January 20th, 2021

The State of Play: Covid-19 and the world of sports

To say that the COVID-19 pandemic has thrust us all into difficult and uncertain times – personally and professionally – isn’t an overstatement. Far from it. Wherever you are, whatever you do, we’ve all seen our lives change dramatically. This is particularly true in the world of sports, especially team and major spectator sports where participation and footfall are essential to survival.

So we’ve asked Ross Baxter, our Senior Sports Advisor, to give us his view on what’s happening now in the sports world and what the future holds after COVID-19 has gone.

Ross, what are you seeing going on for sports clubs and venues at the moment?

If we were having this conversation a couple of months ago, my answers would have been very different. At that time, we started to see some light at the end of the tunnel. Thanks to governments around the world supporting clubs and venues, many had managed to get through the most difficult times. Restrictions were being lifted. Vaccines were on the way. Sport’s governing bodies were even starting to implement ‘return to sport’ protocols.

Then the new variants of the virus started to appear. This hasn’t plunged us right back to square one yet, but it’s driven us near it. So, again the focus for virtually all sports clubs and venues has been switched back to:

  • Having enough cash to keep their heads above water.
  • Making sure they’ve got a viable operation to come back to when a real ‘new normal’ kicks in.
  • They’ve got players, members, and supporters who want to return to them.

Indoor sports have been hit very hard by the pandemic. Social distancing rules have had a massive impact. That’s not all they’ve had to face though. A lot of indoor sports, like swimming and basketball, rely on local authority venues for training and events. These authorities are on the whole risk-averse and have closed their sites. This has left these sports with no way to generate any income at all. This means they’re facing great commercial pressures and may or may not stay afloat in the months to come.

Outdoor sports have also been curtailed due to social distancing regulations. For example, ticket sales revenue has disappeared for them. However, a lot of their outgoings – the day-to-day running and staff costs, utility bills, etc. – have been reduced. A lot of these clubs might be in a ‘let’s see what happens’ mode before they commit to any new plans.

Those clubs though that have been well managed and have capital reserves, or that have secured the financial help that’s out there, are still going ahead with projects.

Another big issue they’re having to face is getting planning permission. Local authority planning departments have, rightly so, been using all their capacity on COVID-19 restriction measures. This means fewer projects have been given the red light and there’s a huge backlog of requests waiting to get through.

Where projects are being planned, are there any additional things that need to be considered?

The fundamentals haven’t changed. The key things they still need to take into account are:

  • What facilities have we got?
  • What are their shortfalls?
  • How do we plug them?
  • What will we get out of completing this project – more players and spectators, more income, a safer and more welcoming venue?

ROI is still king. Though a really strong and robust emphasis on what is really needed, why, and what a project will deliver in terms of ROI is more crucial than ever. For example, with COVID-19, its variants, and any other future pandemics, clubs will be looking at whether the impact on the playing of sports can be mitigated in the future. Will investing in facility design, the flow of people around a venue, additional hygiene measures, and so on put them in a good place going forwards and lift these projects to the top of their priority list.

What will this mean for venue floodlighting in particular?

From a lighting perspective, when ‘return to sport’ protocols start to kick in again, it could be argued there will be a greater need for improved lighting. A lot of these protocols will focus on, amongst other things, continuing to have social distancing where possible e.g. at training grounds, with fewer people in a larger area.

Clubs will also be looking at ways to boost revenues. So they may be considering introducing new floodlighting to extend their opening hours and get more people using their facilities outside of normal playing hours.

Some of them will be looking at the added benefits LED lighting can bring. Benefits such as the ability to improve the spectator experience with LED light shows during the build-up and intervals at games, as a way to get more people to events.

Others will also be looking at the impact LED lighting can have on their cash flow and bottom line. The introduction of LED floodlighting has been proved to cut some club’s electricity costs by a huge 70%. That’s money that could be used for other club objectives such as increased hygiene measures. Or they can simply be ‘tucked away’ for another rainy day.

What’s happening with new lighting installations and retrofit projects?

For those that have the capital to keep projects moving, and have very little outgoings at the moment, now’s almost the perfect time to get things done.

