. In April 2020, one in four community sports clubs in London were “unsure” as to whether they would still exist in October. Sport England told us that:
Shrinking reserves, continued costs and a long-term loss of income risk the financial viability of an increasing number of community sport organisations.
13.Sport England’s emergency funding package, launched at the end of March, was over-subscribed, and its CEO told us in May that it was “probably [going to] have to look at extending” its funding streams to help clubs through this crisis. There is general consensus that this funding was well distributed to those who qualified, with the Royal Yachting Association stating that Sport England’s “clear and decisive action” focusing on specific objectives set an example to DCMS and other arms-length bodies. Other organisations such as the England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB) and the Rugby Football Union (RFU) have introduced their own support packages to assist recreational clubs within their own sports, but many clubs have still been left with significant shortfalls. While some have benefited from business support grants put in place by the Government, Tom Harrison, CEO of the ECB, told us that:
clubs that are listed as community amateur sports clubs do not qualify for those loans […] Some local borough councils are not awarding those loans to clubs that fit in that category. That is a bit of an issue for us. We have about 4,000 clubs that do not qualify anyway for that.
14.Leisure facilities, such as swimming pools, gyms, football pitches and sports halls, are vital to local communities in providing accessible and cost-effective facilities for physical and mental wellbeing. Many are council-run. Local authorities are responsible for around one-third of the UK’s swimming pools, almost 20% of health and fitness facilities and 31% of grass pitches. Yet there are concerns about the future of local authority funding for sport and leisure facilities in light of increased budgetary pressures resulting from the Covid-19 crisis. Ukactive reports that some “local authorities are attempting to withhold funding from suppliers within the physical activity sector”, and its CEO Huw Edwards told us that it might not be viable for up to one-third of facilities to reopen. The Government has announced that gyms, indoor swimming pools and leisure centres can reopen from 25 July with measures such as timed booking systems and “enhanced cleaning”. However, these come with a cost, and the loss of any facilities or community programmes would have a significant impact on health and community infrastructure. This would go against one of the key tenets of the 2015 Sport Strategy, to increase participation by BAME communities, and women and girls. Moreover, children lose up to 74% of their fitness over the summer holidays, with those from the poorest backgrounds affected most, so maximising provision of leisure facilities over the summer is crucial.
15.The cessation of community sport countrywide during lockdown has hit under-represented groups the hardest. While we welcome the announcement that some recreational sports teams can now resume play, we are concerned about gyms and leisure centres. These facilities act as community hubs, often providing subsidised facilities to those who most need them, but have been the last sport sector to re-open. Following huge levels of uncertainty, it is essential that leisure facilities are protected and have the funds to ensure that the necessary hygiene and social distancing measures can be put in place to re-open fully. The worst outcome would be for local authority funding shortfalls to translate into leisure centre closures; if this were to happen, the Government would risk abrogating its own 2015 Sport Strategy commitment to increase participation in sport by under-represented groups. DCMS’s Sport Working Group must work with local councils to ensure necessary funding is in place to preserve leisure centre facilities. This must be done with urgency so that leisure centres are fully operational in August to provide crucial fitness opportunities for children during the school holidays.
16.The long-term impact of the Covid-19 crisis on activity and participation levels is unclear. However, fitness levels are crucial to the UK’s response to the pandemic. As we have highlighted, inequalities in accessing exercise have been exacerbated by the crisis, and we are concerned that decreased opportunities for physical activity will exacerbate Covid-related deaths within BAME communities and among other demographics in society. Therefore, obtaining and processing data to increase exercise levels and boost people’s resilience to the virus will be vital in addressing health inequalities. London Sport told us that developing long-term indicators that enable a better understanding of health inequalities will help to form a “targeted, long-term sectoral response”. Sport England has repurposed its “immediate ‘horizon-scanning’ work […] to better understand how current trends might continue to shape people’s lives in the post-Covid-19 world”.
