Sport becomes a political football at SJA debate

By Steven Downes. Photographs by Steve Rowe/SJA
Government funding for sport will be cut drastically after the forthcoming General Election, whichever political party comes to power, and, unlike with the banks last year, there will be no state bail-out if a Premiership football club goes bust, not even Manchester United.

Those were among the headline conclusions from last night’s SJA’s Sporting Question Time, where a full-house of nearly 100 journalists and invited guests from sporting bodies quizzed Minister for Sport Gerry Sutcliffe and his Conservative and Liberal Democrat shadows, Hugh Robertson and Don Foster.

The wide-ranging discussion at Farringdon’s Free Word Centre, expertly chaired by broadcaster John Inverdale, saw the audience questioning the politicians’ positions on the Olympic legacy, sport in schools, television rights and the free-to-air list and football regulation.

With a General Election expected to be held in just 10 weeks’ time, this was a unique opportunity for the sports spokesmen from the three leading parties to lay out their case. Yet in one important area, they were all in agreement: the economic recession means that it is inevitable that Government spending on sport will be cut.

“Personally, I wouldn’t cut Exchequer funding of sport,” Robertson said, “but none of us know what expenditure cuts there will be.”

Both Foster and Robertson advocate reforms of how Lottery money is taxed and distributed, the Lib Dems spokesman describing as “ridiculous” the way £120 million a year is taken out of the Lottery through taxation.

The Conservatives, Robertson confirmed, plan on merging funding agencies UK Sport, Sport England and the Youth Sport Trust to cut spending, while he promised to do “everything you can do to protect sport’s case” over public expenditure cuts.

Given that sport is the brief of a junior minister at the Department of Culture, Media and Sport, Sutcliffe surprised some when he advocated that, as with France, Italy and Germany in the past, in future he should have a seat at Cabinet to argue sport’s case. “I do personally believe that the sports minister should have a Cabinet seat of its own,” Sutcliffe said. “There’s much more to be done.”

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With Premiership club Portsmouth on the brink of administration and members of the Manchester United Supporters Trust in the audience calling for intervention over the manner in which debt has been loaded on to their club’s books, the politicians were unwilling to advocate intervention over football finances.

“Politicians should stay out of telling people how to run their business,” Foster said, calling for the full implementation of the 2005 Burns Report on the governance of England’s Football Association and for the “fit and proper person” test on club ownership to be applied.

Foster described as “appalling” football clubs’ neglect of their disabled fans. “It’s really sad that football is losing touch with its real fans,” he said. “We can put pressure on football, because football receives money from Government as well.”

Sutcliffe, though, rejected the suggestion that Westminster might take action were the football authorities to fail to act over the ever-growing debts of leading clubs. “There are no plans for Government to regulate football,” the minister said.

Robertson admitted that in his five years with the sports brief, he had twice turned down shadow cabinet promotions, so enthusiastic is he for sport’s political potential, adding that the Conservatives are in complete support of the 2012 London Olympics. “We already have the Lords Coe and Moynihan, and Boris, on the Olympic Board,” Robertson said, “so for us, it really is a no-brainer.”

(Photograph left shows SJA Chairman Barry Newcombe in the audience for the Sporting Question Time, alongside Michele Verroken)

But although he may become Sports Minister within a couple of months, Robertson expressed his disappointment that the only Premiership football club to refuse to meet him in the past year had been Manchester United.

Sutcliffe spoke enthusiastically of how, having won the bid to stage the 2012 Olympics, Britain is now in a “decade of sport”, with the 2013 World Cup in rugby league, the 2014 Commonwealth Games to be staged in Glasgow, England hosting the 2015 Rugby World Cup and the 2019 Cricket World Cup, and also a strong bidder for the 2018 FIFA World Cup.

“We have the makings of a world-class sporting infrastructure,” Sutcliffe said. “Many things around the country would not have happened if we had not got the Olympic Games. We have a fantastic opportunity now.”

Pointing to the turnaround in British sporting fortunes between the Atlanta Olympics in 1996, when Britain won a single gold medal, to the record 19 golds won in Beijing in 2008, Sutcliffe said that his administrations investment in grassroots sport was also important. “No other country has tried to achieve an extra 1 million people involved in participation sport.

“The decade of sport will keep sport high on the political agenda,” he said.

Asked about the possibility of West Ham moving in to the Olympic Stadium after 2012 as an anchor tenant, the minister did not rule that out, but said, “One of the key things for me is that there should be an athletics track, as we promised when we bid for the Games.

“You can’t break that promise.”

The Sports Journalists’ Association would like to thank Messrs Sutcliffe, Robertson and Foster for their help in attending the evening and providing so much lively discussion, and to thank the CCPR, who kindly sponsored the pre-event drinks reception. The Association’s thanks also go to hard-working committee members Ben Clissitt and Mary Fitzhenry, who organised the event, and to John Inverdale for chairing the forum.

The SJA’s next Sporting Question Time will be staged at City Hall on April 12, at the invitation of the Mayor of London, Boris Johnson.

Tickets are strictly limited, and will be allocated on a first-come, first-reserved basis for fully paid-up SJA members only. To book your ticket, click here to send us an email with your name, SJA membership number and address, writing “Sporting Question Time with Boris” in the subject field.


Mon Mar 8: 2009 SJA British Sports Journalism Awards, at The Brewery. Click here to book your tickets

Apr 12:The SJA’s second “Sporting Question Time”, this time with London Mayor Boris Johnson at City Hall. This will be strictly for SJA members only. To book your ticket, click here to send us an email with your name, SJA membership number and address, writing “Sporting Question Time with Boris” in the subject field

Thu Apr 15: SJA 2010 Annual Meeting, at offices of UK Sport

Mon Apr 19: SJA/LOCOG guided tour of Olympic Park (2pm – booking details to be announced)

All details are subject to change.

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