An important letter arrived at Whitehall last week, addressed to the Secretary of State for Culture, Media and Sport.
It was from the chief executive of Badminton England, Adrian Christy, and it warned that indoor community sport faces a crisis unless the government rescues thousands of facilities for grassroots clubs that are in danger of losing them because of the coronavirus pandemic.
“This would be “catastrophic for the 2.4 million people who play indoor sports regularly”, wrote Christy. “This is more people than play football, rugby and cricket.”
While there was a huge national sigh of relief when the nation’s 6,500 health and fitness centres opened their gyms last month, it appears that the indoor courts – on which so much daily activity usually takes place – have been much slower to re-open.
This, argued Christy, could cause “irrecoverable damage”.
A couple of weeks ago, leisure centres up and down the country started to reopen their doors for the first time since March with the usual social distancing measures we are now so used to seeing in operation across the UK. This also has meant limited people using the centres but also it is believed that almost half have remained closed.
In his letter Christy wrote: “We are extremely concerned that leisure providers, who are able to reopen their facilities, are having to prioritise the provision of gym activity over community sport.
“If indoor places to play are lost, vital community activities will bear the brunt of the brutal effect of Covid-19 on sport.
“These are the sports that reach into every community irrespective of age, gender, ethnicity, and physical ability.”
It is Christy’s last point which struck such a cord with us at Sportside. We see badminton as a key sport for ourselves – and the nation – because of its inclusive nature.
Badminton is an incredibly high-energy, skilfull game which is equally enjoyable for families playing as a group to semi-professionals playing in leagues and tournaments. I started playing a regular game with work colleagues last year and, although there were various skill and fitness levels across the group, all players were able to take something away from the hour’s exercise on the court. I then started to take my eldest son to our local leisure centre where, for £3.50, we could play for two hours, rotating from court to court to play a wide variety of players from all ages, gender and ability.
And Badminton England does a wonderful job with its approach to encouraging membership. Vicky Barlow, the organisation’s Head of Membership, told its website this week: “I was appointed to the Commercial Team as Head of Membership and Ticketing in July 2018 by the Commercial Director who had a huge energy for commercialising badminton.
“We took on the task of fostering a data led approach to everything we do, improving our members communications and connection and ensuring our membership journey was driving income and advocacy into the organisation. This way we have been able to continue to develop our pathway, get more people on-court playing across the country and ensure our elite players are competing on the international circuit to the highest standard.”
It is little wonder it is Britain’s fourth most popular participation sport.
Until I read Christy’s letter last week I had forgotten how much I had enjoyed my badminton sessions and how I had focused more on the return of major sports as the lockdown has eased.
But, as Christy wrote, referencing the recent anti-obesity campaign the : “Government is right to target healthy living and sport as a key part of the solution; however, this will not work if there are not the indoor spaces for people to play. It is crucial, therefore, that further investment in the leisure sector is ring-fenced.”
He also pointed out that half of all badminton clubs in this country play at school facilities which have been shut since the March lockdown started.
Last week Community Leisure UK and Ukactive estimated that leisure centres, swimming pools and community services face a shortfall of more than £800m this year and that grassroots sport in the UK is ultimately the victim.
Christy was joined by the chief executives in charge of the nation’s netball, wheelchair rugby, table tennis and basketball bodies in saying their sports have hit a “brick wall” due to lockdown measures.
The letter asked the Government to help “incentivise” the return of indoor sport like it has done the pubs.
Citing the badminton situation, Christy observed that there are still 232 facilities still not open which equates to about 16,000 badminton courts unavailable to the public. The fear is that a generation of future players could be lost simply due to this lack of access.
The statement signed by Badminton England, England Netball, Basketball England, Volleyball England and Table Tennis England said they wanted the Government to protect sports halls from “being sacrificed as overflow gyms, or, in some cases, not reopening at all.
“These sports provide inclusive environments for a great many, particularly those who cannot get involved in other forms of physical activity due to ability or access.”
Sue Storey, chief executive of Volleyball England, said that six per cent of volleyball teams have reported that they will be able to book an indoor venue before Sept 1.
“Clearly, as a sector, it is vital that we pull together to protect and preserve the physical, social and mental wellbeing benefits that sports provide in abundance,” she added.
Nigel Huddlestone, the sports minister, responded to the letter by saying: “Many sports entities have already taken advantage of measures like furloughing and loans, so support has been given, and Sport England has given out money for emergency cases to the tune of £200m… so a substantial amount of money has been given out.
“I’m talking to colleagues in local government about the importance of getting leisure centres open again. They need to open to generate money and get membership fees coming in again so that is a really important stage. Individual councils also have a responsibility here. But they need to open safely.”