With Northern Irish Olympic athletes being celebrated at Stormont Mick’s post on government funding of sport in the UK and Republic of Ireland is worth re-visiting. Particularly the reference to confusing an ole-ole-ole tradition with a sporting culture given the report, noted in the Irish Times, by ESRI economist Dr Pete Lunn which states, on the Republic of Ireland’s funding of sport – “It is not at all clear what rationale is responsible for this distribution of funds, which is not in keeping with the stated aims of policy.” The report is available here. From its conclusions [pdf file]
First, current policy devotes almost twice the amount of public money to elite sport it devotes to grassroots sport. This places a very high emphasis on the social benefits associated with spectating and with national pride in the achievements of top players. It is hard to see how these benefits can be judged to be greater than the health and social benefits associated with mass participation, both active and non-active.
Second, of the funding that is allocated to grassroots sport, the large majority is spent on facilities. Empirical evidence, on the other hand, suggests that there is little demand among the wider public for more facilities and that provision of more facilities is not the best way to increase levels of participation. There is a strong case for moving away from the provision of physical capital to funding the human and social capital associated with sport. International evidence suggests that communication with non-participants (through for example the organisation and marketing of events, targeted programmes and new opportunities) is more likely to raise levels of participation.
Third, by far the biggest share of public investment goes to traditional team sports, especially Gaelic games. Yet these are not the most popular sports, nor the fastest growing, and they suffer from very high rates of dropout in early adulthood compared with individual sporting activities, many of which receive little or no public support. It is not at all clear what rationale is responsible for this distribution of funds, which is not in keeping with the stated aims of policy.
If the primary aim of sports policy is to capture the benefits of sport for the wider public, these three balances within the allocation of public spending on sport need to be re-examined.
To a degree, however, the current situation whereby policy is at odds with the evidence base is not surprising. Although the level of funding for sport has increased dramatically over the past ten years, the policy mechanisms it supports have not. Moreover, much of the research is relatively new and it takes time to absorb and respond to the messages it contains. The information and insights of this new research have resulted from sports policy itself, which specifically set out to learn more about sporting activity in Ireland when it established the Irish Sports Council and gave it the duty of carrying out such investigation.
Nevertheless, the picture provided by the research findings is now consistent across several large-scale surveys and is also in keeping with international evidence. There is, therefore, a strong argument for revisiting the fundamental basis for public investment in sport and bringing policy more into line with its evidence base and stated aims. It is up to policy-makers whether and how they choose to respond.