17.We recognise the importance of ‘horizon-scanning’ work to ensuring people maintain and increase their activity levels, which in turn will boost their resilience to the virus. However, smaller organisations are unlikely to have the resources available to collect data, analyse it and then act on that insight. We believe that Sport England is in the best position to continue this work. We call on DCMS to provide Sport England with the necessary resources for it to prioritise data collection, so that long-term indicators can be developed to help the sports sector better understand the needs of its audiences.
18.The Covid-19 outbreak had an immediate and significant impact on elite sport. On 9 March, the Secretary of State for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport stated that it was “very premature” to be talking about the cancellation of sporting events. However, on 16 March, the Government said that “large gatherings should not take place”. By this point, a significant number of elite sports had already cancelled or postponed competitions, but it was not until 23 March that the Prime Minister announced that gatherings of more than two people, as well as all social events, would be stopped. The global spread of the pandemic put UK Sport—the UK’s high-performance sports agency that supports athletes on their journeys to the Olympic and Paralympic Games—in need of a £53.4 million extension in Government funding to ensure that British athletes are able to qualify for and attend the delayed Tokyo Games. We were pleased when, on 26 June, the Secretary of State wrote to UK Sport to confirm that the funding agreement and underwrite would be rolled over.
19.Elite sport faces a mixed picture as the UK emerges from lockdown. Some sports, such as Premier League football, have resumed behind closed doors. However, Rick Parry, Chairman of the English Football League (EFL), told us that for clubs in his leagues, playing games behind closed doors is financially “almost neutral, and for many clubs, it could actually cost them to play because they will have the cost of staging games”. He told us:
We are looking at ways of streaming our product via iFollow, which is a hugely successfully EFL streaming platform, so we would be able to recoup some money that way, but it wouldn’t make up the whole shortfall.
20.Cricket has been one of the latest sports to restart, with matches at county level only due to start in August. At the national level, the England and Wales Cricket Board (ECB) told us that if it is “unable to play any cricket in 2020, COVID-19 could cost the game as much as £380m through lost income”, and that even in the best case scenario of cricket returning in August 2020, the game is still set to lose approximately £100 million. Since giving evidence, the ECB has put in a huge effort to bring back test cricket in order to fulfil its broadcast obligations, which will mean some mitigation of financial losses. The British Horseracing Authority estimates that racing is expected to lose around £100 million “with losses continuing to be incurred owing to a limited programme in the aftermath of resumption and reduced income streams”.
21.The first rugby matches are due to be played on 15 August as part of the Gallagher Premiership, but the Rugby Football Union (RFU) has described the impact of Covid-19 on the game as “devasting”. Although the RFU tells us that it and many of its clubs have benefited from some of the Government support schemes, such as the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme (CJRS) and VAT/PAYE deferral schemes, the RFU itself does not expect to recover financially for “four to five years” on the assumption that the autumn internationals are able to go ahead later in the year. This is because the majority of revenue is made on match days from ticketing and hospitality. Bill Sweeney, CEO of the RFU, told us that:
If the autumn internationals go ahead, we will still lose something like £32 million in revenue through to the end of the next financial year. If the internationals go ahead but are behind closed doors, that will be a negative impact of £85 million. If the games are cancelled entirely, that will be £107 million on top of the £15 million we have already lost.
22.With no clear messaging from the Government about when spectators can expect to return to sporting events, we support calls from elite sports organisations for the Government to extend its financial assistance for those organisations that are unable to generate revenue until mass gatherings are permitted. We recommend that DCMS works with HM Treasury to identify organisations within the professional sport sector that remain unable to generate revenue until mass gatherings are permitted again, and to ensure that the systems that have helped them survive the crisis thus far, such as the Coronavirus Job Retention Scheme and the VAT and PAYE deferral period, are extended beyond the current cut-off dates, and backdated where they have already come to an end (such as the VAT payments deferral scheme).
23.Towards the beginning of the crisis, the Premier League was hit by controversy when a number of its clubs, including Tottenham and Liverpool, decided to use the CJRS and furlough non-playing staff while continuing to pay players’ wages in full. The Premier League remains the highest paying football league in the world, at nearly £3.2 million per player in 2019, so it is no surprise to us that some clubs—particularly Liverpool, the world’s seventh richest football club—faced fierce backlash.
