The Covid war: Sport tearing itself apart over bail-out funding

A host of sports are on the brink of civil war with much of the long-awaited £300 million government bail-out to be issued in days, mainly as loans rather than grants.

Sport England and Deloitte audited hundreds of clubs and competitions in the three months since ministers announced the package for a sector starved of gate receipts. The Government maintained in November that only clubs on the brink of immediate collapse would be given grants rather than loans, but fault lines have appeared in rugby, football and beyond.

With an announcement expected this week, The Daily Telegraph explores the key battlegrounds in the desperate dash for cash:

Rugby union

Other sports raged with envy in November when ministers pledged almost half the entire fund – £135 million – to rugby union, but some clubs within the game have accused ministers of being “disingenuous” in their offer.

In the Championship, which is due to collect £9 million, bosses at Ampthill warned they may not be able to compete this season unless their entire slice was as a grant. Mark Lavery, director of rugby at the community club, said 11th-hour representations were being made by local MP Nadine Dorries on the club’s behalf.

“She has had a full and frank conversation with the Minister for Sport [Nigel Huddleston], and he has agreed to go back to the winter survival fund and Sport England on the basis that Ampthill, as a community club, has been put in a prejudicial situation,” he added. Ministers, he said, “haven’t done what they said they were going to do, which is check each application on its individual merits”.

Ampthill has part-time Championship competitors among more than 1,000 paying playing members from under-16s through to veterans. “Our model is fundamentally different to the others in the competition,” he added. “It just wouldn’t make any sense for our members to commit to a loan. I sat on a call with both Sport England and Deloitte who encouraged every Championship club to apply for a grant, and a loan. To then turn around and say there’s no grant is disingenuous in my opinion.”

Women’s football

Cash-strapped clubs from the top two tiers can access grants of just £30,000 each after the Football Association was forced to allocate almost three quarters of £3 million in support on extra Covid tests. Sources said that the FA felt it had no choice but to spend some of the remaining government funds on increased testing, after recording more than 100 redundancies due to a £300 million deficit caused by the pandemic.

The money spent on testing in the women's game has caused divisions


The money spent on testing in the women’s game has caused divisions


Credit: GETTY IMAGES

However, the carve-up has angered the likes of Tony Kleanthous, chairman of London Bees, who believed the shortfall in testing could have been covered by Premier League-backed clubs in the Women’s Super League.

“If there is going to be a testing regime, the clubs can pay for that out of their funding but by paying for all testing, they are effectively funding the Premier League clubs,” he said.

“The problem with that is it doesn’t leave much to go around for the others. It seems to me that the DCMS [Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport] say they are going to give funding and it goes on costs for all clubs, even if they are attached to a Premier League club. It doesn’t seem in line with the Government saying they wouldn’t fund the Premier League. All that does is leave less to be available for grants.”

Non-League men’s football

The fifth and sixth-tier seasons appear to be at severe risk of being cancelled after clubs suggested they had been misled over a £25 million fund supporting steps one to six.

The National League got an apparent head start on other sectors when a £10 million grant was handed over in October, but the fund was only ever intended to last three months. Like in other sectors, the bone of contention now is that any more cash from ministers will almost certainly be in the form of a loan as far as the highest divisions are concerned.

The DCMS appears to have blamed the National League over the escalating crisis. In a letter to one concerned MP last week, Huddleston wrote: “At no stage was the National League told by DCMS that its support would only be in the form of grants. It is unfortunate that the National League chose to communicate this to clubs without first clarifying the nature of the support with DCMS.”

Horse racing

Racing was offered a package worth around £40 million, but racecourse owners believe a previous plan to load them – rather than the entire sport – with all the debt was unfair.

Solutions are being sought for the horse-racing industry


Solutions are being sought for the horse-racing industry


Credit: PA

David Armstrong, chief executive of the Racecourse Association, has admitted there were “structural barriers” to be ironed out, and negotiations, as of Friday, remained a “work in progress”.

Unlike the other sports, however, organisers believe they are close to finding a solution which will ease those fears. “We’re working closely with Government, Sport England and Deloitte in putting together how the package will work for racing, but it’s moving along smoothly,” he said.

Despite concerns over the loan facility, the sport, he said, would “certainly look to draw down from Government as much as we can. It may or may not be direct to racecourses… there are other ways in which we can release funding to the sport”.

Other sports

Netball and badminton are understood to have finalised terms on their handout, but minority sports such as ice hockey have been thrown into turmoil in recent weeks. Plans for a mini-season of elite ice hockey collapsed when England’s top tier said the Government’s offer of loans could ultimately lead clubs into a financial abyss.

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