The physical activity sector has been one of the hardest hit by the COVID-19 pandemic. Sports facilities and leisure centres were among the last to be given the go-ahead to return to business, resulting in many operators losing more than four months’ worth of revenue.
Even now, when both indoor and outdoor venues are opening their doors, facility operators are faced with new challenges – such as limited capacity (including the “rule of six” for indoor venues), restricted activities, additional operational demands around hygiene and consumers worrying about safety. It is clear that these challenges add further pressure on bottom lines.
Reduced incomes have placed extra stress on already squeezed budgets, in both the public and private sectors. As a result, it is no surprise that many worry over the future of their planned (and unplanned) capital projects. Matters aren’t helped by a large number of facility projects being reliant on public funding, sourced from either local authorities or sports bodies – whose finances have also been hit hard by the pandemic.
“Due to the COVID-19 pandemic, most physical activity funding streams were put on hold over lockdown,” says Karen Woolland, funding advisor at WCTD, a company specialising in grant sourcing and facility strategies (and a member of SAPCA). “For example, Sport England’s Small Grants and Community Asset programmes were temporarily closed from 22 April.
“However, Sport England, The National Lottery Community Fund, The Football Foundation and other charities – as well as some national governing bodies (NGBs) – responded to the crisis by offering a variety of different emergency funding pots. The funding was targeted to help non-profit organisations manage cash flow over lockdown, while facilities were closed and physical activity was suspended.”
These emergency pots included four separate funding streams distributed by Sport England, worth a total of £210m. A £35m Community Emergency Fund offered clubs and community organisations between £300 and £10,000 for immediate help, while a £5m pot was made available for existing partners who were facing specific financial difficulties.
An additional £55m was earmarked to fund new ways to keep people active, while £115m of current funding was rolled over into 2021-22, in order to give long-term certainty to around 100 of Sport England’s existing partners.
“As part of delivering on these priorities, we wanted to offer some specific reassurances to any individual or organisation who receives funding, or any other type of support from us, for their work,” a spokesperson for Sport England said.
“We’ve also introduced significant flexibility to reflect current circumstances in how we manage that support. For example, we know that the timings of work may need to change from those previously agreed, so we are open to discuss the possible changes.”
Elsewhere, the Football Foundation has provided £7m of investment through its Pitch Preparation Fund, helping clubs get their playing surfaces match-fit. The organisation has also awarded 3,383 grants – worth £1,691,500 – to organisations across the country through the Club Preparation Fund. This fund helps clubs prepare their buildings to safely reopen in line with government guidance around hygiene and social distancing.
NGBs too, have made funds available. The Lawn Tennis Association (LTA) launched a £20m emergency funding package for tennis venues, coaches and players, while the RFU has made loans of between £2,000 and £10,000 available to provide clubs breathing space.
Offering a glimpse of the task involved in keeping grassroots sports alive, Sport England funding teams alone have so far processed in excess of 6,700 Community Emergency Fund awards – for a combined value of around £25.3m.
While grassroots sports facilities remained closed throughout the lockdown, they still required regular maintenance. Now, as they begin to welcome users back, most face additional works to ensure they meet government guidance on social distancing, limited capacity and hygiene. In some cases, reopening could mean major works.
“The impact on sports facilities being closed for so long has not yet been fully seen,” Woolland says.
“However, investment is needed in many areas to help facilities re-open and manage the new social distancing and cleaning requirements, in order to enable participation to take place.
“A lot of general maintenance will not have taken place. Changing rooms are also being avoided across many sports – which could have an impact on immediate construction projects involving them.
“A couple of projects I have been supporting with funding had to temporarily pause their construction and then stagger their work packages, in order to be able to deliver them with social distancing. This has resulted in the projects taking longer to be completed.”
STATE OF PLAY
For those facility owners and operators who are looking to begin projects – or complete ongoing ones – the picture remains ever-changing.
Most capital funding was put on hold from March and, according to Woolland, the priority for funders is now to ensure organisations can adapt and respond to the changing needs of their local communities – and remain financially viable.
“Sport England Community Asset Fund, for example, is currently on hold and when it reopens – which could be later this year – it might have different priorities and criteria,” she says.
Woolland adds that, at least in the short- to medium-term, the fluctuations in the status of the pandemic will cause uncertainty – especially if a second wave causes further, wide-spread disruption and lockdowns.
“It is unclear how the funders will adapt in the medium term, but it will reflect government priorities,” Woolland says.
“As physical activity re-starts across the country – and sports progress through their phased return to activity – the funders will consult with their target groups to see how best they can be supported and to help sports adapt their activities to meet demand.
“At the moment, there is a shortage of facilities to meet demand, as many facilities are still closed, while participation gradually returns to previous levels.”
This is certainly the case with swimming, as there is currently a severe shortage of pools that are open. Research from national governing body Swim England shows that a quarter of public swimming pools across the country remain closed.
While (at the time of writing) 767 of the 1,002 publicly accessible pools have reopened in some form – or have published an imminent reopening date – 223 remain closed indefinitely. The majority of those (193) still have no confirmed date for a reopening, while 15 have already been mothballed or confirmed as permanently closed. A further 25 are shut for maintenance.
Matters won’t be helped by the government’s new three-tier approach to local lockdowns, which will see leisure centres being closed in areas classed as having a “very high” alert level.
Swim England CEO Jane Nickerson has called on the government to provide more financial support to help struggling facilities reopen – and ensure no more pools are lost. The NGB has now partnered with Community Leisure UK on the #SaveLeisure campaign, which is fighting for ring-fenced funding from the government to help facilities which are struggling financially.
What is clear is that the funding landscape will keep changing rapidly, as funders respond to the pandemic, while looking for ways to best help organisations that meet their funding objectives. Small revenue grants are being made available by most funders, with quick decisions and less complex grant application processes.
“I advise those looking to secure funding to keep in touch with funders who they’ve received support from in the past, as they may be seen as a priority for support,” Woolland says.
“Key funders such as Sport England, The Community Fund, The Football Foundation, London Marathon Trust are keen to ensure that previous investments in an organisation are maintained and that the organisation remains resilient – and can adapt and change to the new ways of delivering physical activity.
“It is likely that new funding pots or changes in priorities for funding streams will be announced once lockdowns are eased. It may be that funders look to invest in facilities which have suffered from being closed and require a quick investment to bring back into use.”
Woolland says that her key advice for those looking to secure funding for a facility project would be to take into consideration the way criteria for funding is likely to alter at short notice, as funders respond to the changing environment. While it may prove challenging to find investment at the moment for capital projects, it is hoped that funding streams will return for long term projects – in particular in terms of local authority funding, where budgets were allocated prior to the pandemic (and would need to be committed before the end of their financial year).
This is where SAPCA can help too, by keeping its ear to the ground on those changes. “There has been well documented support for companies over the lockdown, with SAPCA providing guidance on this for members,” Woolland adds.
“A new fund, out soon, is the small business small grant scheme, which could see thousands of smaller businesses in England benefit from £20m of new government funding. The scheme is set to offer small and medium-sized businesses access to grants between £1,000 and £5,000 to help them access new technologies and other equipment – as well as professional, legal, financial or other advice to help them get back on track.
“This funding opened in September via each Local Enterprise Partnership.”
- Companies working with non-profit organisations – who are seeking funding for construction projects – can contact WCTD (a SAPCA member) for advice on identifying funding streams and supporting the applicants with submissions: firstname.lastname@example.org.