Inside the ivory tower of Whitehall politics, and the disorientating world of Sports England funding reports, there is another language used altogether. Phrases such as “new strategy” and “redirection of resources” are of course, however, euphemistic. For when you look at the numbers for grassroots rugby funding, they head in one direction only: downwards.
In the 2017 – 2021 Sports England funding cycle (which deals with the grassroots game, whilst UK Sport is concerned only with elite athletics) the RFU received £12.6m. In 2009 – 2013 they received £28.8m, and in 2013 – 2017 this figure was £20m. Similarly, the RFU announced last year that investment in rugby will fall by £13m annually.
For many contesting games at grassroots level, this drop off in funding mirrors the decline in participation they have suffered in the same period.
Whilst Sport England director Phil Smith has suggested, “we are purposely spending less on traditional sport so we can spend more elsewhere,” this is an unavoidable result of severe cuts to funding from the very highest level. Dressing it up as a strategic move does not change that fact.
The £189m awarded in two separate waves for the 2017-2021 cycle was 61.7% down on the £493m given out for the period covering 2013-2017. This drastic reduction to the Sports England allocation came as a direct result of cuts made to the Department for Culture, Media & Sport under the Cameron / Osbourne government.
Both Sport England and UK sport operate under the direction of the Department for Culture Media and Sport, which saw its budget cut by £1.1bn in the autumn statement of 2015. This constituted a resource budget cut of 24% from 2011. Subsequent issues in funding at grassroots level are therefore a consequence of the Conservative Party’s austerity project.
It is critical, then, that those involved in grassroots sport do not take the political rhetoric of those in power at face value. The line taken by Sports England is that the current strategy is designed to focus less on ‘sporty’ people who are already engaged in regular activity and more on tackling the inactive demographic.
But what is the point expending resources, by pushing to get new people involved in sport, whilst simultaneously allowing existing grassroots organisations to wither away? Deprived of resources, that is what is happening to many local rugby clubs, who are witnessing a drop off in numbers and are no longer able to field multiple senior teams.
The RFU’s ‘Project Rugby’ should be seen in this light. Project Rugby is an excellent initiative. A concerted effort to expand rugby’s playing base to traditionally underrepresented groups, such as black, Asian and minority ethnic individuals, as well as those from lower socioeconomic backgrounds; it should be supported by all.
In two years, it has introduced 25,000 players to the game of rugby. Yet, at the same time, it is estimated that 10,000 young people leave the game every year.
You cannot base any cogent long term strategy for building the game whilst not supporting the grassroots ecosystem that is already established. The two have to come hand in hand. Where are these new players going to play if clubs are not supported?
Many will say that this is just the way it is, that there is no ‘magic money tree,’ but sport plays an important role in society, and should receive sufficient funding. That is indisputable.
Written by Joe Ronan