Welsh sport may need further funding with no 'magic date' for crowds return

By Chris WathanBBC Sport Wales
Parc y Scarlets
Wales's home autumn international games were played behind closed doors at Parc y Scarlets

Sport in Wales may still need more financial support, despite a new £17.7m package aimed at ensuring clubs and organisations survive the coronavirus pandemic.

Welsh Government announced on Monday a fund for sporting bodies hardest hit by the ongoing lack of fans.

But the minister responsible for sport in Wales concedes that with "no magic date" for the return of crowds, it may not be enough.

Lord Dafydd Elis-Thomas says it is possible further loans could be made available if the situation is not resolved.

The Welsh Government package - named the spectator sports survival fund - will see grants handed to a range of sports to be allocated by their organising bodies.

It has been universally welcomed by the beneficiaries, with some sports closer to the brink than others.

"Basically it means we'll be able to survive and be ready for the start of next season in August/September time - whenever fans will be allowed back," says Todd Kelman, managing director of the Cardiff Devils, following confirmation ice hockey in Wales will receive £200,000.

"Our big thing is that we want to be here long-term, we've taken as many measures as we can to survive.

"We made some redundancies early on, four furloughs were extended because we weren't sure what we could do and our players have found playing jobs all over the world, and this money is to ensure that the Devils will survive and be ready for next season."

Yet, a common theme is that it will only cover some of the losses suffered since sport went behind closed doors in March 2020 . Then there are the losses expected to come given there is no timescale on the return of gate receipt income.

Chief executive of the Football Association of Wales, Jonathan Ford says things "remain perilous" despite receiving £1.5m of the funding.

With cricket in Wales receiving £1m, Glamorgan expressed their gratitude, but described the money as a contribution towards their losses which helped secure their "immediate" future.

Rugby union - and the Welsh Rugby Union (WRU) - will receive the largest slice worth £13.5m, which will be largely handed to the four professional regional sides.

Lord Dafydd Elis-Thomas
Lord Dafydd Elis-Thomas acknowledges there is "no magic date" for the return of crowds in Wales

The Scarlets - like their three regional rivals - are expected to receive £2.7m, though Scarlets executive chairman Simon Muderack spelt out the realities in a statement welcoming the funding: "The safe return of crowds has been pushed further out than we anticipated so we all recognise there is more work to be done to ensure that rugby as a whole in Wales is back next season."

The WRU have been open in saying they would be seeking between £30m and £40m to cover the shortfalls of games without fans, as well as the inability to drive revenue from the use of the Principality Stadium.

Loans could be utilised but further funding in the form of grants would have to wait until the next financial year, and largely depend on Wales receiving a consequential share of any spend in England.

Asked whether the current package would be enough, Lord Elis-Thomas said: "That depends again on the public health situation and how the virus behaves and the virus is seriously unpredictable, as we have seen in the last few weeks.

"Therefore, I don't see it as a balance between public health and economic activity or sporting activity - obviously the public health is the number one priority."

However, he admitted to being concerned by some of the losses presented to officials as part of the process in allocating funding where the various organisations were asked to provide hard evidence of their losses.

Similarly, while there is no direct stipulation on how the money is spent, it has been made clear many will have little choice but to plug black holes. Any future funding could depend on checks on how this money has been purposed.

Ultimately, there is an acceptance on all levels that the situation will only really right itself once the long road back to full stadiums begins.

Elite sport bodies combined before Christmas to write an open letter to the First Minister Mark Drakeford, calling for a clear pathway as well as a relaxation of the two-metre social distancing rule compared to the one-metre-plus rule in England which they argue would need to happen to make the re-opening of grounds financially viable.

Yet, for the second time, the pandemic - and the resulting increase in restrictions - ended talk of trial events, the latest planned for February.

Discussions on the next steps are planned for March, but the current situation means the picture is as unclear as ever.

There are "several months" of difficulties before spectators return, according to Phil Bell, executive director of Chepstow and Ffos Las racecourses.

Horseracing received £1.2m, a sum he says is extremely helpful in the short-term.

But it is clear, long-term, sport needs that security of the supporters through the turnstile.

"We'll check the landscape [at the meeting] and go from there but it's hard to even guess when we would have trials with spectators," Bell says.

Chepstow Racecourse
Chepstow Racecourse hosted the Welsh Grand National behind closed doors in January

"I know that the Welsh Government will give us the opportunity to host spectators as soon as they believe it is safe to do so.

"I think it will be a staggered approach, a gradual return - but if you had asked me before Christmas if we would have three or four thousand in the summer, I would have said yes. Now, I'm not so sure."

Lord Elis-Thomas is careful to even avoid using the terms of pathway or even route, stressing there can be no compromises when it is a public health approach.

"What I've always been unwilling to do is not to make promises which we are not certain we can fulfil," he says.

"So there are no magic dates that can appear, but when the public health situation over a period appears to be stable and more positive then we can look for ways of responding."

In the meantime, the short-term money appears to be the only available fix, with the Welsh Government hoping that it has at least helped allowed some teams and sports as a whole to live to fight another day.

"I very much hope because that was the intention," Lord Elis-Thomas adds.

"Because sporting activity is a basic part of our culture. It is, I would say, probably the most important defining feature of our national Identity.

"And I'm certain from the response we've had already today the people in Wales have understood why we've done this and why we would want to support the quality of national sports in Wales."