‘We could lose 50% of the game’: netball among UK sports facing grassroots crisis

‘We could lose 50% of the game’: netball among UK sports facing grassroots crisis

Sports including netball, basketball and badminton have called on the UK government to provide clarity and funding to help their sports stay afloat.

The Covid-19 crisis affecting grassroots sport is deepening with some of the UK’s most popular activities facing the possibility of collapse, their governing bodies warn.

While gyms, pools and outdoor spaces have reopened in the past month, sports that rely on indoor facilities to operate clubs, leagues and participation more generally are still in limbo. There remains the prospect of renewed restrictions later in the year, but the sports say that by then the damage might already be done.

“Our participation levels were record breaking, we had 1.6m women and girls were playing netball,” said Katy Ritchie, the head of development for England Netball. “Fast forward to after Covid-19 hits and now the sport is at risk in all areas.”

According to Ritchie, 50% of netball activities take place in indoor sports halls. Many of these spaces are now inaccessible as leisure companies use them for overspill gym facilities. School gyms are also unavailable as schools focus on reopening and, moreover, often do not have the funds to customise and clean venues in the Covid-19 era.

“We could lose 50% of the game if we don’t reopen”, said Ritchie. “There will be significant ramifications for netball but, also, we’re such a key player in participation it will have a broader impact too. One of the things we’re really passionate about is body confidence in teenage girls and we know that girls don’t like to play outside where they can be seen. For Muslim women, their faith doesn’t allow them to work out where they can be seen by men so unless we get some indoor facilities open, these women won’t resume any form of activity.”

Sport England research recently showed a greater drop off in sporting activity among women than men and there are fears these losses will be permanent as people lose the habit and the opportunity to take part in sport.

“When the government are promoting society and business to get back to normal we just feel that sport is being left behind”, said Stewart Kellett, the chief executive of Basketball England. Kellett warns of hundreds of clubs being at risk with 58% of participants black, Asian and minority ethnic, another UK constituency hit hard by the pandemic.

“Basketball is so much of a scaffold for young people. In deprived areas, where kids need that extra support, they’re missing all that. The fact is that all the benefits of the club movement are free to government. All we’re saying is we’ve done everything we can to react to Covid in the short term, we need a little bit of help right now.”

Kellett called on the UK government to incentivise schools and gyms to reopen their halls to sport, as part of the government’s declared push on improving health and combatting obesity.

“Pushing the broader purpose of a school facility for the community is I think really important. I think there is a broader social responsibility for leisure operators, too. It would require investment in facilities for our sports but the overall benefit is far better than investing in the hospitality sector to some extent. We’re talking about promoting health and wellbeing.”