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What should be the purpose of elite sport funding?

UK Sport is the UK’s high-performance sport agency which is funded by the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport (DCMS) and the UK National Lottery. UK Sport state their vision is to ‘inspire the nation to Olympic and Paralympic success’ that they achieve by primarily focusing on driving medal success through its world-renowned programmes, direct funding of athletes and hosting major events in the UK.

The funding strategy at UK Sport is always subject to debate on what is the right use of available funding from DCMS and the National Lottery; is it correct that money for medals is the best use of funds? Does it create a culture of medals at all costs and impact on duty of care problems? These are questions that have been debated publicly over the recent years in mainstream media.

Rather than focusing on funding for medals, it is heavily debated whether there should be heightened recognition of sports offering limited medal potential but that are more likely to have greater socioeconomic benefits, such as Basketball. Equally, the question has been raised as to whether NGBs that currently receive funding should use this to drive their own commercial revenue to create more funds in sport to help the UK Sport money to go further. This has been seen with British Cycling’s deal with HSBC and England Netball collaborating with Vitality.

These questions cause much debate in the sector due to varying opinions across sport and the media. As a result, there may not be a right answer to the question of what the right use of funding is. In 2018, UK Sport made a case to the Government for clearer funding guidance in terms of what strategy and budget will be available for the next cycle ahead of the next Olympic and Paralympic Games.

To help drive this, UK Sport completed a public consultation exercise in 2018. This information was valuable to understand the balance of opinion on the success that has been achieved to date by athletes against the Government’s sports strategy of using elite sport to promote inspiration, participation, economic growth and other social impacts. The consultation received a large response with approximately 5,000 contributors comprising of workshops and interviews with key stakeholders.

The general consensus was that there is continued support for the fact that achieving podium positions should be at the heart of what UK Sport should be doing, with 61% saying they believed this statement and only 10% being strongly against. Future investment will likely therefore continue to focus on medalling at Olympic and Paralympic Games and prioritise the greatest potential to deliver medal success at the Games.

UK Sport do say that the consultation findings identified that even amongst those wishing to examine and change the current funding model, priority was a desire to refine rather than fundamentally change it.  There is a desire to recognise the significant impact of losing funding together with helping other sports on a journey to achieve podiums. This is a slight change in approach and we have seen the first evidence of this by the setting aside of approximately £3m for 'Aspiration funding'. The fund is aimed at giving small amounts of funding to sports on the periphery of medal success, so they can invest where appropriate to assist talented athletes meet their capabilities. This new initiative has again received a mixed response with some praising the instant change and assistance and others suggesting it is a PR act to alleviate some criticism of the current approach.

This is thought to be the first step in a more multi-layered approach to future funding investment, recognising both short and long-term potential. UK Sport have said this will focus across three distinct investment tiers, each assessed separately. This will cover three tiers; Podium (current athletes with chances at the next games), Podium Potential (potential over a 4 to 8-year period) and Progression (investment for sports to start to take the journey to medal success).

Going forward there has been a movement towards a hybrid model, focused firmly on winning at Olympic and Paralympic Games but that also focusses on the long term, with consideration being given to potential success over a longer period. In addition to other challenges of the highly elite approach, there is likely to be investment in the culture of winning, not just winning medals but how those medals are won. UK Sport has also committed to fund the British Athletes Commission with a remit of duty of care. This will provide extra resources in this area as well as giving a stronger independent party to give athletes support.

Whilst the funding strategy from UK Sport may seem to be only focusing on those elite sports with highly successful 'win medals' approaches, it provides positive improvements to help tackle some of the wider challenges in sport.

Tom Wilson, Partner, haysmacintyre


The views expressed are the author’s and not ICAEW’s.