  • There’ll be less happening and fewer people around. Which makes it easier and safer for the installers and the venue employees. So, a lot of clubs, schools, universities, and privately owned sites are bringing forwards projects they may have waited until the summer months for as usual to complete.
  • With less market demand, they may be able to negotiate a better price from contractors. Although, this could be offset by a rise in the costs of parts needed if they’re in short supply.
  • By their very nature, sports clubs thrive on activity. With little happening on the playing front, they may be switching their focus to what they can do with their facilities. Their volunteers, committee members, coaches, and managers will probably have more time to dedicate to this also.

These are just some of the sorts of reasons we’re still seeing projects taking place.

What lessons or fundamental changes do you think are to be learned from this crisis?

From a practical point of view, there will be lots of lessons to learn, particularly with things like hygiene across a lot of sporting clubs. The task of getting risk assessed and understanding how secure a facility is will really make clubs think about their approach in the future – a good thing in terms of fan, staff, and player welfare.

Clubs will appreciate, even more, how important it is to have a tight ship in terms of costs and understanding what’s most important for them. Those that entered this with very high outgoings and that weren’t as sustainable as perhaps they should have been will have had a sharp reality shock.

Those clubs that have always really understood, and had control, of what their outgoings were in terms of utilities, wages, and associated costs will be far better placed to move forward.

When it comes to facility planning itself, a lot of the process of thinking about how a club is presented to the public and how the public uses its facility has been highlighted more than it has been in the past. Clubs will really understand how important it is to have really strong links with the local community. They’ll appreciate how the community access it and see it as a safe and secure place, which will make a really big difference to how many people go and use it. This could be another reason clubs look to extend their opening hours and need improved lighting.

What about the future?

The big question is what ‘return to sport’ will look like. Many people will have found a lot of different ways of exercising and using their free time and space. So, it’s whether they will want to choose to play or volunteer in a sport that they did before. This will start to shape what club membership looks like and in some cases that will mean big changes are to come.

In terms of spectator sports, people have truly missed not being there to cheer their favourites on. I think in the short to medium term, and hopefully beyond, this will mean clubs and venues will probably see a boost in gate numbers. Players have missed spectators too – so that will help inspire them further again.
The next six months or so will obviously move things on. As vaccines are being rolled out, it will be interesting to see how quickly sports participation re-establishes itself. Whilst it’s happening, ‘lone sports’ like golf will still be to the fore in terms of exercise, with multi-participant sports following behind. From a spectator point of view, we’ll need to see how willing people are to go a sit next to a stranger while vaccination programmes are being rolled out.
One thing sports clubs and venues need to remember though is that probably the majority of people who take part in sporting activities will be lower down or last on the vaccine priority lists. This will mean these sports and venues will lag behind other aspects of life when it comes to getting back to a semblance of what they were before.

For some clubs and local authorities, that have teetered along in the current climate, the impact of vaccines will come too late. What happens to their venues, who will snap them up, and what will they use them for could see some local sports suffer greatly.

I truly hope it doesn’t happen, but if we have to continue down the path where sports must be played in smaller groups in larger areas there will be opportunities arise for facility providers like us. I think we’d all prefer to see life ‘on and off the pitch’ return to what it was, however.

One thing is certain though. There’ll be a lot of new things for us all to get used to from now on.

About Ross Baxter: Midstream’s Senior Advisor – Sport

With over twenty years leading sports facility planning, design, and delivery – in the public, private, and voluntary sectors – Ross brings a huge amount of significant knowledge to our team.

At Midstream he works to promote, design, and deliver LED sports floodlighting projects to end-users either on a new build or retrofit basis.

A highly experienced senior leader and programme manager, Ross thrives on improving performance, identifying opportunities, and developing innovative solutions. Previously, as the Head of Facility Investment at the Rugby Football Union Ross delivered clubhouse, floodlighting, and pitch projects valued at over £300m. During his time there he was instrumental in creating a series of innovative commercial supplier and consultant frameworks.
When not working, Ross is a Rugby Union Level Four coach and mentor.

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