That was the SAPCA year that was…

The end of the year is, traditionally, a time for reflection and planning. A time to review the past 12 months while also casting an eye on the next dozen, looking forward to what they might have in store.

In the case of 2021, it has, of course, been another year which was dominated by the impact of COVID-19 – for every industry. And while it’s good to see that everyone in the sports and play construction sector has been extremely busy, the pandemic and its knock-on effects have brought many challenges. We’ve reported on the volatility in the marketplace throughout the year.

At SAPCA, we have kept a watchful eye on developments and continue do so – while informing and guiding all those involved in facility development of the potential impact on their future projects. You can read our latest update HERE.

Since the start of the pandemic, we’ve often spoken of being in a period of change, and in particular the changes taking place within SAPCA, as we have focussed on our essential purpose – which is to support member companies as effectively as possible. While freezing membership fees and scrapping the system of levy payments has helped financially, we have overhauled our communication service for members, added new activities such as webinars, and adapted our meetings and events to enable them to continue, including online where necessary.

Our structure has changed too, with new people from the industry stepping up to take leading roles. Jason Douglass has now completed his first year as the new SAPCA chair, during which time he has driven some significant changes. The members of SAPCA’s board were all given specific areas of responsibility in order to support our key activities, from strategy and business development, through to membership, strengthening our Quality System, website development and environmental sustainability. There has been much work taking place behind the scenes throughout the last year. I would like to take this opportunity to say a very big “thank you” to all of the board for committing their valuable time to SAPCA, especially when everyone is under extra pressure.

An important change this year was the revamp of our Technical Committee, under the leadership of our new technical chair, Prof David James. We continue to have a very full and varied Technical Programme, whether that is developing standards and guidance, providing technical information for members, or supporting our many stakeholder organisations, such as NGBs. We have played an important role as a member of the UK AGP Stakeholder Group (which is led by Sport England), and were delighted to start work on a joint research project on synthetic pitch systems with the Football Foundation. The new Technical Committee has reviewed the current work programme and agreed its priorities for 2022, such as to drive the industry’s response to the different environmental challenges.

This will be a very high priority for us over the coming years, as part of the overall new strategy developed by the board, and it has been great to see so much positive progress already made by our new Environmental Sustainability Working Group (and its various sub-groups), led by board member, Dr Kathryn Severn. The working group is initially focussing on several key areas, including recycling, maintenance, facility design, and membership criteria.

Our annual programme of events always provides an important series of educational, promotional and networking opportunities for members, though the pandemic has forced us to adapt. The SAPCA Golf Day in June highlighted just how much everyone had missed these opportunities during lockdown, with a record number of 110 golfers taking part in the competition and many more members and guests coming to join in the different activities during the day – such as the networking lunch and the evening’s dinner. That has very much set the standard for the Golf Day in future, and I know that our ever-enthusiastic “Golf Day Chair”, Wayne Sexton, is already planning for our return to the Forest of Arden on Wednesday 22 June.

Similarly, it was great to be able to return to a face-to-face Technical Meeting in December, as more than 150 delegates gathered at Loughborough University. We had a strong programme with an exceptional line-up of expert speakers, followed by a very enjoyable dinner. There is no doubt that this annual meeting is now a firm favourite in the industry’s calendar.

We’re still finalising our events programme for 2022 and, during this process, we need to remain flexible, as we see the restrictions due to the pandemic change and (hopefully) reduce and disappear. The SAPCA Conference and Annual Dinner will make a very welcome return next year, and – as it will be the focus of our 25th anniversary celebrations – we’re determined to ensure that it is a very special event. While the forecasts for the rise and fall of the Omicron variant really gave us no choice, our determination to make it special and to ensure a large attendance was also part of the reasoning for having to delay the Conference from the intended date of 28 February. We still plan to host the event at St George’s Park, but will announce the new date in the New Year as soon as it is confirmed.

In the absence of the Conference this year we instead announced the results of the SAPCA Awards 2021 in a special webinar, when the five winners of the expanded awards programme were presented. The initiative is proving to be a really helpful way both to recognise members’ achievements and to promote these successes along with the industry’s best practice. Members are now submitting entries for the SAPCA Awards 2022 in six categories: projects, products, innovations, sustainability, marketing and exports. More information on the awards can be found HERE (/sapca-awards/).

Over recent years the SAPCA website has become an increasingly valuable part of our external communications with the marketplace, providing technical guidance and support for anyone developing a project and as a source of news and case studies – as well as a shop window for SAPCA members, as potential clients search for the products and services they need.

Not only will the website continue to be enhanced and expanded in 2022, but our communications plan will be greatly strengthened with the launch that we announced of SportsNation magazine, as the official publication of SAPCA. This is a really exciting project, and it’s been gratifying to see the positive reaction from so many members. I am sure that the magazine – which is aimed at all sectors across the sports and play facility marketplace and will be free to all subscribers – will prove to be a big step change in raising awareness of the Association and SAPCA members. The magazine, which will be published bi-monthly, provides both editorial and advertising opportunities as a benefit of SAPCA membership.

I have no doubt that there will be many other indirect benefits too, as SportsNation magazine helps us to develop new contacts and to strengthen important relationships through greater collaboration. For example, we have just interviewed the Sports Minister for a special feature in the first issue of the magazine, in January. He went out of his way to thank SAPCA members for the valuable contribution everyone makes in providing the sports and play facilities needed, especially with the greater emphasis these days on promoting physical activity and the value of sport and play within the health agenda. Not for nothing is the strapline for the magazine “People, Places, Policy – Building Active Communities”. There are more details HERE.

I’m sure that everyone involved in the sports and play construction industry is greatly looking forward to a well-deserved rest over Christmas, this year more than ever. When everyone returns in January with batteries recharged, I’m sure we can all look forward to the year ahead with a great deal of confidence. While we are facing concerns and restrictions in the immediate future thanks to Omicron, the latest data does seem to indicate that it will prove to be relatively mild, if highly transmissible, so let’s cross our fingers that as nature takes it course and COVID-19 gradually weakens and recedes, we really can get back to normal during the course of 2022.

The industry has proved itself to be extremely adaptable and resilient, and that will no doubt continue. There is also the prospect of significant new funding for sports facilities starting in 2022, such as through the Football Foundation for both pitches and the new programme for MUGAs, and from the LTA, as they invest in our public tennis facilities. And let’s always remember that while there are numerous challenges and frustrations, whether with environmental pressures, supply chains, or the planning approval process (to name but three), what the industry provides in high quality sports and play facilities is of enormous value – as an essential part of so much sporting enjoyment and success, at all levels, and as a vital contribution to society and the health of the country as a whole.

I do hope you all have a really enjoyable Christmas and I wish you the very best for a healthy and prosperous 2022.

About Chris Trickey

Chris Trickey is Chief Executive of SAPCA