Coronavirus: sport

Published 08/07/2020   |   Last Updated 27/05/2021   |   Reading Time minutes

On 8 July Plenary will debate the recent Culture, Welsh Language and Communications Committee’s report into the Impact of the COVID-19 outbreak on sport. This blog post provides some background information on the key issues facing the sector.

On 16 March the UK Government said it “will no longer be supporting mass gatherings with emergency workers”, effectively banning large sporting events. The Wales versus Scotland rugby match at Cardiff’s Principality Stadium was cancelled by the Welsh Rugby Union the day before it was due to take place on 14 March. This decision reportedly cost the WRU £10 million.

On 20 March, gyms and leisure centres were instructed to close by the UK Government. On 23 March, people across the UK were told to stay at home, except for very limited circumstances, including exercise.

The timing of the introduction of the lockdown was made consensually between the four UK nations, but as health is devolved the power to change these rules in Wales rests with the Welsh Government. Since the introduction of the lockdown, the UK nations have used their powers to alter the lockdown in different ways.

Lockdown restrictions continue to ease, but they still prevent a number of sports from taking place in Wales. The regulations do not stop any particular type of exercise, but in practice the type of exercise allowed is constrained by wider restrictions designed to control coronavirus.

Indoor swimming pools and gyms remain closed, and social distancing rules prevent team and contact sports from taking place. Some exemptions to these rules are in place for elite athletes.

Previous inequalities in sports participation have intensified during lockdown

A survey carried out for Sport Wales found that, while the overall levels of physical activity have not shifted significantly during the lockdown, there are noticeable variations within certain demographic groups.

Among adults from higher socio-economic backgrounds, 39% say they are doing more activity and 32% are doing less, meaning that there has been a 7 percentage point increase in activity. However, for adults from lower socio-economic backgrounds, 29% are doing more and 33% are doing less, meaning that there has been a 4 percentage point decrease among this group.

The survey results suggest that the divide is also present among children. While 9% of adults overall report that their children are doing no physical activity or exercise on a typical day at the moment, for those from lower socio-economic backgrounds the figure is 14%.

The usual male-female divide in activity appears to have been reversed during lockdown. A greater proportion of women (36%) than men (32%) said that in the past week they have done more exercise or physical activity compared to a typical week before COVID-19 restrictions.

The survey also revealed a net rise in physical activity levels among younger adults aged 16-34 (+15 percentage points), but net decreases among those aged 35-54 (-2 percentage points) and 55+ (-5 percentage points).

Support for the sector

Sport Wales has repurposed a total of £9 million – from Welsh Government, National Lottery and its own resources - to support sport and physical activity organisations during the pandemic.

The first stage of this funding was a £550,000 Emergency Relief Fund for not-for-profit community sport. As at 22 June 2020, support totalling £543,944 has been provided to 295 clubs in Wales.

The next phase is the Sport Resilience Fund, designed to help sports organisations operate in a world of coronavirus. This includes the £4 million Be Active fund to support grassroots clubs and community organisations and £4.5 million to support larger organisations, such as sports governing bodies, local authorities and leisure trusts.

‘Massive financial difficulties ahead’ for domestic and grassroots sport

The immediate impact – the complete cessation of most sport – is obvious. But as large sporting events were some of the first things cancelled, they can also expect to be one of the last things re-started as we leave lockdown. This poses a problem for sports whose business models rely on large crowds.

Some of the sports that attract the largest crowds also attract significant broadcasting revenues, mitigating the impact of this lost match-day income. As Jonathan Ford from FAW told CWLC in June “at that top level, the economics work. The money from the TV markets in football is quite substantial, and the economics will allow that to survive”.

Domestic and grassroots sport, by contrast, has a greater reliance on match-day income from box office and clubhouse takings. The FAW explained that there are “massive financial difficulties ahead” in this tier of sport, and that there would probably be “fewer clubs at the end of it”.

The unequal impact of the crisis is not just one based on scale, but also gender. The FAW warned that recent growth in the female game “could be completely torn up on the back of this pandemic”.

‘Make Wales a fitter and healthier nation that is more able to fight chronic illness in the future’

The focus given to exercise during lockdown was a ray of optimism in the Committee’s work. Sports science expert Dr Kelly Mackintosh felt that “it's really pushed that key message” that physical activity is ”important enough to allow you out of the house”. Councillor Huw Thomas, representing the WLGA, said that there is “a societal mindset change happening at the moment and there are certainly opportunities for increased participation if there is the resource to deliver it”.

Weightlifting coach Ray Williams pointed to the public health benefits of exercise that have been brought home by the pandemic:

We can use this tragedy to make Wales a fitter and healthier nation that is more able to fight chronic illness in the future.

The CWLC report calls for continued support for the sector, work to ensure that the inequality gap in physical activity that has grown during lockdown does not become entrenched, and leadership from the Welsh Government to ensure that the public health lessons from the pandemic are not lost.

Article by Robin Wilkinson, Senedd Research, Welsh Parliament

We’ve published a range of material on the coronavirus pandemic, including a post setting out the help and guidance available for people in Wales and a timeline of Welsh and UK governments’ response.

You can see all our coronavirus-related publications by clicking here. All are updated regularly.