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What does the latest lockdown mean for grassroots sport?

At midnight on 5 January 2021, England entered its third national lockdown in its fight against Covid-19. As was the case during the first lockdown in March last year, people must stay at home except in certain circumstances, such as to shop for basic necessities, to go work (if you cannot reasonably do so from home) and to seek medical assistance. So what does the latest lockdown mean for sport? And what will the long-term impact be?

Which sports have continued? 

The current government guidance states that “elite sportspeople” or “those on an official elite sports pathway” can continue to compete and train. Unlike the first lockdown in March last year, this means that the English Football League (“EFL”) is continuing, as are professional rugby tournaments such as the upcoming Six Nations.

Organised outdoor sport for disabled people is also allowed to continue.

Which sports have stopped?

All other non-elite organised sport cannot currently take place. People can only train with members of their own household or with one person from another household. This means that all organised grassroots sport has stopped.

What will the short-term impact be?

The short-term impact of the latest lockdown on non-elite athletes is clear: it will be harder for them to train. This is particularly the case for athletes who participate in team sports, such as rugby, football and netball. Whilst motivated athletes may be able to maintain their fitness levels with other forms of solo exercise, such as going for a run or a bike ride, a lot is gained (both physically and mentally) from team training sessions. Younger athletes are also likely to be disproportionately affected as it is more difficult for them to train on their own in the dark, winter months.

Shireen Higgins, middle-distance running coach at Windsor, Slough, Eton and Hounslow Athletics Club, has noticed that the latest lockdown is also having an impact on the mental health of grassroots athletes. Shireen commented that “the impact of sport on people’s mental health is often unseen by the wider community. Unfortunately, with this latest lockdown, I have noticed that some young athletes are afraid to leave their homes because of the virus, because of the judgment they may receive from other members of the public or because they’ve lost motivation as many of the races they were training for have been cancelled. At the same time, they are worried about not being fit enough to compete when races resume. It’s a really difficult time for them”. 

The lockdowns have had an impact on grassroots clubs too. With their facilities forced to close, clubs may not be able to charge membership fees or subscription costs. Even if clubs do decide to charge these fees, athletes may refuse to pay on the basis that they aren’t currently receiving anything in return – they can’t access the facilities, train with others or compete. Further, whilst technology may enable some coaches to continue providing advice to their athletes, coaches at grassroots level are usually volunteers who don’t charge for their time (and so this is not a source of revenue clubs can rely on). While their income streams have taken a significant hit, grassroots clubs are still incurring expenses such as ground rent, water and electricity and these bills are becoming increasingly difficult to pay. Sadly, some grassroots clubs are already feeling the effects of the lockdowns, with an estimated 10 per cent of grassroots football clubs having already folded.

What will the long-term impact be?

Unfortunately, more grassroots sport clubs might be victims of this latest lockdown. According to Utilita’s recent State of Play Report, almost half of all parents fear for the future of their grassroots football clubs as a direct result of Covid-19. These fears are likely to be replicated across other grassroots sports too.

For the clubs that are able to weather the storm, they are likely to see a drop in athletes returning to the club post-pandemic. For example, in football, more than three in ten players do not intend to return to their grassroots club. Statistics such as this have led to concern from some in the sports sector that Covid-19 could lead to a lost generation of talented athletes. Further, with fewer people engaged in sport and more people working sedentarily at home, we could see a rise in weight-related health conditions after the pandemic.

However, it isn’t all doom and gloom. There have been (and will continue to be) many positive stories as a result of the pandemic. Volunteer coaches have worked tirelessly to keep their athletes motivated, influencers (such as Joe Wicks “The Body Coach” and our ambassadors, Hannah Cockcroft, Nathalie McGroin and Alfie Hewitt) have kept the nation fit with free online exercise classes and many people have taken up new sporting hobbies. After such a long time confined (largely) to our homes, we might see more people joining grassroots sports clubs post-pandemic.

To assist with the safe return of sport, Sport England have also opened a £16.5m Return to Play Fund. Organisations such as sports clubs, governing bodies and leisure operators can apply for funding awards ranging from £300 to £50,000. The grants could assist with a club’s running costs, volunteer training or even new ways of delivering sport to existing participants in a Covid-secure way. For example, last summer the RFU created a new form of non-contact rugby called “Ready 4 Rugby” which allowed clubs to open, run sessions and charge subs whilst following the government’s guidelines on non-contact sport. This sort of adaption could be eligible for funding from Sport England.

To find out more about the impact of Covid-19 on the sports sector, please read our report "Coronavirus: The Sports Perspective". If you or your organisation have any questions, please visit our website here, our get in touch with Hannah Clipston, Tom Barnard or Naomi Findlay.