24.English Football League (EFL) clubs also suffered pay-related problems, as they tried to negotiate player wage deferrals with the Professional Footballers’ Association (PFA). In May, EFL Chairman Rick Parry told us that clubs’ “cash hole towards autumn looks pretty grim”; at that point, the EFL and PFA had agreed that clubs could defer up to a maximum of 25% of players’ wages for April, under certain conditions. The PFA and EFL also agreed to form a working group to focus on the short-term (May and June) and medium-term position (July onwards). Elaborating on pre-existing problems with EFL finances, Mr Parry told us that ‘parachute payments’ from the Premier League are “an evil that need to be eradicated” and that:
Six clubs in the Championship are in receipt of parachute payments, giving them an average of £40 million a club; the other 18 clubs get £4.5 million each, so they are struggling to keep up.
However, Mr Parry told us that he sees this period as an opportunity for a reset of football’s business model as “the EFL model financially was not great before the virus” and that the introduction of “salary caps and cost controls are essential”. Indeed, in 2018, wages in the Championship amounted to 106% of turnover and in League One and League Two to 80% to 90% of turnover. Mr Parry told us:
I think there is a need for a reset—I wouldn’t call it a bailout, I’d call it a restructuring, a rethinking. For me, it is overdue and necessary.
25.In recent years, a number of EFL clubs have faced huge financial difficulties. Bury FC, for example, was expelled from the EFL in August 2019 after its financial issues escalated, including the owner failing to pay debts and staff. After a series of financial issues, Bolton Wanderers was taken over by administrators in May 2019 due to an unpaid tax bill of approximately £1.2m. During the 2017–18 season, Premier League clubs made £4.8 billion with combined operating profits (before transfers) of £900 million, whereas the 72 clubs in the Championship, League One and League Two made combined losses of £411 million.
26.Mr Parry told us that the Premier League has informed the EFL that if it is able to resume its season (as the Premier League has done, behind closed doors), the Premier League would be in a position to talk “about support for the lower leagues”, but that as of the beginning of May, discussions about financial assistance had been “limited”. However, when Richard Masters, Chief Executive of the Premier League, appeared before us on 30 June, he told us that the Premier League had not had “a specific approach from the EFL” and that despite meeting with them every week during this period, “it has not been a topic of discussion”.
27.The current football business model is not sustainable. The Covid-19 crisis has shone a stark light on the financial issues within football, specifically in the leagues below the Premier League. The Premier League is the main income generator of English football. If it does not step up to help the English Football League, many more clubs will follow in Bury FC’s footsteps. The EFL needs also to ensure it develops a more sustainable financial model.
28.Since the death of George Floyd and the ‘Black Lives Matter’ protests in early June, efforts have been made to raise awareness about lack of diversity within football’s (and other sports’) boards and management structures. No Premier League club and virtually no English Football League club has a black owner, chairman or chief executive. England footballer Raheem Sterling has highlighted that the problem goes beyond boards; for example, he noted that Frank Lampard and Steven Gerrard have top coaching jobs while Ashley Cole and Sol Campbell do not. The flying of a ‘White Lives Matter’ banner above Burnley during a match in June emphasises the distance that football has to travel to stamp out racism. Indeed, the problem goes well beyond football: the FA, Rugby Football Union, England and Wales Cricket Board, Lawn Tennis Association, England Golf, UK Athletics and British Cycling have one black board member between them. Only 3% of board members of national governing bodies are black, and 64% of funded national governing bodies have no BAME board members.
29.The FA has written an open letter to ‘English football’ calling for a voluntary code for ‘Equality In Football Leadership’ to which every level of club—grassroots, semi-professional or elite—would be able to sign up. The Code would involve clubs at all levels of the game committing to achieving diversity, and “ensuring that their boardrooms and backroom staff better reflect the communities they serve”. The UK’s leading charity for racial equality in sport, Sporting Equals, has proposed going further and introducing targets to ensure that all publicly funded sports organisations in Britain have at least 20% BAME representation on their boards. The charity proposes that Government updates the Code for Sport Governance to tackle the problem.
