Elite sport should look at ways to support itself, insists Sports Minister

Top-level sport should look to “support itself” in the absence of paying spectators with the Government focusing on those most in need, Sports Minister Nigel Huddleston has said.

The decision to scrap plans to reintroduce spectators to sports venues from October 1 because of a rise in coronavirus infections is set to have a “devastating impact” on the finances of the sector, various governing bodies have warned.

Huddleston told the House of Commons on Thursday that a funding package for sport was being looked at. The arts sector has received a £1.5billion package but Huddleston’s remarks cast doubt on whether a similar amount will be available to sports.

Nigel Huddleston, Minister for Sport and Civil Society, wants sport to 'support itself'
Nigel Huddleston, Minister for Sport and Civil Society, wants sport to 'support itself'

Additional Premier League funding for the football pyramid – in particular the EFL which now faces a £200million collective loss if spectators cannot return all season – was one of the conditions attached to Government giving the green light to the English top flight’s Project Restart over the summer.

A statement from the Rugby Football Union on Tuesday evening said it would now be looking for Government support in light of the renewed restrictions on spectators, and set out the bleak financial picture facing the union and its clubs.

In response to a question from Shadow Sports Minister Alison McGovern, Huddleston said on Thursday: “I can assure you 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.”

Any Government rescue package will take time to formulate and approve, and it is understood that is why sport did not feature among a package of economic measures set out by Chancellor Rishi Sunak on Thursday.

Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak did not focus on sport in his latest announcement on financial aid
Chancellor of the Exchequer Rishi Sunak did not focus on sport in his latest announcement on financial aid

Talks between the Premier League and the EFL over a bailout continue, and it is understood there will be conditions within it about how any money is spent.

The PA news agency understands the Premier League never asked for or expected any state support, with its major focus being on getting fans back into grounds.

The league’s chairman Gary Hoffman is a member of the Sports Technology and Innovation Group (STIG), which will be tasked with finding solutions to allow spectators safely back into venues.

Culture Secretary Oliver Dowden said: “I will not give up on finding ways to get fans back safely. The STIG will be working through innovative ideas and technology which could help get fans back where they belong, in stadia and grounds, more quickly. This is vital work that will continue apace.”

Dowden has previously spoken about a range of options which could help, including tracking devices to measure social distancing, fluorescent disinfectants to reveal how often surfaces are touched and technology to assist in safe travel to venues.

The owner of Hull FC rugby league club, Adam Pearson, warned it was vital that state support was brought forward urgently.

“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.”

The sport has already received a £16m Government loan in May to deal with a disrupted season, with games behind closed doors and the fixture list decimated by positive coronavirus tests.