Government must now match its lip-service to sport with hard cash

Sporting organisations relying on Budget 2021 to help maintain vital infrastructure

Mary O’Connor, CEO of Federation of Irish Sport: The federation has painted a bleak picture of national governing bodies facing revenue losses of up to 70 per cent due to the impact of Covid-19. Photograph: Tommy Dickson/Inpho

Mary O’Connor, CEO of Federation of Irish Sport: The federation has painted a bleak picture of national governing bodies facing revenue losses of up to 70 per cent due to the impact of Covid-19. Photograph: Tommy Dickson/Inpho

 

Irish sport has lots riding on tomorrow’s budget. The financial outlook for many organisations will be determined for some time to come by how the Government shapes Budget 2021. Amidst all the uncertainty, keeping the wider perspective in mind will be important.

Disappointment is likely to be the only give-away in this budget. Coronavirus makes sure of that. A society beleaguered by a public health crisis that threatens to only get worse is relying on Government for many things, including to tide them over.

It’s a context that leaves sports bodies with a delicate line to thread. They have to make their case for whatever resources are available. They wouldn’t be doing their job otherwise. But getting the tone right is vital to public goodwill.

When public debate is about stark choices between lives or livelihoods, sport has to carefully navigate its place in the financial pecking order.

In a public health emergency however, many will invite sport to take a place towards the back of the priority queue

It means there’s no contradiction in pointing out how there are more pressing matters than games and entertainment while also acknowledging that they are embedded in the fabric of a society battling this deadly illness.

In its pre-budget submission the Federation of Irish Sport has painted a bleak picture of national governing bodies facing revenue losses of up to 70 per cent due to the impact of Covid-19. The GAA, FAI and IRFU have estimated a combined financial loss this year of€81 million.

The federation has also pointed out how costs such as insurance and maintenance continue despite no activity and no income. Clubs of all types and disciplines all around the country are under serious pressure to survive due to loss of membership, sponsorships and other revenue streams.

Last week the federation’s CEO Mary O’Connor pointed out to an Oireachtas committee that Badminton Ireland has suffered a 76 per cent loss of annual affiliation and that 10 per cent of swimming pools in the country have closed since March.

She warned that tomorrow’s budget is a “watershed moment” for sport in Ireland.

In June the Government provided €70 million to assist sport. The GAA, FAI and IRFU got up to €40 million between them. With no sign of spectators returning anytime soon the country’s three main sporting organisations are in a perilous financial position and have pleaded for more support.

Priority queue

In a public health emergency however, with hundreds of thousands of jobs under threat should the medical situation get worse, and everyone staring down the barrel of an existential threat, many will invite sport to take a place towards the back of the priority queue.

Despite thousands of jobs being tied up in the sector, an inevitable perception will be that sport is a relatively frivolous consideration in the circumstances. Failure to take that into account in reaction to tomorrow’s budget has the potential to rebound.

A statement like the one from the Club Players Association last week, for instance, where it appealed to the GAA to reverse its decision to suspend all games at club level, and allow “a satisfactory end to the 2020 season,” appeared to be tin-eared in terms of wider public sentiment.

The CPA added that players shouldn’t be “left hanging”for the next number of months, a consideration that will feel like far from a problem to many others factoring in rather more pressing difficulties.

Ensuring a viable sporting infrastructure is in place once the worst of the pandemic is over is in everyone’s interests

While it is unfair to pin the blame on GAA authorities for pictures of the rampant ‘yahooery’ widely circulated after recent high-profile club matches, including Blackrock’s victory in the Cork county hurling final, such distinctions will be lost on those who couple such scenes with sport and are appalled at such stupidity.

Reputational blowback from such gaffes doesn’t disappear quickly. Irish racing has been an exemplar for how to operate coronavirus procedures since its resumption in June. Yet it still gets the Cheltenham festival mess flung at it despite not being directly responsible for that blunder.

It’s blunt evidence of how even the perception of exceptionalism is neither quickly forgiven or forgotten.

Even in the best of times the response to any budget is to want more. But in such dark times, making do with less is almost certainly going to have to be the reality. Being seen to buck those traces risks being counterproductive.

The nature of pre-budget submissions are that every demand, request and aspiration get put down on paper, often on the basis that failure to do so indicates a lack of ambition or that the worse that can happen anyway is Government saying no.

When arguing for resources the benefit sports supply are substantial though often vague, long-term and intangible. That doesn’t make them any less worthwhile or dilute the merit of the case itself.

However totting up such benefits right now is a tough sell – in the face of the kind of stark black and white statistics involved in the major health emergency on our doorsteps.

Sticking-plasters

Rather than insisting that new investment and demands live up to commitments made pre-Covid, the best outcome may end up being a series of financial sticking-plasters. Rather than getting what they want, getting what they need is crucial.

Ensuring a viable sporting infrastructure is in place once the worst of the pandemic is over is in everyone’s interests.

The pandemic has flipped financial models on their heads, from the smallest voluntary community club to the biggest commercial operation. All will require major adjustments even in the best-case scenario of the virus finally being brought under control. It makes time of the essence and time costs.

Only the most obtuse can’t appreciate the Government’s priorities in the face of an unprecedented emergency. The urgency of the situation has to temper any indignation or disappointment tomorrow. But sustaining sport until better times return also requires Government to step up and put its money where its mouth is.

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