Elite sport has to ‘support itself’ during pandemic – sports minister

Top tiers of professional sport will be expected to find ways to support themselves where possible during the Covid-19 pandemic, the sports minister has said.

Nigel Huddleston told MPs the Government’s focus will be helping “those most in need” within the sporting world, as he confirmed discussions with sports governing bodies are ongoing about further assistance.

He also said he could not give “definitive timescales” for reopening events, while no mention of provisions for sport were made in a package of measures Chancellor Rishi Sunak set out on Thursday afternoon, although discussions over emergency funding only began on Tuesday.

Mr Huddleston’s remarks came after a limited return of fans to grounds next month was paused due to an increase in recorded Covid-19 infections.

The decision has sparked concern throughout all levels of sport, given the importance of matchday revenue to clubs and associations.

Speaking in the Commons, shadow sports minister Alison McGovern said: “The Government’s failures on track and trace have consequences for football clubs, as we’ve heard from Conservative MPs this morning, and we all want to know what the plan is to save the game we love.

“So suppose, as has been indicated in the media, that the Premier League is not prepared to underwrite the rest of football, I’d like to know who then would be to blame when clubs collapse?

“Will it be the Premier League or will it be Conservative ministers speaking from this despatch box?”

Mr Huddleston replied: “I can assure (Ms McGovern) we’re having detailed conversations with sport, including football, and we appreciate this latest announcement (banning spectators) will have economic consequences for sport and we had been hoping for the return of spectators that bring in so much income.

“Where it can, we will expect the top tiers of professional sport to look at ways it can support itself, with the Government focusing on those most in need.”

Mr Huddleston said he has asked the governing bodies of spectator sports to provide him with details of any member clubs or associations who are at immediate financial threat.

Conservative MP Damian Collins (Folkestone and Hythe) said: “As the minister knows, many football clubs, particularly in the Football League, face financial ruin now that there’s no prospect of the imminent return of fans and matchday revenue.

“The Government has offered £1.5 billion to help arts organisations in the community, recognising their cultural value.

“What guarantee can (Mr Huddleston) give today to clubs in the Football League in particular, that the Government will be prepared to offer public money to stop those clubs facing financial ruin?”

Mr Huddleston responded: “We are in discussions with major sport including football bodies.

“Yesterday, I wrote to the governing bodies of all major spectator sports to formally begin discussions and provide them with a contact point in DCMS.

“I also asked the governing bodies to provide me with details of any member clubs or associations under immediate financial threat and we’ll be providing more information in due course.”

The owner of Hull FC rugby league club, Adam Pearson, says clubs in his sport will “start to die” without specific Government help.

“We definitely need more support,” Pearson told the Daily Politics.

“When the Government came out and said that six months was the new time limit, it’s obviously caused us huge problems.

“People won’t buy season tickets in December 2020 for the 2021 season so there’ll be no money coming in to the rugby clubs, it’s completely stopped that.

“We’re not football, we’re not rugby union, we’re in the heartlands and we need some specific help to help us through this.”