Ed Warner’s sports voucher idea is worth listening to

Ed Warner, the former chair of UK Athletics and now chair of GB Wheelchair Rugby, has some interesting things to say about the state of sports participation in the UK which are worth listening to.

Writing his column for City AM, he took a look across grassroots and professional sport and surmised that things look rather ‘gloomy’ right now.

“Many leisure centres remain closed,” he wrote. “Often those that have reopened have cranked up their prices. One competition venue we use at GB Wheelchair Rugby doubled its hire rate for a weekend.

“Badminton England tells me participation in its sport is currently only around 60 per cent of pre-pandemic levels, with venue access a critical factor. It estimates 44 per cent of open venues were unavailable for badminton – the nation’s most played racket sport – over the past 18 months.”

And, as Warner explains, if a sport can’t be played then the governing bodies are going to suffer financially. He cites the fact that England Athletics saw a 24 per cent fall in membership in the first year of the pandemic and England Netball slightly more at 25 per cent.

But, he writes, “most worrying is the slump in organised activity for youngsters. One London rugby club tells me of a 50 per cent drop in minis membership, while their cricket counterpart has been practically destroyed.

“Many facilities are owned by local councils or under their effective control. And the economics at local level just don’t work.”

So what is the answer, according to Warner? 

He continues: “Government, then, needs an overarching strategy for the provision of multi-purpose 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.

“If we can ensure the nation has places to play, let’s then look for interventions to encourage children to use them, not rely on kids being inspired by sport on screen.

“My starter for 10? A £50 voucher for all 11-16 year olds that could be redeemed to join a club, take a course or camp, enter competitions, swim or use a leisure centre. A nudge for life.

“That’s under £300m, even if all vouchers were spent. Repeat every year and you should help form worthwhile habits. And the multiplier effect in healthcare savings could be phenomenal.”

It certainly sounds like a step in the right direction. 

Warner also turned his attention to the professional sports arena in this country, and suggested that an alarming number of empty seats at sports venues is also contributing to a lack of participation.

“The greatest threat to the financial health of professional sport right now is diminished crowds,” he writes. 

“The biggest occasions are still in high demand. A Lord’s Test match, Cristiano Ronaldo’s return to Old Trafford, NFL at the Tottenham Hotspur Stadium.

“But it is no coincidence that Pep Guardiola has made headlines calling for Manchester City fans to come to the Etihad. And if Premier League clubs are having to work harder than usual to fill their grounds, what hope lesser clubs and lesser sports?

“When the pandemic slashed event revenues to zero last summer, the UK government stepped in with a series of emergency loans to shore up organisers’ finances. Understandably, the programme bore the hallmarks of rushed decisions and some of the money sits untouched on governing body balance sheets.

“Now that live sport is back, politicians must decide whether the fall in spectators warrants more considered intervention. Some sports will right themselves over time given the sheer scale of their followers.

“The answer, sport by sport, must lie in the connectivity of professional competition to grassroots participation. Because the greatest challenge lies in general levels of (in)activity within a UK population with a high propensity to obesity – as laid bare by the pandemic.”

And here Warner returns to a theme we have been looking at here at Sportside in recent weeks. Do people need to ‘be inspired’ to play more sport to get the nation more active – or do people simply need to be more active in order for sports to grow? 

Warner says: “We sports leaders like to claim that elite sportspeople inspire the nation to get active. But if we’re honest, we can’t prove that. London 2012 doesn’t appear to have had any lasting impact on the nation’s activity levels, although it is possible that without the Olympics they might have been even lower.

“Already there are calls for next year’s Commonwealth Games in Birmingham to succeed on the inspiration front where London failed. To do that, there has to be the capacity in venues, in trained coaches and in local club volunteers to absorb any Games-inspired bump in demand. Lifetime habits are not formed in a single taster session.”

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