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Spectator sports to be given £300m in budget but help for gyms unclear

Exclusive by Sean Ingle
·4 min read
<span>Photograph: Nathan Stirk/Getty Images</span>
Photograph: Nathan Stirk/Getty Images

Spectator sports in England are set to be given a £300m boost in Wednesday’s budget, with the government ready to provide a fresh package of loans and grants to help summer sports and clubs survive the impact of the third lockdown.

Multiple sources say the chancellor, Rishi Sunak, is planning to extend the Sport Winter Survival Package, announced in November, to the summer of 2021 to help clubs recover from the lack of fans during the pandemic.

Related: Boycott questions over Beijing Winter Olympics raise eerie echoes of 1936 | Sean Ingle

Eleven sports were offered £300m support in November, mostly as loans, with the aim of supporting them until paying fans returned. Rugby union were the biggest beneficiaries with £145m, with football receiving £28m for non-league and the women’s game.

This time summer sports – especially cricket, tennis, horse racing and rugby league – are likely to be the biggest beneficiaries.

Meanwhile the government has also come under intense pressure to provide more support for leisure centres, gyms and pools, with the industry body ukactive saying around 400 facilities have already gone to the wall and another 2,400 are at risk.

Discussions are believed to have centred on whether a £100m package of support for local authority leisure centres, announced in October, could be extended – while there are also suggestions local authorities may receive extra money to help fund sport.

Government sources have also pointed to the fact that private gyms will qualify for a new £18,000 Restart Grant announced at the weekend. However, Rebecca Passmore, the managing director of PureGym, which has 275 sites and around 1 million members in the UK, said much more help was needed.

“The Covid-19 pandemic has been brutal for the gym industry,” she said. “Gyms in the UK have now been shut for up to eight out of the last 12 months and unlike other industries there are no takeaway or online options to generate trade.

“When we are closed we have zero revenue and despite huge efforts to defray costs and some government support we are still losing £500,000 per day. This is clearly unsustainable and presents a massive existential threat for the industry.”

Passmore urged the government to help build a fitter and healthier nation by providing targeted support for the whole exercise sector. “We are calling on the chancellor to extend business rates relief for a further 12 months and we need a temporary, 12-month VAT cut to 5% to match that provided to the hospitality sector to encourage people to rejoin gyms, hopefully from mid-April, and we need support with landlords to reach a solution on rent arrears.

“We have received no more specific support than a supermarket, which has been able to stay open and trade throughout,” she said. “The end of March is fast approaching and without a solution the consequences for the industry will be devastating.”

The government’s roadmap out of the pandemic, released last week, notes that exercise and outdoor sports are well-documented to reduce risk of major illnesses, such as heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes and cancer, by up to 50% and lower risk of early death by up to 30%”.

Related: WSL, Women's Championship and netball to receive survival grants

It also says that physical activity “is known to help with improving mental health through better sleep, happier moods, and managing stress, anxiety or intrusive and racing thoughts”.

Huw Edwards, the chief executive of ukactive, said those words had to be matched by action. “The government should put the health of our nation at the heart of this budget, because it will need the fitness and leisure sector more than ever during our recovery from this health crisis,” he said.

The Guardian also understands that the chancellor has been urged to consider a government-backed insurance scheme for spectator sports. The idea would be to provide compensation if fresh restrictions forced them to cancel events – or play matches behind closed doors again at short notice.

However, the scheme, which has been adopted in Germany and the Netherlands, is said to be “a massive long shot”.