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  • RichardAyers

It's not just entertainment: why we should not apologise for saving sport

“I know in the context of coronavirus it’s just sport,” said the football correspondent on BBC Radio 4’s Today show, earlier.

What? Why? I didn’t hear the man from Waterstones in the business bulletin saying “I know in the context of coronavirus, it’s just reading books.”

I understand the value of books. I don’t understand the constant dismissal of the value of sport.

I have only been working in sport for just over nine years. I committed to working in the sector because of the inspirational words of Nelson Mandela: “Sport has the power to change the world.”

Now I find myself in a place where I feel defensive of sports business.

Let’s look at some facts: Sport contributes £39 billion to the UK economy each year, according to Sport England. It employs 400,000 full-time positions in England alone and many more indirectly.

The result of people participating in sport (in the UK) is a reduced impact on the NHS and long-term economic value to the country. See the study by UEFA and the Scottish FA – which Seven League was a small part of – which proved the undeniable impact economically and societally of sport.

Our country is inordinately skewed towards football and this week has seen criticism of Premier League clubs for their response to the virus, as well as praise for other parts of their work, from the Mayor of London, Sadiq Khan.

Beyond football, there is a full range of sports in the UK. Some of these sports are where the real worry lies.

For years, we at Seven League have flagged the challenges of the Attention Economy and how sport would be threatened by an inability to stay in contact with its audience. Digital Transformation brings opportunity but also threat to the sector as it has done to all the others we have worked in. Little did we know that coronavirus would accelerate that threat significantly.

In the last week I have had multiple conversations with CEOs of sports governing bodies in the UK and the threat is palpable. Some of them are not strong businesses. Many have, at the behest of Sport England, endeavoured to become self-sustaining commercial entities over the last two years – less reliant on government handouts.

The irony is that, as a result of coronavirus, they need government support just as much as anybody else. If they don’t get it, they will go under. That’s why the announcement by Sport England, today, is so important.

We are doing our bit to support the sporting organisational infrastructure in this country because it makes a difference to the long-term health of the country. Some of the national governing bodies are on the precipice. They were due to host annual competitions which won’t happen now. They had open days planned where they sign up their new members for the year, which won’t happen now.

Yet, despite the stresses on those organisations at the moment, sport can help the country with the immediate challenges we face. It has many excellent lessons to teach us.

We’ve been putting time into helping sport understand the stories it can tell now, whilst the normal cadence of matches is disrupted.

There is, of course, celebration of former glories and using the archive, but my biggest hope is that sport can lead people to understand the value of discipline.

There are so many incredible stories about discipline being the thing that won the game, or helped a player return from injury, or where an athlete benefitted from a strict regime of training or diet.

There are also stories from off the pitch: the discipline of the groundsman, stewards, security personnel, etc. If there is one thing our country needs at the moment, it is the discipline to maintain a daily regime but most importantly the discipline to follow the rules … stay indoors, save lives.

Sport business, both big and small, makes a tremendous contribution to the economic, physical and mental wellbeing of the country.

I want my children to be inspired by the sport they see on television, the sport they see in the park and the sport they play at the local leisure centre. I want them to learn about discipline, respect, giving back and trusting teammates.

It’s not “just entertainment” and we shouldn’t have to apologise for trying to keep the sporting infrastructure safe for the future of this country.

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