30.Football has long had a problem with homophobia. In 2013, Stonewall launched an annual campaign to “kick out” homophobia in football. When Premier League teams including Manchester United, Arsenal and Chelsea showed solidarity with Stonewall’s pro-LGBT Rainbow Laces campaign 18 months ago, they received thousands of homophobic responses on social media.
31.We asked Premier League Chief Executive Richard Masters what he was doing to change the situation. He said that the conditions are right for more footballers to come out, and that if a gay player did wish to speak openly about their sexuality, they would be “embraced by the game”. Eniola Aluko, ex-England women’s footballer, agreed, adding that the first ‘out’ footballer would be “widely praised, applauded, lauded and respected”. This left us questioning why, if this was the case, so few footballers have felt able to go public about their sexuality—this June, former footballer Thomas Beattie became only the second male professional player from the UK (after Justin Fashanu) to come out as gay. It is essential that steps are taken to understand what barriers stand in the way of gay footballers, and how much of the responsibility lies with clubs and how much with fans. To that end, we plan to continue the work by our predecessor Committee in looking at opportunities to amend the Football Offences Act 1991 to make homophobic chanting illegal.
32.We firmly believe that football must use its response to the Covid-19 crisis to ‘reset’. The crisis has shone a light on the culture of unfair pay in football. The decision by some Premier League clubs to furlough non-playing staff was deplorable, and we welcomed its reversal. Parachute payments must become a thing of the past, and considerable work must be done to advance work on salary caps. DCMS should engage with the Premier League and the EFL to learn lessons from abroad on policies such as salary caps, which may seem radical to those inside UK football, but seem to work well elsewhere.
33.Football must also become more representative. The fact that no Premier League club and virtually no English Football League club has a black owner, chair or chief executive, is a fundamental inequality at the heart of the game. We do not believe that the voluntary initiative proposed by the FA will motivate clubs to act with sufficient speed. Instead, we recommend that DCMS revises the Code for Sport Governance, adding targets for BAME representation on boards. We also wish to record our dismay at the slow progress in kicking out homophobia from football. It is crucial that everyone involved in the game is clear about the remaining barriers to players coming out. The Covid-19 crisis is an opportunity to improve a number of areas within football, and to this end we will continue to pursue opportunities in this Parliament to introduce legislation outlawing homophobic chanting at matches.
34.Over recent years, women’s elite sports have been consistently underfunded compared to men’s. In many cases, the financial models for broadcasting and ownership differ from those in male sports. The Covid-19 crisis has highlighted, and in some cases even exacerbated, this inequality. Before the crisis, women’s sport accounted for just 4% of sports media coverage in the UK. The Sports Minister, Nigel Huddleston MP, told the media in May that the Government is “alive to the pressures faced by women’s sports and are fully committed to helping them recover so we don’t lose any of the great momentum that has built up”. While we acknowledge and welcome the Premier League’s “gesture” of giving approximately £1 million to the women’s professional football game to assist them with setting up a testing system, the assistance came somewhat late in the day and has not prevented women’s competitions being cancelled this season.
35.Although professional men’s sport is beginning to return behind closed doors, women’s sporting events this summer have been largely cancelled. While the FA took an early decision to void all tiers of the women’s football season below the National League, and to cancel the Women’s Super League season, the men’s game (via the Premier League) has returned without fans in attendance. The Rugby Football Union ended the women’s season while the (men’s) Premiership was simply postponed to 15 August 2020. British women’s cycling races such as the Women’s Tour and the Tour de Yorkshire were simply cancelled, while the Union Cycliste Internationale has announced new tour dates for the Tour de France. Other high profile sporting events that would usually have generated a significant amount of coverage and publicity for female elite athletes, such as the Tokyo 2020 Olympic and Paralympic Games and The Hundred have also been postponed or cancelled.
36.The lack of visibility of women’s sport this summer risks undoing work to improve funding for women’s elite sport. Cancellation of women’s events is likely to reduce the number of women being inspired to take part in sporting activities. In its response to this report, the Government should outline how it intends to support women’s sport post-crisis and ensure that, going forward, men’s elite sports are not further prioritised at the expense of the women’s game.
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Published: 23 July 2020